Next to Nature – A Lifetime in the English Countryside by Ronald Blythe

Dear Readers, I have been very much enjoying this book by Ronald Blythe, who is 100 years old this year. His most famous book, Akenfield, told the story of the village of Debach and the town of Charlsfield, 10 miles from Ipswich. The conversations with the people who lived in both places were real, but the details of the characters were slightly fictionalised. The book was loved so much that it was turned into a film by Peter Hall.

This latest book is a collection of pieces collected from Blythe’s columns for the Church Times. They are arranged by month, with each month being introduced by what feels like a pantheon of other nature writers, Richard Mabey, Olivia Laing and Mark Cocker amongst them. I am finding it the perfect bedtime reading – gentle enough not to cause nightmares, closely observed, often wry, and never sentimental. Although some of the Biblical references pass me by (Blythe is a Christian and has been a lay-reader for many years), they bother me not a jot, and indeed pique my curiosity, as I suspect that there’s a whole other layer of meaning here that I’m missing.

I spotted the book in Waterstones in Islington, and picked it up out of curiosity. By the time I’d read this passage I knew I had to bring it home. Blythe describes the May Bank Holiday downpour, and then wanders into the larder.

Whether the bees and hornets in the larder were taking shelter it was hard to say, but a furious murmur met me when I entered it in search of marmalade. It is a long brick-floored room in which the tall fridge-freezer is in constant battle with the iciness of the larder itself. It was as I thought, a poor fat bee was glassily imprisoned on the washed jam jars shelf, and I set it free by means of the classic postcard and glass method. When I returned the buzzing was still there, only now there was a great choir of it coming from all directions, a kind of orchestrated sibilance in which rage was being expressed symphonically. Thus, sic times did I set both bees and hornets free, carrying them one by one into the garden, displaying immense courage. Meanwhile Henry our vicar was innocently laying a hand on an unseen hornet in the church, with dreadful result. Mercifully all he suffered was agony. Hornets provide a kind of first strike in the Pentateuch when God sends them before the Israeli forces to scare the enemy. They dwell peacefully in my vine, sunning themselves in the garden-lamp. No one knows a time when they were not there. But how could they not fly from a lidless jam-jar? Why did they come so near to death in their glass gaol when the door was wide open?” (Page 183)

There have been some fine pieces written on Blythe and his centenary, such as this one in The Guardian  by Patrick Barkham (a very fine nature-writer himself). It made me sad to read that Blythe has now been diagnosed with dementia, and yet I hope that his still living in the place that has been his home, surrounded by friends who support him, and the nature that has provided his inspiration will soften his situation. I read this piece, on ‘The Death of Miss Helen Booth’, and thought of Blythe, his acceptance and his generosity. One of his heroes is John Clare, the poet of the countryside from an earlier century, I think of Blythe as carrying on his tradition.

“I am walking to Helen’s funeral. The afternoon air is moist and still. Birds sing loudly. Where the lane twists the hedge grows invisible under a mat of wild rose and traveller’s joy. Fine stands of agrimony and mallow rear on its banks. Cars whisper by. Helen’s cars, beginning with a Bullnose Morris and continuing with various Estates, make ghostly journeys. She ceased counting after the very public centenary and withdrew to her slip of a bedroom, and was comfortable enough. Her mind revisited where she had been, who she had been. We visited her, being careful not to harp on about her age, for the worst thing about being over a hundred is being told how wonderful it is. It is not wonderful at all – just the persisting heartbeat and life not knowing when to stop. Just another day announcing itself through the thin curtain and jumping into one’s consciousness like a jack-in-the-box.” (Page  208)

This is a wonderful book, full of things to ponder and descriptions to marvel at. It’s available at our old friends the Natural History Bookshop, and in all the other usual places.


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