Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Ronald Blythe

Oration given on 12 July 2002

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon RONALD GEORGE BLYTHE.

Ever since we began the business of farming the land, some 600 generations ago, rural systems have undergone continuous change. But it is in the last two generations, since the middle of the 20th century, that the pace of this change has greatly accelerated. Modern agriculture has brought many benefits, increasing world per capita food production by 40% over a period during which world population doubled. Yet these modern systems have provoked environmental and social change that we widely lament.

Some 16,000 km of hedgerows were lost per year in the 1980s and 1990s – yet these very hedgerows seem to define much of the nature of the English rural landscape. Over the past 50 years, an average of eleven farms have closed on every single day – yet it is these small family farms that again have contributed much to the fabric of rural England. Understanding and documenting these subtle changes remains a vital task for writers, poets and academics.

Now in his 80th year, Ronald Blythe has lived all his life in East Anglia. He was educated at St Peter’s and St Gregory’s school in Sudbury. He became a reference librarian in Colchester for ten years, where he later founded the Colchester Literary Society. As a young poet and writer, he worked for Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, also editing a book for him. Still later, he became Editor of Penguin Classics for more than 20 years.

He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1969, and has for many years been a Reader for the Church of England for the Essex villages of Little Horkesley, Great Horkesley and Mount Bures. He has been honoured with an MA by the University of East Anglia, where he was also a member of the history faculty, with a Master of Letters of Lambeth, and with a Doctor of Letters by Anglia Polytechnic University.

It is, of course, for his own writing that Ronnie has achieved a national and international reputation of the highest standard. He has written poetry, short stories, novels, history, literary criticism and is a noted essayist. His first book, A Treasonable Growth, was published in 1960. His work has been translated and filmed, and has received a number of literary awards. He has edited work by Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, he has written about John Clare and William Hazlitt, and has edited poems, essays and diaries of the Second World War.

It was his 1969 book Akenfield, though, that became an instant and enduring classic. This is a remarkable portrait of a rather normal Suffolk village. It is a social history of decline, telling us about a time that has already gone. You cannot read it without feeling sad that what has disappeared represented something vital to our culture. The book builds on the testimony of all types of people in the village – farm workers and shepherds, the wheelwright and the blacksmith, the policeman and ploughman, the craftsmen and orchardmen, and as author, Ronnie is witness and recorder of their hopes and disappointments.

But it is the words of the teacher at the local agricultural training college that say something important to us today: “the old village people communed with nature but the youngsters don’t do this… They are great observers. They will walk and see everything. They didn’t move far so their eyes are trained to see the fine detail of a small place.” We need this kind of intimate knowledge of land and nature. Without the care that comes with such knowledge, it is easy for these resources to be appropriated or harmed – and for us collectively not to notice.

John Clare is widely acknowledged to be the greatest poet of English rural life. This year is rather special, as it is the 21st anniversary of the John Clare Society. Ronnie Blythe has been President of the Society for all of this time, giving an address at each of the Society’s annual field visits to Clare’s home village of Helpston. His many talks about Clare are gathered into a wonderful volume, Talking About John Clare. These offer a unique contribution to the study of Clare and his traditions, tracing many qualities that draw readers and writers to Clare. They also show Clare’s influence on some of our best contemporary poets, particularly Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

Like all great writers, Ronnie Blythe has been able to start new projects that continue to capture the imagination of the public. The most recent of these have been his words from the Essex village of Wormingford. From his ancient farm, Bottengoms, overlooking the slopes of the Stour Valley, Ronnie has produced two masterpieces in Word from Wormingford and Out of the Valley. Originally published weekly in the Church Times, these evoke memories of the subtle daily and seasonal rhythms that John Clare himself captured in The Shepherd’s Calendar. Ronnie’s wit and wisdom give deep insights into village life of the 1990s. He talks of “the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things”.

You will be pleased to learn that there are many more books to come. Those in press include the third in the Wormingford series, called Borderland, another entitled Talking to Neighbours, and yet another about the Duke of Buckingham called the Papers of the Late Lieutenant.

The Wormingford series are wistfully illustrated by Ronnie’s old friend and painter, John Nash, and they remind us of an important truth. The landscape and the idea of the rural idyll are still important to us. Each year, we make 550 million day-visits to the English countryside, spending more than £14 billion – more than the gross income earned by farming. Despite great change, and loss, it is still of deep cultural importance, interest and significance. As Ronnie says in Word from Wormingford, “the countryside may be running down but we have to stir ourselves up.” These are wise words from one of our very best of rural observers and writers.

Chancellor, I present to you RONALD GEORGE BLYTHE

Orator:  Professor Jules Pretty