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April News from Slightly Foxed: Beautifully Folded Prose
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Andrew Gifford, Arundel Cathedral, Slightly Foxed Issue 45
Andrew Gifford, Arundel Cathedral, early evening light, Slightly Foxed Issue 45
Intimations of spring at last! The longer days and lighter evenings have arrived on the crest of a brisk March wind, spring bulbs are bravely poking up in Hoxton window boxes, the pigeons are cooing in the square and it somehow feels as if everything is drawing breath after the long cold winter.

The spring issue of Slightly Foxed should by now have dropped through subscriber’s letterboxes around the world and we do hope you’ve enjoyed it, wherever you are. The summer issue is taking shape nicely but to keep you going until then we’ve mined our rich archive of back issues for this piece from Issue 40 by the novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison on Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford books.

The SF office and our Gloucester Road bookshop will be closed over Easter for a welcome dose of rest and recuperation following the spring flurry. We’ll be back first thing on Tuesday morning so please feel free to place orders online over the next few days and we’ll post all items out early next week.

Meantime we leave you with Melissa Harrison and her appreciation of Ronald Blythe’s â€˜beautifully folded prose’. A very happy Easter to you all.
 

What do we lose when we become a nation of urbanites? A connection to nature, sometimes – though not necessarily. An awareness of the seasons, an understanding of the farming year; a sense of community, perhaps, and of being bound to a particular spot by ties of history and blood.
    Gathered from his long-running weekly column in the Church Times, Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford books are an evocation of village life that, as a city-dweller, I find deeply comforting. To say that is to risk making his lovely miniatures sound twee or nostalgic, when in fact they are pragmatic about the changes that are happening in our countryside; what they offer, though, is a vision of life that has deep meaning, meaning created quite effortlessly from art and literature, the natural world and the kinship of neighbours.
    Of course, given their provenance, these short pieces are also about faith. Blythe is a lay reader in the benefice of Wormingford and Mount Bures with Little Horkesley â€“ the Church of England parish in which his Wormingford books are set – and his awareness of the religious calendar and knowledge of the Scriptures suffuse each piece. I am an atheist – albeit one who was brought up attending a village church not too dissimilar to the ones he describes – but I love his writing not in spite of its religious content but because of it: for the way in which belief is woven with gossip, local history, nature writing and gentle irony to create a picture of faith that is personal and idiosyncratic yet connected to an English tradition that spans the centuries – and which, whether or not we believe in God, belongs to all of us.
    
Illustration by John Nash from Slightly Foxed Issue 40
Blythe has lived his life in the company of artists and writers, from Cedric Morris to Patricia Highsmith. As a young man working as a librarian in Colchester he became friends with the painter John Nash and his wife Christine, often visiting them at Bottengoms Farm, which Nash would later bequeath him and in which he still lives today: an ancient yeoman’s house at the end of a narrow track, fed by a spring and surrounded by trees.
    The Nashes encouraged him to write, and over the years that followed he spent time with E. M. Forster, edited the Aldeburgh Festival programmes for Benjamin Britten and began to produce fiction, poetry and essays. Along the way he published Akenfield (see SF No. 11), the book for which he’s best known, a collection of oral histories documenting the voices of the last generation to work the land; it was made into a film by Peter Hall. He’s written over thirty books and edited many more.
    Now in his tenth decade, Blythe remains astonishingly prolific. A book about his friendship with Britten, called The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh, 1956–1958, was published last June, and as well as reviews, articles and forewords he still writes the hugely popular weekly column from which Word from Wormingford, A Year at Bottengoms Farm, Village Hours, The Bookman’s Tale, The Circling Year and the other Wormingford books are taken.
    His fruitfulness is hardly surprising, though. These short essays reveal him to have a vast curiosity about the world, from modern agricultural methods to the inner lives of his neighbours, and from landscape history to the adventures of his white cat – and he is someone for whom, one feels, thinking and writing are the same thing. In fact, one of the ways in which these pieces are unique is the sense they give of following a thought quite naturally as it darts here and there, starting with (for example) the words of a hymn before touching on a childhood memory, taking in a literary reference and ending with a natural observation – yet all tied together so elegantly that reading each one is like exploring an origami sculpture of beautifully folded prose.
    ‘“O, go to Jericho” mother would say when we exasperated her,’ opens a piece entitled ‘Trinity Six’ in Word from Wormingford. It goes on to describe the baked brownness of the Holy Land, comparing it to English barley fields in mid-July and recalling the texture of the crop on bare, childhood legs; from there to the crops growing locally that year (‘ “Why are you growing borage, Hugh?” “For Pimm’s Number One” ‘) and the current crop of (probably brown) signs on village verges directing summer traffic to local attractions, before making quiet reference to Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Here’ and ending with ‘I do not wish to be entertained. I am in a brown study.’ It seems effortless, but to control such generous material so elegantly requires a lightness of touch and a level of control that together are breathtaking.
    Blythe’s curiosity about the world also results in an appealing sense of democracy: everything is interesting, everything is worthy of investigation. It makes him childlike – not childish, but with the eager inquisitiveness that most of us, sadly, lose as we get older. And because he doesn’t presume to understand everything about the world, very little attracts his censure, because understanding must come before judgement. This humility makes him extremely likeable:
 
