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Wed 17 Apr 2019 @ 21:38
RT @CanonOakleyIn the Wilderness by Robert Graves. I love the idea of the scapegoat keeping Christ company. #APoemADay https://t.co/19UPaXXUfZ
Author(s): Ronald Blythe
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Ronald Blythe invites us into the company of his neighbours and friends to hear his reflections on the natural and local history, the liturgy, stories, village events and gossip that shape and unite their lives. Though intimately local, his voice is that of a poet, transcending boundaries of place and time with a universal appeal. 'Man of letters, man of faith, Suffolk man: Ronald Blythe is all of these.' Tiimes Literary Supplement
Ronald Blythe CBE is one of the UK’s greatest living writers. His work, which has won countless awards, includes Akenfield (a Penguin 20th Century Classic and a feature film), Private Words, Field Work, Outsiders: a Book of Garden Friends and numerous other titles. He was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s prestigious Benson Medal. He lives near Colchester.
Once again the renowned novelist, essayist and poet allows us to eavesdrop on his ‘conversations’ with his neighbours in the three country churches which he serves as a Reader.
Where do the pieces in Talking to the Neighbours derive from?
I speak every Sunday in three little country churches. The pieces are the texts of the addresses, selected from over a three-year period. I have also included some pieces I gave in Chelmsford Cathedral. Occasionally I take funerals and try to give a biography of person who has died. I included one or two of those.
How would you describe the pieces?
That’s difficult. I have called them ‘spoken essays’ in the book. I suppose they are the work of somebody who has always been a poet - a literary person - and a teacher. I retell some of the Bible stories and include my reflections on history, natural history and the country.
How would you describe the congregations in the three churches?
We all know each other very well. There is a mixture of those old local people who used to work on land, and then worked in factories, and more affluent people, although these distinctions have nothing to do with education. The older people can remember agriculture as it was before mechanisation. Some were even on active service in the war. Then there is a new influx of those who commute into London or Colchester, and tend to live in the newer houses. They are not generally churchgoers, although they come to social events connected to the church.
Obviously everyone knows about my books. Many members of the congregation buy them or I give them away. The churches are also much visited by people who say they’ve read the books. I am rather famous in a way!
Can you describe the area for us?
John Nash, a friend of mine, called it the Suffolk/Essex highlands. However our villages are in the Stour valley. It is where Gainsborough and Constable were born. All three of them painted it on many occasions. It is extremely beautiful.
You say in the introduction to Talking to the Neighbours that the length of your address is strictly ten minutes, ‘else, as everyone knows, the tower will fall down’. How many pages is that?
Seven little handwritten pages! I have to admit that occasionally one goes over but not generally. Sometimes I extemporise a little, or include poems or a verse of a hymn.
Do you get asked to speak in other churches?
Occasionally. I will be ‘in residence’ at Norwich Cathedral for Holy Week next year.
The illustrations are by Mary Newcomb. Can you tell us about her?
She is a painter – a very poetic painter – who lives in North Suffolk. Her daughter is a painter too. She is 80 years old. I haven’t met her so far, but I hope to meet her soon. I was introduced to her work by a friend of hers. It is perfect for this book. The pictures are witty and poetic and have a deep knowledge of country life. They’re the work of somebody who has seen all the changes in the countryside, and has a slightly wry view of life, but they’re very spiritual too. I think she’s a bit of a loner.
You seem to have a special affection for the parables, and particularly those to do with the land and with farming.
I see Christ in rural context. And I love his story telling. It is a very Jewish tradition. The parables are sometimes earthy and violent; they can be rough. I also very much like that they show we cannot always know everything. There is always something that is beyond us. Not everything can be explained, and one shouldn’t try to do so. However when I speak in the churches, and in this book, I try to explain some of the apparently insignificant details in the parables – for example the distances in Palestine.
The book was written during the foot and mouth outbreak. What effect did it have on the Suffolk/Essex border?
None at all in the area – mercifully. Farming itself is in a state of depression. In Akenfield I described the depression between the wars. Then in the 60s and 70s things boomed again with the so-called ‘grain mountains’. Now farming is in decline, although we don’t see the grinding poverty that you find in some of the sheep farming areas such as Cumbria. Foot and mouth created a melancholy depression everywhere – we certainly felt it here.
