It was a cold end-of-winter day as we entered St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. By the time the thanksgiving service for Ronnie Blythe started, the cathedral was full. Every effort had been made to involve all those who wanted to give their quiet thanks for this extraordinary writer who’d seen so much in his one hundred years. We watched a screen of photos of Ronnie: from his youth, with what the Bishop called his ‘matinee idol looks’, right through to that poignant one of him sitting in his chair in the garden at Bottengoms and looking not at us, but at his garden in full bloom. This was printed on the back of the order of service, together with Ronnie’s words:
I sometimes think that God will ask us,
‘That wonderful world of mine, why didn’t you enjoy it more?’
God and his wonderful world were certainly there throughout the service. God represented by the clergy in their finery, and of course in Ronnie’s favourite Bible readings, prayers and hymns. And the wonderful world, through memories of Ronnie’s life, his writings, and the writing of John Clare, the poet whose work he championed as president of the John Clare Society. When you know the service reflects the wishes of the person who’s not there any more, it makes you feel, for that short time, as if they are. We searched for ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ with the peasant poet. We then listened to Lady Clare, the King’s representative in Suffolk — for Charles III is an admirer of Ronnie’s work — read a piece by Ronnie called ‘My Little Owls’. This was a beautiful montage of April days in Bottengoms. It began, ‘Certain happiness.’ And involved, ‘Watching the manes of the horses on the hill being caught in the wind…Not going to the party. Sploshing up the farm track…finishing a chapter…Catching sight of my little owls in the blackthorn, where they have always been…The April happiness of finding so much promising. To have it all before one. Though not to count the days, but to let them bud and open…’
Julia Blackburn gave a moving eulogy. Ronnie, in typically generous fashion, had helped her, as he did other writers. She slept in his spare room once — on a horsehair mattress! She described Ronnie’s humble beginnings in Acton, the eldest of six. One cold night, the children were sprinkled with straw in bed to keep them warm, as if they were piglets. The King James Bible was the only book in the house. Ronnie’s mother would read it to them and so the cadences of the Bible became a part of him. He was an autodidact; becoming a librarian in Colchester where Christine Nash discovered him, took him under her wing and introduced him to John Nash, and Bottengoms.
Julia remembered how Ronnie loved the brick floor in Bottengoms, and poignantly told us how, on his last day, he asked to be pulled to his bare feet so he could feel the Suffolk pink bricks beneath them once more. He walked often, of course, and never drove. She said that he described the journey from Wormingford to Bury on the bus as being like a journey through his life — old roads and new.
We took all this in as we listened to Natasha Holmes playing the Poco Adagio from Imogen Holst’s ‘Fall of the Leaf’, and a recording of Ronnie praying. And at the end of the service, the sun streamed through the stained glass onto the wonderful display of humble flowers: daffodils, primroses and catkins, which were ours to take. Perhaps no-one but Ronnie would see these as befitting a cathedral? As we drove back through Bury, bright flashes of yellow shone out as people made their way home along the cobbled streets. I was left to imagine how beautifully Ronnie would have written about this day.