I am waiting for a bus which I caught when I was a child . . . once the conductor would shout, ‘Chapel Corner!’ when it arrived where I am standing in the cold spring rain. Instead of contemplating Duncan’s flat field and the little cottage which was once the lemonade shop (a spoonful of yellow crystals in half a pint of water for a penny) I find myself counting the things a village bus stop must have, the latest being the elevation of the timetable from four drawing pins in the shelter to a fine steel frame on a pole. Nothing is too good for a timetable. Drawing pins are now reduced to supporting our flower festival notice and a picture of a fat lady who has slimmed.
(‘Maundy Thursday’, A Year at Bottengoms Farm)
 
Unlike many writers only half as erudite Blythe never seems pompous, always taking care to bring a literary reference back down to earth and neatly tying it to the subject in hand. Nevertheless, he is fearsomely well read, from George Herbert and John Clare to Traherne, the Metaphysical poets, obscure diarists and, of course, the Bible, which in his hands becomes a luminously accessible book of stories that weave in and out of daily life. On the village’s annual Rogation walk he reflects,
 
Back to our asking journey among the crops . . . ‘Ask for the old paths, the good way,’ implores Jeremiah of half-lost Israel. The Lord is reproachful: ‘So far you have asked nothing in my name: ask and you shall receive.’ Our farm and field asking lacks the old intensity. Local agriculture supplies but a fraction of the local needs. And there is always Sainsbury’s . . .
(‘Rogation Two’, Word from Wormingford)
 
His use of the first-person plural is characteristic, speaking, as he often does, for the congregation, and the village, of which he is a part. And these are people for whom he cares deeply, and in whom he finds wisdom and goodness: ‘I had an old farm worker friend who read the Lesson. When it carried him away, as it often did, he would pause, then say, “That was very fine. I’ll read that agen’ ” . . . he would have been perplexed had he known that I still hear him in my head as one of the oracles of God.’
    Illustration by John Nash from Slightly Foxed Issue 40When I think of the Wormingford books, what springs to mind even more than their lovely evocation of a faith I don’t share is the picture they paint of the English countryside that, as an urbanite, I miss. Bottengoms Farm is surrounded by a rambling garden in which cow parsley, white nettles and other ‘undesirables’ thrive alongside roses and runner beans. It is enfolded by trees, and beyond those lie fields of wheat, barley and the ‘bright parallelograms’ of rape. It is Gainsborough and Constable country – and Nash country, of course – and Blythe’s descriptions of the sowing and harvesting, the weather and the seasons are little masterpieces, almost pointillist in their detail and clarity: ‘Jean’s horses run on the hillside in praise of February, chasing and wheeling in the afternoon light, their manes flung out like flags.’
    He can recall the last of the farm horses, and for him the land in which he is rooted now seems strangely quiet and unpeopled – ‘Modern farming has brought about such a desertion of the field that the sight of John on the harrow and Peter’s men at work on a vast onion bed halts one in one’s tracks. “Look! People!” ’ Yet he is not sentimental, having a clearer understanding than most of what hard toil a life on the land really was. Of the ancient ash tree by the house he writes, ‘Alone of all the still living witnesses to the purpose of Bottengoms it seems to have, in its writhing roots and broken tips, a notion of what it was like to let the fields take all your strength.’
    Blythe’s is not an unchanging landscape, but it is given deep meaning by history; and the village life he describes so lovingly, with its commuters, quiet fields and half-full churches, is in his hands as spiritually rich as Little Gidding – or Gethsemane. Even for an unbeliever like me.
 
