Blythe's stalwart spirit

I AM very close to the Essex-Suffolk border with Hilary, who has been kind enough to drive me half a mile down a muddy bridleway to the author Ronald Blythe's early-17th century farmhouse.

Martin Newell

I AM very close to the Essex-Suffolk border with Hilary, who has been kind enough to drive me half a mile down a muddy bridleway to the author Ronald Blythe's early-17th century farmhouse.

The place once belonged to his friend, John Nash and the walls remain adorned by the artist's work.

The house is hidden behind trees, in a garden so sylvan-looking, that I half expect a dryad to escort us in. Instead, the writer himself answers the door.


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On a rainy October day, in this perfect autumnal setting, the atmosphere of the place doesn't seem to have changed much since John Constable's time.

In fact, I'm beginning to get the feeling that to have got it right, we should really have arrived on horseback, with me wearing a tricorn hat, knee breeches and a frock-coat.

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“Constable's father had fields on both sides of the Stour - the river there is only about as wide as this room - and one day, he heard one of the neighbours pushing off in a boat from the Suffolk side to the Essex side, saying, 'Farewell old England.'”

Laughter follows this story of the Essex-Suffolk divide and Ronald settles into his chair for a good yarn.

He is, of course, famous for writing Akenfield, his portrait of a Suffolk village, first published in 1969 and televised in 1973 to huge acclaim.

It was his Sgt Pepper, if you like, though, he's written many more equally good works and continues to write books, as well as a weekly column for the Church Times.

Ronald Blythe was born in Suffolk, a good few tarnished silver decades ago now. For much of this time, though, he's actually lived only about a mile over the border here in Essex.

He thinks that the metropolitan denigration of Essex is unjustified and only “fairly recent”. He dismisses it as such, describing Essex as a beautiful county.

Ronald's first proper job, in the late 1940s, before he became a full-time writer, was as a reference librarian in Colchester's Old Library. That's not the old library in Culver Precinct, which now houses Waterstone's Bookshop.

Ronald worked at the even-older Old Library in West Stockwell Street, at the back of the Town Hall.

It was a Carnegie Library, Andrew Carnegie having been the wealthy 19th century Scots-American philanthropist who financed many such buildings in America and Britain.

In his spry youth, Ronald sometimes used to cycle the 15 miles to Colchester from his home in Sudbury. During the austere early 1950s, he also kept company with the other young intellectuals and artists of the town.

They'd dawdle all night over three halves of beer in the town's pubs, talking of this and that - as one does.

“No one had much money but it was a good pub time, a great time for talking.” When I ask him about the Colchester pub scene, he says, “People weren't getting drunk or anything like that.

“There was no music. There were just quiet places where people used to meet each other.”

“I was incessantly reading. We went to the old Repertory Theatre and then went for little meals at Neal & Robarts in the High Street - which we thought was very sophisticated. We'd go downstairs and there would be all the actors from the theatre.”

The Colchester which Ronald describes, he now compares to Parisian cafe society. It sounds strikingly different from our current model.

Music in those times didn't roar without let-up from every bar. No earpiece-sporting bouncers guarded their portals.

The High Street then wasn't thronged with people hollering into mobile phones and lurching around as if their shoe-laces were tied together.

The past was indeed another country - a much quieter one, it seems.

We talk about the Great Essex Forest, which once stretched from Forest Gate in London almost to Colchester.

“Many of the Essex towns and villages were originally in forest clearings. They were woodland people. They made their houses of clapboard,” says Ronald.

The Essex weatherboard building style, which the Americans still call clapboard, was exported to 17th century America.

“It looks absolutely wonderful, particularly in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts. You might almost be in Coggeshall.”

I reply that Coggeshall was once famous for having 24 antique shops and a murder for every other house. More laughter: “Oh, it was a great murder place.” he says.

Ronald knows much more about Essex than I will ever do.

The conversation moves to the village of Tilty, through Thaxted, past Gustav Holst and on to a socialist vicar named Conrad Knowles - all at the same dizzying pace.

Tomorrow afternoon, 40 years after Akenfield was published, Ronald returns to his first workplace, the recently-refurbished Old Library in West Stockwell Street.

He'll be in conversation with the EADT's own Ian Collins. I don't know exactly how old Ronald Blythe is, although, he's definitely a bit older than I am.

While I talk to him, I constantly feel that I am talking to the same animated young man who sat chatting with his friends in those quiet Colchester pubs, only a few years after the war ended.

His vitality is so formidable that I begin to wonder whether he has a Dorian Grey-type portrait of himself ageing quietly in his attic.

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