Our services always feature prayers and teachings about farming here and abroad. But my attitude is not to preach on Sundays about these kind of things. Our media means that we are on top of them all the time. I try to go back to the eternal, something which isn’t just on the news. I think this may be the problem with ‘Thought for the Day’: it seems to be a requirement to link up with what’s happened today. These kind of moral comments are easy.
In one of the pieces you sum up the message of St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun as ‘relate, relate!’ Do you think we have stopped relating to the natural world?
Yes, one of the disasters of rural life is that people never see what is going on in the fields. They drive back and forth, the children don’t walk anywhere, and everybody is cooped up in their houses with computer screens and tellies. Farming was done in the old way for maybe a thousand years. Now it is done by half a dozen people. This means that Harvest Festival relates to something most people have never seen.
There is also a great tradition of Christian worship around here. ‘Hills of the North Rejoice’ was written in an adjoining village by Martin Shaw, as was ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ by a 17C rector quoting George Herbert. Isaac Watts lived not far away. It was almost the place where the Reformation began. The local wool merchants traded with the Low Countries and brought back all sorts of radical ideas. Their wealth was also the reason for the wonderful church architecture. When the wool trade collapsed in the seventeenth century, John Winthrop led the first mass emigration and became the first governor of Massachusetts.
How would you describe your own life as a writer?
I am slightly outside the convention of the church. I know a lot about history, and have a great love of Church of England – both for its history, and its poetry. It’s hard to know what to call my churchmanship – I like order, beauty, and pattern. I live alone, but have friends of all types everywhere. Know a lot about agriculture and country life generally. I try to teach people about their own part of the world.
Are you a very disciplined writer?
Yes. I work every day except Sunday, in the morning. I do my gardening and chores in the afternoon, then write some more in the evening and listen to music. There are occasional little outings to take part in literary festivals and to visit other churches. Although I only venture forth when I have to, I do enjoy it. I have been to Dartington three years running – it is lovely.
I also speak to children, although not as much as I did. I recently gave the Founders lecture at Dartford Grammar School. I was enthralled to see children of all countries and all faiths, including Sikhs. I don’t try to analyse from their viewpoint – Harry Potter and so forth. I just talk to them about the love of books and of reading. They ask as many questions as they ever did.
What hopes do you have for the new book?
I have no idea! I have been astonished at the success of the first book - The Circling Year.
Do you hear back from your readers?
Yes I received many many letters. I even had to have some cards printed in order to be able to respond. A lot of clergy write to me, as do a lot of people from America. I reply to all of them, though not at length.
At the beginning you describe the writer as both part of, and separated from, society. What do you mean by that?
It’s like the artist – they belong, but they don’t belong. At the beginning it worries you, but you get used to it. You can say things which other people don’t say. It is just a description of the kind of person you find you are.
Last year – at the time of the publication of The Circling Year, you were on ‘Desert Island Disks’. Did you enjoy the experience?
Very much. Sue Lawley was very nice. My chosen book was Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I am always affected by Johnson’s sense of his own unworthiness, and also by the moral duty of care he felt for others. My luxury must have seemed boring – writing materials. Last year was a happy year for me. I was also given doctorates by Anglia and Essex universities, and the degree of master of letters at Lambeth.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ll soon be delivering the last book of my trilogy for Viking Penguin – it’s called Borderland. Then I thought I might write about my early experiences as a writer, when I lived in Aldeburgh for two years and worked for Benjamin Britton. I was introduced to him through the Nashes. I edited programme books, and wrote a novel and short stories. I’ve also just written a historical novel called The Papers of the Late Lieutenant based around the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham by John Feltham in 1628. Both men came from the squirearchy, but one rose to become a duke and the other became a penniless soldier. I’m pleased with it!
"In one sens this is a book to nurture the soul of country dwellers. In another sense this is a book to re-inspire confidence in the potential of the teaching ministry of the rural church when the ministry of preaching is placed in capable lay hands." Leslie Francis, University of Wales, Bangor, RURAL THEOLOGY, Vol.3 Part 1, 2005, Issue 64.