Mellow Fruitfulness © Melissa Harrison, Illustrations by John Nash, Slightly Foxed No. 40, Winter 2013

Melissa Harrison is the author of Clay, a nature novel set in a British city. Her new novel, At Hawthorn Time, is published by Bloomsbury later this month. She’ll be discussing nature in fiction with Evie Wyld at Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road on April 29. More details about this event appear at the foot of this newsletter.
 
Please read on for a selection of spring reading, recent words from our readers and booking details for our April Nature in Fiction event.
A Set of 14 SF Editions
 
Our Slightly Foxed Editions are each published in a limited, numbered edition of 2,000 copies, available only from us and a few selected booksellers. Apart from being memorable reads, they look delightful on the shelves and are highly collectable – some earlier titles in the series are already fetching high second-hand prices. We have just sold out of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece and many of the early titles are running very low, so now is your chance to buy a set of those Slightly Foxed Editions still available.

From £210 inc. UK p&p (RRP £245)
New Carey Novel
 
Ronald Welch
Captain of Dragoons

From £16 inc. UK p&p
224pp • Cloth Hb • Ages 9 - 90+
 
Captain of Dragoons is a gripping story set in the reign of Queen Anne during the early years of the War of the Spanish Succession. Charles Carey is a Captain in the Duke’s army, a moody, quick-tempered and charismatic figure who is also one of its most brilliant swordsmen – a skill he uses to great effect. His mission takes him to the Old Pretender’s dreary court at Saint-Germain, to Louis XIV’s court at Versailles – which he finds surprisingly grubby and unattractive, despite its superficial grandeur – and finally to imprisonment in the Bastille, from which he manages to escape in time to take part in Marlborough’s march to the Danube and his decisive victory at the Battle of Blenheim. A wonderfully atmospheric and fast-moving book with a shocking and unexpected dénouement.

28 Shades of Cloth
 
A rather stylish subscriber, one C. Graham of London, has chosen to arrange her full set of SF Editions according to cloth colour instead of book number. They do say books furnish a room, and in this case most handsomely we think.

We always love to see photos of Slightly Foxed and our books in situ so do please be tempted to send in a snap of your shelves to Olivia any time: all@foxedquarterly.com.
SF Edition No. 29
 
Michael Holroyd
Basil Street Blues

From £16 inc. UK p&p
368pp • Cloth Hb â€¢ Memoir

Well-known for his frank biographies of such controversial figures as Augustus John and Lytton Strachey, Michael Holroyd teases out the story – or rather stories – of his own distinctly problematic family in this delightful and original book.

The lonely only child of divorced parents, Michael spent much of his childhood with his squabbling paternal grandparents. His volatile father, always busy with his own commercial and amorous enterprises, and his glamorous Swedish mother with her succession of exotic husbands, had only walk-on parts in his life.

With the passage of time things changed, and in the 1970s, when his career as a biographer had begun to take off, he found himself trying to cheer his ageing parents by asking them to give him an account of their early lives. But nothing in their attempts matched up – not even the date of his own birth. It was only a decade later, after both his parents had died, that he was overcome by a desire to discover more, to find the ‘connecting story’ which his fragmented childhood had so lacked. Inevitably, as he begins delicately to probe and piece together the bizarre history of his own family, he discovers more about himself. The result is a very personal detective story, subtle, funny and poignant.

We are always touched and delighted by the notes, letters, postcards and emails we receive from you. Here are just some of our recent favourites:

‘My continued enjoyment of Slightly Foxed is unquestionable. While I’m still able to read, I would be lost without it.’ N. Ridley, Essex

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