Village Hours, Ronald Blythe, Canterbury Press
Ronald Blythe, now over 90, has written many books, including the best-selling Akenfeld, and there are now at least half a dozen in the Wormingford series, where he compiles weekly articles for the UK’s Church Times. Regular readers of Blythe will see the familiar here in Village Hours – the turning of the seasons on his farm and surrounding countryside, the rhythms of the church year, keeping his wild garden under some sort of control, the pleasure of books, the seemingly timeless landscape that is never-the-less quite different to times past.
This instalment sees him commenting on the way the fields nearby are graced by a tractor, or a solitary girl attending a horse, where 50 years ago and more the fields were a bustle of human activity. A friend is planting an orchard full of forgotten varieties, in order to recapture some of the glories of this past rural life. In his house, bequeathed to him by the artist John Nash, whose paintings regularly feature on the cover of Blythe’s books, he deals with books that “topple about”. Outside, he plants beans, prunes trees, and monitors the comings and goings, and mostly restings, of his white cat.
As John Updike has noted, Blythe’s work has a particularity about it regarding place that sometimes requires from the reader a measure of understanding of local village and parish life with which Blythe is saturated. This familiarity is repeated in his attitude to writers, such as Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf, who he may not have met, but who are never-the-less treated like friends.
This is especially true of the English rural poet John Clare, of whose society Blythe is president, and whose life tangled art and rural working life, two things too often seen as separate. Blythe has a natural affinity with Clare, as his writing is full of what a recent interviewer called “the union of physical and artistic concerns”.
The style in these Wormingford books is different to his other writing, being less considered and less academic, but more poetic. These are diary entries, but of an exquisite sort. They are succinct, but enthusiastic, engaged and surprised by beauty, especially in the natural world. Not in the sublime elements though; rather, in the small, sparkling moments often missed by those with a less keen eye and quicker gait. He recognises that not everyone sees as he does, but his books continue to give pleasure through their heart-warming concentration on his slice of rural and literary life.