REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Ronald Blythe (John Murray: 2022)
Ronald Blythe was 100 years old in 2022 and his publishers have marked his centenary with a beautiful collection of his Church Times columns, centred on the Stour Valley in Wormingford on the borders of Suffolk and Essex. You may have already read other collections of Ronnie’s writing, but this book is in a class of its own. It has wonderful introductions to each month by diverse writers, including Robert Macfarlane, Vikram Seth, Rowan Williams and more. Each gives an absorbing new viewpoint and fresh memories of Ronnie. Every month is punctuated by John Nash wood engravings, and the book has an unusual half dust-jacket with a John Nash landscape.
John and Christine Nash bequeathed Bottengoms, their ‘yeoman’s house’ in the valley, to Ronnie. Hilary Spurling tells us that Ronnie originally wanted to be an artist too, which ties in with Richard Mabey’s observation in his introduction that his good friend is a ‘sensitive interpreter of others’ pains and loves, (but) silent about his own.’ (p. 6) Instead, Ronnie has what John Nash had, ‘a delighted eye’. He combines his singular, beautifully expressed observations of the natural world with stories of people; travelling through literature, history, philosophy, music and liturgy. In this way, he brings something sacred to the page for everyone, and he does it with a gentle, often self-deprecating humour.
Reading Next to Nature was something of a personal odyssey for me, as I’m sure it will be for some of you who know Ronnie, and who’ve seen him, and many of the contributors, at our SBL talks. I taught in Wormingford for twelve years, as the twentieth century turned, during the decades depicted here. I once walked across the fields with a group of five to seven-year-olds to visit Ronnie, and he showed us John Nash’s paintings, and wrote about us in one of his columns. Reading this collection, I found myself bumping into colleagues and friends. Ronnie has captured the locals perfectly, weaving them into his wider tapestry. I admire the way he can move from summer’s ending with ‘the sugar icing frost and a fierce sun warring it out’, (p. 384) through Shelley and Milton, and back to John the seedsman at Mount Bures, finishing with lines from Silesius. He does it so effortlessly and economically, it’s like sleight of hand.
Taking months from different years and putting them together gives a new rhythm to this collection. Church and village events and the weather are repeated motifs, and over their ostinato soar Ronnie’s melodies, distilled from a lifetime of reading, writing, meeting fascinating friends, and tending his patch of land. Often I would bookmark pages to go back to later to research a detail which had caught my eye. Reading this book in the darkest part of the year was like being in a patch of lamplight – I was back in Wormingford, totally absorbed, but with a sense, too, of all the other worlds and times Ronnie Blythe has known.
Note: Just after I wrote this review, we received the very sad news of Ronnie Blythe's death.
Patrick Barkham has written a wonderful obituary here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/jan/15/ronald-blythe-obituary
And more from another important East Anglian writer: Ronnie's friend and biographer, Ian Collins: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/ronald-blythe-akenfield-gay-laws-b2263189.html?amp
The BBC obituary includes a recent picture of Ronnie with Next to Nature here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-64289371
And for the next 25 days you can watch a programme on BBC 4 filmed in 1983 - Ronald Blythe: Working at home:
Farewell to a great writer, and thanks for all the Words.