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Terkel comments and Ronald Blythe reads Report from an English village ; part 2

BROADCAST: Sep. 19, 1986 | DURATION: 00:20:32


Reading "Report from an English Village" and interviewing the author Ronald Blythe while Studs was in London.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Ronald Blythe "I worked with horses. I came from the West. Have you been to [Chedborough? Wickenbrook?] way? I came from that direction. I lived there two years. Then I lived at [Webstead?]. Have you been to [Webstead?]? I had a few years along with a farmer there, a horseman, machinery man, and most everything else. The farmer was a big chapel man from [Clare?]. Do you know [Clare?]? Then on I moved to [Poslingford?]. Do you know [Poslingford?]? That's a rum old village. It was there I met the farmer who brought me to the east and brought me bad luck, as it happened. The father had a hold of me. You see, the Great War broke out, and he got exempts for me, one after another, until it was all over. So he had me. I was living at [Depton?] when I first started ploughing. The farmer said to me, "You're going to plough today." I was something pleased. The horses were in the stable. I soon got hold of them and off I went. I was 15 years old, and I had been at work for seven years. I kept about on this [Depton?] farm. Do you know [Depton?]? For one year, and then after the harvest I thought I'd have a go at Newmarket. Newmarket was crowded with village boys who had a handy way with horses. They hoped the toffs would fancy them, and put them in, in the racing stables. I soon found a job there. It was to do with the heavy horses. The man who employed me would cart anything anywhere. He'd got over 50 horses, including a pair of blacks for funerals, a pair of greys for weddings, and everything up to date. Yes, I've been about, but it hasn't done me much good. The trouble is I shouldn't have met this [Poslingford] farmer. Then I could have gone on getting about. I saw the big change. My father worked on a farm, and his father. They both got very near to 90 I believe. They were hardy old sorts. They never had a thing amiss with them. They worked and lived, and then kind of toppled over at the end. I should have been like them, but my accident made the difference to me. The horses ran away with me. It was only two fields away from this house. It was a terrible accident, it jacked me all to pieces. The horses bolted in the field and they ruined me. We were using the self-binder at the time. It was the second year I was in this village, and 38 year ago or more. I was the top of the field, whole, and at the bottom of the field broken, and all in minutes. I should not have come here. I wasn't in the hospital more than a month. They sent me out on stilts. "Hang on," they said, "you'll soon manage." Today you've only got a finger ache, they'll let you stay comfortable until it's better. I wasn't half looked after. They had to lift me out of the hospital to get me home. "Have you got a nurse?" they said. "I don't know one," I said. "Oh, dear," they said. "Then however will you get on?" I had to be massaged, but nobody I knew could do that kind of thing. So my leg healed and became short, and walking on it has [wrung?] me over. It hurts me a bit all the time. But still, I'm lucky to be alive."

Studs Terkel As you read this, Ronald, and I know that you're [unintelligible]. It's almost like an epic quality in the simple talk of this man. First asking you, "Have you been there?" As though what he's saying he wants you to know [what the feel?] it's important, too, what you're

Ronald Blythe Yes, yes. It's tremendous. He wanted me to know that he'd traveled, and what was all the touching he traveled from village to village within about 20 miles, the sort of thing we'd run through in a car today and think nothing about. But to him, it was the world. He'd traveled -- for many he'd done things which people of his age in this particular village where he'd landed up hadn't done, so he's still talking about it.

Studs Terkel Here again this matter of humiliation. "This farmer, this man, who -- so he had me."

Ronald Blythe Yes.

Studs Terkel And he tells about his grandfather, father, "they worked [night?] and then they toppled over." He wishes he could do that if

Ronald Blythe Yes.

Studs Terkel Accident.

Ronald Blythe That's right. Yes. Yes. They're tremendous. This is a very interesting old chap.

Studs Terkel Powerful. He's 85 talking this

Ronald Blythe Yes. All the older men of any standings, it was the great thing, had been horsemen. This really didn't mean just leading a horse about. Suffolk was a great place for horses. The "Suffolk punches," they were called, were the shire horses which were bred from the old war horses of England. The great heavy horses, and until tractors came in, they dominated the whole agricultural economy. And the men who looked after the horses had secret ways, and everyone tried to be horsemen. It was a great thing to be a horseman, and there

Studs Terkel It was very

Ronald Blythe Yes, a tremendous great thing. Yes.

Studs Terkel They of course so

Ronald Blythe -- All gone. Yes, all gone. Yes.

Studs Terkel He remembers. Perhaps one more, Ronald, I realize -- how many do you have, by the way. How many so far?

