Ronald Blythe is one of my favourite writers. I adore his books like Out of the Valley and A Year at Bottengoms Farm in which he writes about life in a small Stour Valley village on the Suffolk/Essex border.
His most well-known work, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, was made into an acclaimed film by Sir Peter Hall and, in 2006, he was awarded the Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature. The Spectator calls him ‘our greatest rural writer’ and I agree.
This week, he celebrates his 90th birthday and I was lucky enough to interview him at the beautiful Elizabethan farmhouse, Bottengoms, which he inherited from the painter John Nash.
Bottengoms is such a special place and you write about it in many of your books. Can you tell us how it got its name?
Nobody really knows. I’ve done a little research and it’s an ancient name – it might even be Saxon.
You’ve never learned to drive. Has that ever presented any problems whilst living here?
I used to cycle a lot at one time but I’ve never driven which is rather disgraceful but friends come with cars but, normally, I just walk or catch the bus.
You’re 90 this week and you’ve said in many of your books that artists and writers never retire. Is that going to be true of you?
I’m afraid so. Most people go to 60 or 65 and that means the end of their working lives but you can’t stop if you’re a writer or painter. It doesn’t seem to be normal so you forget about it.
What would happen if you couldn’t write?
I suppose I should read. It’s a craft with me – I love the language, creating the books. I’ve never known this so called writer’s block. I don’t know what it means, really. Sometimes you just get tired or perhaps don’t quite believe in what you’re doing or it hasn’t become what you meant it to be. I think a long walk is one of the best things – you can work it out with walking or you can do some chore but the worst thing is to sit at a desk. If you get into a state – when you’re rather tired – simply go and do something quite different like digging.
Do you have a writing routine – a special time or place where you write?
I usually get up at 6 am. I don’t work at first – I sit here thinking – but I usually go to my study at about 8.30 or 9 o’clock and stay there until lunch time every day.
You have an incredibly full diary with public events. Do you enjoy public speaking and meeting readers?
I’ve always done readings and things like that. Writers like meeting other writers and there are lots of literary societies like the John Clare Society or the Thomas Hardy Society and they’ll ask you to come and give a talk and it’s a little outing.
Do you have a personal favourite out of the books you’ve written?
I quite like a little book called Outsiders: A Book of Garden Friends – and I quite like my short stories.
Some of your books use illustrations by John Nash whom you were great friends with – was that at your suggestion?
My life got caught up with his in a way. He did illustrate some of my work when he was alive but he’s connected with our lives here at different times.
You write so beautifully about East Anglia. What’s so special about it and do you think another place could captivate you as much?
I write as a native, I suppose, but I do love Cornwall. This is home in a sense so I’m used to it all and I write about it with not only affection but slightly critically at the same time.
Do you have a favourite view of Suffolk?
I love the sea and the marshes – Aldeburgh – and West Suffolk – the hilly part.
One of your most well-loved books is Akenfield. Did you think the stories were important to record for the nation or did you write them purely out of interest in your own community?
It was written in the 1960s and things were changing so much – it was the last of the old life. But I knew a lot about farming and bell ringing so all I listened to were the voices of neighbours. Sometimes, when you’re alone with people, they will say astonishing things but a writer has a certain kind of ear, I think, which hears things which only a writer might hear.
And did you use the people’s real names?
No, I took their names from the churchyard!
How did the film adaptation come about?
Peter Hall, who was born in Bury St Edmunds, was rather overwhelmed by the book when it first came out and he asked me to lunch and wanted to make it into a film and I refused because I couldn’t think how to do it but then I wrote a film treatment and we filmed it where the book was written – in Charsfield near Woodbridge – and it took over a year because we had to do it according to the farming year.
You had a cameo role in the film – what was that experience like?
That was Peter Hall’s idea. I was wearing the rector’s clothes! But I am actually a canon in the Church of England and a reader and I take the services here.
Akenfield and The View in Winter are both oral histories – why were these books important for you to write?
I’m not a proper oral historian. After I’d finished Akenfield, I was nursing an old friend and I felt there was a great literature for old age but people ignore it – right from the classics onwards, and it’s a special time for being alive – that’s what that book was about.
You’ve written all sorts of things: non-fiction, essays, novels, short stories – what are you happiest writing?
Essays but I also love writing short stories.
Have you ever been tempted to write more fiction?
One of my best books is out of print – it’s called The Assassin – that’s an historical novel which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever written.
Is there a book you still want to write?
I would like to write some more short stories.
You’re president of the John Clare Society. Can you tell us what that role involves and how you became such a passionate reader of his work?
John Clare was our greatest rural writer and he’s influenced all the great poets like Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes and I got him into Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. His brilliance wasn’t recognised until comparatively recently – he was an amazing writer. The literary society is the biggest in this country and we meet on his birthday at Helpston. He’s a fascinating writer and a great naturalist. One of those writers full of poems and words, and timeless in his way.
What do you enjoy reading most?
Thomas Hardy, Proust, literary memoirs, Victorian novels, natural history books and I read a lot of poetry.
What’s a perfect day for you?
Rather nice weather – here by myself – uninterrupted, getting up early and reading and writing all day. If it’s hot in summer, I write in the garden. A kind of solitude. I live alone and have never lived with anyone but I’m never lonely at all. I quite like days like that. I also like looking forward to something like friends coming at the weekend.
You write so beautifully about all the seasons and all types of weather but do you have a favourite season?
I do rather like different weathers but I do love it to be a hot summer’s day with all the windows open – that’s absolutely glorious and, of course, spring. The only thing I hate being is cold. I get snowed in in winter – but I don’t mind – it’s peaceful in a way and it doesn’t last very long.
What tips would you give someone wanting to write about nature?
You must observe – that’s the only answer. You must read and observe.
Your writing is so uplifting – you see beauty in even the bleakest winter day. Are you one of life’s optimists?
I’m philosophical rather than optimistic – I have a rational way of looking at existence. I suppose it’s a natural contemplation. That’s possibly what I am – somebody who’s contemplative by nature.
You seem very contented with your life and, in Out of the Valley, you say: “To be absorbed in what one has to do, that’s the secret.” Do you have any advice on how to live a happy life?
I’m not condemning so I never mind whatever people do if it keeps them happy. Basically, I’m an observer of people. I’m always amazed and surprised how interesting people are and how good they are.
I think the thing is to discover who you are and, if you can, be it – that’s the great thing. And I’ve always had loving friends. I’ve been very fortunate. I seem to be solitary but I’m not really. I’m very fortunate to have very good health and a lot of work to do.