Sarah Beavins writes about a visit to writer Ronald Blythe in his Wormingford home.
We walked the high-sided track down to ‘Bottengoms’. Blythe’s poem ‘Down to the Dwelling House’ is about this track, sunken through years and carts and feet and cattle. The grass centred flint trackway is sheltered by the tall banks. Now, in late October, the banks showed tired, tangled vegetation, settling in for winter. The exuberance of March growth is half a year away. The track is in good enough condition for most vehicles to pass, though Saab and Mini owners may have misgivings about their exhausts.
The house sits enfolded in gentle valley and trees. A dog-walking woman visits ‘Ronnie’ before we go in. Ronald Blythe does not lack either company or care. We wait under an oak that is busy yellowing its leaves. The lane is overhung with autumn. Branches will be bare soon. A mossy stone path leads to the low, wide front door. There’s a blue plaque outside to John and Christine Nash.
Stepping through the front door, we entered a neat room with a broad fireplace, herringbone brick floor, beams and single bed with a dressing gown draped carefully over it. It was tidy, there was little clutter. Moving towards to middle room, some of the loose bricks chimed underfoot. Blythe had described that sound as ‘zylophonic’. I couldn’t imagine that sound before, but they sounded exactly like that, and brought a grin of sheer delight to me.
We jostled into the central room. Ronald Blythe stood in bright blue jumper and pressed beige slacks, his mid length white hair combed carefully, his complexion pale, translucent. He is not a tall man. I felt as if we were to have an audience – which I suppose we were. We went one by one to shake his hand. He showed keen interest, looking directly at us. He is an observer. Sharp blue eyes missed little about each of us, I am sure. In the moments that I had his full attention, I liked him. Some folk, you just know, are good folk.
He asked us to sit down. We were not quite sure what to say, were almost shy, in awe. I looked around the low beamed room, and was taken with the plumbing. An artful plumber, unable to site pipes in the wall, had run and flowed the copper pipes in ranks around the beams, feeding the radiators and rendering the ground floor toasty warm. I remarked that I liked the overlay of old with new. Ronald spoke a little wistfully of the vast fires there used to be, how cold winters had been, and how pleasant it is to have central heating.
One of his cats was sociable. There are two cats, Ronald calls them both ‘Cat’. I muse that there is power in naming things, and not naming them sets them free. Maybe that was his point. The other cat was not there. Perhaps our concentrated adoration of a being other than itself caused its disaffection and absence.
One of our cohort smiled almost all the time we there. He knows much about Ronald and his work, and has met him before. I took some photographs for him of him and Ronald. The pleasure shining from his face was a joyful thing to be around. There was a warmth that was not about heating.
Ronald said he had often cooked on the range back in the days when the Nashes lived here. It took time, he said. There’s an electric cooker now. The house was full of cigarette smoke back then, everybody smoked back then. But he didn’t. I volunteered that I’m a flaky smoker and go in cycles of smoking and not smoking. Ronald looked straight at me and said kindly ‘Oh my dear…’ but it wasn’t censure.
Discipline was important to John Nash, Ronald said. Nash painted, drew or created in the mornings whether he felt like it or not, and that example had been a lasting influence. An artist of any kind must apply themselves in that way, and writing was no different. He speaks softly but clearly and precisely. I imagined his voice flowing in church.
We left when Ronald’s lunch arrived. I squatted down by his chair to thank him and put my hand on the arm rest. He covered my hand with his hand, warm, long fingered with raised veins. These hands, these writer’s hands, had never embraced the computer age. His writing was with pen and paper, or later, a typewriter. He was content with his achievements, experiences and honours, square with the world, I thought, and he communicated quiet humility and love of life.
I am delighted and humbled that I had the pleasure of spending a little time in the presence of Ronald Blythe. The blue plaque outside the house will one day be joined by another. It is usual for 20 years to elapse from someone passing to the siting of such a plaque. It is my hope that Ronnie’s joy and sweetness in life endures, and that the start of the countdown to that second plaque is years away.
Post script: I mentioned the trip to a friend who hails from Manningtree a few days ago. He laughed, and asked if he had his clothes on. At my puzzled look, he said that ‘Ronnie’ had been well known as a naturist, and had often been found gardening unashamedly naked. My liking for Ronald grew even greater with this tale.