Ronald Blythe So far I've got

Studs Terkel Fifty.

Ronald Blythe And I don't want many more, because I've got to put all my other things.

Studs Terkel Yes. Have you seen fifty altogether or more than 50?

Ronald Blythe Oh, I've seen many more than

Studs Terkel Yes, of course.

Ronald Blythe That's right, yes.

Studs Terkel But you've chosen fifty so

Ronald Blythe Yes. I've mostly let people give me a complete little thing of their lives, so I have only in a few cases have I chopped a little bit out. I've seen -- tried to see the wholeness of their lives. A lot of the interviews are to do with the actual work, because all the work processes have changed, and it would be pointless to sort of not put in some of the way they do things, because this is the most important thing in their lives. And so there are descriptions of how they do various farming tasks. Which I think is important.

Studs Terkel Yes, that's good. There's perhaps one more I think, Ron, Ronald Blythe is, we're -- I'm -- we're both guests of Penguin this Tuesday afternoon here in London, January 22nd, and very shortly Mr. Blythe's book is part of this fantastic project. His book will be "A Report from an English Village", won't it?

Ronald Blythe Yes, that's right.

Studs Terkel One that you know. Is -- it's agreed the -- what do you want to say, Ron, I'm sorry?

Ronald Blythe I was going to say, if it's for American listeners, they might like to know this is the part of the world where so many of the Pilgrim fathers came from. All around, that some of their families still remain. And I was born next to the village where it's -- you call it Groton, but we call it Groton in Suffolk. Where the first governor of Massachusetts came from.

Studs Terkel Bradford.

Ronald Blythe No

Studs Terkel Winthrop.

Ronald Blythe Winthrop.

Studs Terkel Winthrop.

Ronald Blythe And these people, and Captain Jones the Mayflower is buried only 30 miles away. So this is a kind of -- it's puritan country.

Studs Terkel I know this question I must ask. It's occurred to me of course, the question perhaps to end, there are many excerpts to read from that we read in the book. The question to ask is you, Ronald Blythe, your community where you've lived, where your people have lived. You now using tape recorder, asking questions, discovering, have you discovered things about yourself now too, as a result of this?

Ronald Blythe Yes, it's a very sort of extraordinary thing to do. I thought. I didn't think so much, I just accepted the fact somehow that it could be a technical job like interviewing people in a village anywhere in France or an African village. But of course it's not the same if you actually belong to a place, and your family have always lived there that sort of thing. Every time people are speaking, you're speaking. I think this what really happens. You're seeing yourself all the time in different ways and you're related to the whole thing in a far more extraordinary way than you can possibly sort of avoid knowing about. It's an emotional thing in some ways. It is a -- it is a really sort of in a curious way I suppose an autobiography.

Studs Terkel This is a question I'm sure each of us will be asking one another, all of us involved in this project, just how autobiographical it really becomes. The city in which you live, and in your instance where your family's lived for so many years. [pause in recording] We shall continue with Ronald Blythe, the tape now being reversed. Ronald Blythe has written a number of excellent books, by the way. Not only in -- is he a novelist and an essayist as you can gather, a very perceptive observer, too, but an anthologist as well. What is fascinating about this last question 'til we have the tape turned over is that he's now speaking to people whom he has run into almost all his life yet has not known, really. And I suppose there's a parable involved here too, always in these instances. Be curious to know the later on the discoveries of Jager Neven DuMont, who's doing a book on Heidelberg, which he considers a typical German town in that Heidelberg is half Catholic, half Lutheran, the university is there, right-wing students, left, some industry. All the -- all the thoughts of someone working -- the young Frenchman working in a French village, and thus maybe one day there will be a gathering of us. Here then we continue with Ronald Blythe and some of his observations. [pause in recording] And perhaps as a postscript the observations of Ronald Blythe. Just read some fragments in two, two of the other [peoples?].

