Ronnie Blythe: the death of a tribal storyteller

It is odd to be knocked sideways by the death of someone who is 100 years old, and yet Ronnie Blythe’s departure last weekend has come as a shock. The friendship  of Ronnie was compared by his friend a fellow-writer Roger Deakin to an old oak – something that always seemed to have been there, strong and reliable, its roots going deep. Even for those of us who knew him much less well, the world feels a little different this week.

Richard Mabey, another old writing friend of Ronnie (pictured here with Roger, Ronnie and myself about 20 years ago), summed it up beautifully:

Out in the East we regard Ronnie as our tribal storyteller, plugged into the common stream of inquisitive conversation that joins us as a species.

I have been reading the books of Ronald Blythe throughout my life. I remember the impression  made on me in my twenties of a book called The Age of Illusion; originally published in 1963, it was wonderfully evocative social history of England between the wars. Published fifty years later, Ronnie’s The Time by the Sea became another of my favourite books. A memoir of his life as a young writer in Aldeburgh in the 1950s, when he was on the fringe of a literary, artistic set that included Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, EM Forster and John Nash, it has a sweet, melancholy outsiderish feel to it.

Over the past 20 or so years, I have been lucky enough to meet Ronnie in person on various occasions, introducing him at book events and occasionally visiting him for tea at Bottengoms, the house he was left by John Nash. On stage and off, he was a fascinating speaker, making those inquisitive connections across the literary and the rural and historical  which Richard Mabey describes so well in his book Turning the Boat for Home:

It is bewitching to trace how the narratives wind effortlessly this way and that, joining reading and first-hand experience, compressing past and present so that an event or an insight from a thousand years ago is as real as yesterday evening’s Bluebell Party in the woods at Tiger Hill.

There was more to Ronnie than met the eye. His voice was quiet but mesmerised audiences. Intellectually and morally serious, he also had an impish, gossipy side. He was happy to talk about his unlikely one-night stand with Patricia Highsmith (though details of what actually happened remained sketchy) and he was not above the occasional name-drop. ‘The first time I came here,’ he once said to me as we walked through Aldeburgh, ‘was when I went shopping with EM Forster.’

His life and his writing, the way he had those unlikely connections, had a huge effect on his friend Roger Deakin, who used to visit and go for walks with him. This is from one of Roger’s notebooks:

I arrive chez Ronnie down the holloway track that skirts the steep brown side of a ploughed hill at around 3pm.  Ronnie’s washing is on the line and a couple of plastic bowls and a biscuit tin full of wooden pegs beneath on the lawn.  The washing line stretched between a pair of old apple trees.


You go up a couple of stone steps and step straight into the living room, with a low beamed ceiling and fire glowing in the open woodstove.  To the right of the inglenook where the copper used to heat the household water, is a neat stack of split firewood five feet high.  Ronnie splits it himself, and enjoys the exercise with the axe.  Two spotted white cats drape themselves on the back of armchairs as Ronnie goes upstairs to fetch yet another book he has just written or edited.


He tells me about the Singing Men of the church bands in Thomas Hardy’s time, and Hardy’s story of how, when one of the Singing Men was buried, the others wanted to stand round his grave singing, but the vicar forbade it because it was too wet and stormy, so the Singing Men went back at night after the burial and sang anyway.


Ronnie is always full of stories like this, squirreled away in his head: how Keats went to see the publisher he shared with Clare, although the two never met, and finding the publisher out and a sheet of paper on the table he wrote a note on the back of one of Clare’s poems.  How the gamekeepers always kept a gibbet on which they hung the dead bodies of the animals they killed: weasel, stoat, magpie, kestrel, sparrow hawk, squirrel.  Moleskins were collected to sew together and make moleskin waistcoats.

In a more serious culture, the death of Ronnie Blythe would have been a major event. ‘Why is this great man not more feted?’ Adam Nicolson once asked. ‘It would be difficult to find in England now a sensibility which is richer, or better fed, more deeply watered and manured, more drenched in Englishness’

Never mind. His books will last, as will memories of an exemplary writer’s life:  professional yet uncompromising, friendly, generous-spirited and yet, essentially, solitary.

Ronnie wrote about his last visit to Walnut Tree Farm shortly before Roger Deakin died.  The last words of that little essay catch a little of his humanity, intelligence and kindness.

Only a year or two ago, I had heard Roger Deakin recording the creaks and bumps of Walnut Tree Farm on the radio, and the rivery sounds of the Waveney,  perfect scraps of nature’s conversation. Could we, perhaps, hear John Donne’s prayer? The one about the house in which there will be “no noise nor silence, but one equal music . . . no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity”?


And thus we kiss and leave.