Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Impoverished Writer in the Garret... or By The Sea

By Rosemary Johnson

I’ve never managed to pluck up the courage to become the impoverished-writer-living-in-the-garret, starving for his/her art. Having a husband and children concentrates the mind.

Ronald Blythe, however, did exactly this, in the nineteen fifties, holing himself up in a so-called winter cottage in Thorpeness, Suffolk, and I’ve just read his chronicle of that period in this life in his book, The Time by the Sea. By morning, he wrote his novel (which never saw the light of day) and, in the afternoons, he took bracing walks along the shingle, battling against blustery North Sea winds. On the Suffolk Coast, he encountered Ben(jamin Britten), Imo(gen Holst), Morgan (E M Forster) and Mervyn Peake, plus many other writers, painters and musicians unknown to me. His appetite for the arts was all-consuming. Blythe’s idea of heaven was to sit beside the grave of Edward Fitzgerald who edited and translated the Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam, and read it.

Would our friends and families permit us to live as impoverished-writers-in-garrets now? Would we allow our sons and daughters to do it? The pressure to get a proper job nowadays is overarching. Yet, Ronald Blythe got by, with occasional articles and stories being published, and working alongside the administrator for the Aldborough Festival - a general Festival dogsbody. Snape Maltings has been destroyed by fire, so we need an alternative concert venue, in three weeks’ time. Blytheborough Church would do, but maybe the vicar wouldn’t like it. Send Ronnie in to talk to him. (Ronnie did and ended up joining Blytheborough PCC. On another occasion, he got roped into becoming a churchwarden, when begging favours for the Festival.) Millet paintings acquired on loan for the Festival, on the proviso that someone was in the room with them constantly? Ronnie will do it. Ronnie slept in a campbed in the Moot Hall at Aldborough for several weeks.) Much later, Blythe would get a proper job, when he became ordained as a priest in the Church of England.

The Aldeborough Festival set were Labour, alternative, absorbed in nature and the East Anglian countryside, many of them gay, and ardent Rationalists (for that, read devout atheists). That Blythe was a Christian, understatedly Anglican, bewildered them. Later, he would write Akenfield, a description of a fictional Suffolk village, a synthesis of his experience of all Suffolk villages. Akenfield would be adapted for television, by Peter Hall, in 1974. Although he has published fifty-two other books, Akenfield remains Blythe’s only commercial success, although he was writing The Word from Wormingford, part-devotional, part nature and history, for The Church Times until quite recently. (This has now been purchased by The Canterbury Press. It has no reviews on Google Books website.)

I became interested in Ronald Blythe when he led Evensong, based on George Herbert’s hymns and poetry, in one of the churches in our team, and because he lives in Wormingford (two villages from us). He’s on the electoral roll of the polling station where I’m poll clerk, but, although he’s seen around and about, he’s never been in to vote. He is in his mid-nineties now. A writer’s life well lived? Or a waste of a man?

Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction. In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat. Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.


  1. What a fascinating story, Rosemary. I had heard of many of the writers he met but not of him. Thanks for this.

  2. Enjoyable post, Rosemary, especially as we had a lovely family holiday in Thorpeness a few years ago, and my friend/former colleague Malcolm Doney is vicar (or priest-in-charge?) of Blythburgh among several other parishes (being a writer, music fan and arts critic, he would certainly not have objected to the use of that beautiful church for a concert, though an earlier vicar might have). This has reignited my long-held intention to read Akenfield. (Incidentally I think Aldeburgh, like Blythburgh, is a 'burgh' and not a 'borough'.)