Ronald Blythe There's a great house near the village where until recently, until he died a peer lived who was a friend of King George V's, and I spoke to a young man who was only 40 who was his gardener at 14. who gave me an insight into the disciplines of working at a great house in the country in England. "I went to Lordship's when I was 14 and stayed for 14 years. There were seven gardeners and goodness knows how many servants in the house. It was a frightening experience for a boy. Lord and Ladyship were very, very Victorian and very domineering. It was "swing our arms" every time they saw us. Ladyship would appear suddenly from nowhere when one of us boys were walking off to fetch something. "Swing your arms!" she would shout. We wore green baize aprons and collars and ties, no matter how hot it was, and whatever we had to do had to be done on the dot. Nobody was allowed to smoke. A gardener was immediately sacked if he was caught smoking, no matter how long he'd worked there. We must never be seen from the house. It was forbidden, and if people were sitting on the terrace or on the lawn and you had a great barrow-load of weeds, you might have to push it as much as a mile to keep out of view. If you were seen, you were always told about it and warned, and as you walked away, Ladyship would call after you, "Swing your arms!" It was terrible. You felt like somebody with a disease. The boy under-gardeners had to arrange the flowers in the house. They were done every day. We had to take our shoes off and creep in early in the morning before breakfast, and replace banks of flowers in the main rooms. Lordship and Ladyship must never hear or see you doing it. Fresh flowers have to be just there. That was all there was to it. There was never a dead flower. It was as if flowers for them lived forever. It was part of the magic in their lives, but the arrangements were how they wanted them, and if one of the gardeners had used his imagination, Ladyship noticed at once and soon put a stop to it. The guests always complimented her on the flowers, and she always accepted the praise as though she'd grown, picked and arranged them herself. It was logical, because servants were just part of the machinery of the big house, and people don't thank machines, they just keep them trim and working. Or that's how I look at it."

Studs Terkel Wow. It's there, right there, Ronald, you have it. I mean, that paragraph or so, and I know this could go -- it's with a great deal of reluctance there that I -- there we have the recognition, his own insights, doesn't he, he has it here. Of all the humiliation, almost an extreme

Ronald Blythe He's proud of it, this man. He's rather glad of it.

Studs Terkel He's grabbed that

Ronald Blythe And the thing that comes out that he prefers this way. Although he's [young?]. He's now been taught gardening of a kind which you would never learn anywhere except in such circumstances, and in a way he's sort of -- he's been caught up in the mystique of the big house which I've written about in the beginning of the thing.

Studs Terkel Oh, but he was also proud of the fact we know because he's so -- he has insights describing himself, and yet doesn't -- he accepts himself as a machine.

Ronald Blythe Yes.

Studs Terkel As a thing.

Ronald Blythe Yes. As

Studs Terkel And she was right to accept the plaudits of the guests that she did it, and to "swing your arms," he likes to be told to swing his arms. So now we have flight from freedom, don't we?

Ronald Blythe That's right. Yes. Extraordinary thing. His wife made him leave his job. He married a town girl. She couldn't stand it, she was made to go and work in the kitchen. But she ran away after three days. She couldn't bear it, the discipline of it.

Studs Terkel So here you have someone 40 who accepts all

Ronald Blythe Feudalism. This is, this chapter is on feudalism, and I have written this; you can cut it if you don't want it.

Studs Terkel No, no.

Ronald Blythe Feudalism is a kind of game, set and match, with partners at both the serving and receiving ends knowing exactly what is expected of them and abiding unquestionably by the rules. Questioning, in fact, is pointless. It breaks rule one, which is accept the lot of the draw. The last of the old acceptors on both sides are now in their 60s or more and prefer not to see any difference between working for Lordship and working with one of the North Sea gas projects, or him that grows the peas for Birdseye, that's a frozen pea thing. It's all work that they will untruthfully insist, but Lordship and what went with him was far from being all work. A good deal of worship and now lost and forgotten mystery managed to interpose themselves in the ritual toil at the manor and the big house. This is I sort of -- but this interview is very amusing.

Studs Terkel Yes, amusing.

Ronald Blythe It's [nice now?] and very depressing, too, terrible in a way, yes.

Studs Terkel He was what you say? Were you describing him just then?

Ronald Blythe Very sort of -- I suppose he's as lost as the old people. He's still young, he looks like a young man who'd been in the air force during the war. The kind of Brylcreemed hair with a smart car. Very good job now as a gardener to somebody. But he associates himself entirely with its servants of the local gentry, and since it's all gone away, he feels very lost. He is the most tremendous gardener, I mean an expert.

Studs Terkel Ronald, before we say goodbye, before we -- you're -- until such time as I read your book, which I know will be a fascinating one, indeed, another fragment. Perhaps a woman. This is an old woman in your own village.

Ronald Blythe "I have been wed and widowed twice. My first husband was head horseman at Roundwood Farm, and when he married his wages were thirteen shillings a week. He used to give me twelve shillings and kept a bob for his pocket. We were children together, then lovers. Then I married him. He lived in the next door, double dweller. We were both 19 when we wed. A beautiful boy he was. It seems a long time now since I saw him. He had six horses to look after, and he used to get up at five o'clock every morning to [bathe?] them. When the war came, he was sent at once to join the cavalry at [Carrick?] Camp in Ireland, because he was such a fine horseman. He was trained there for about three months and then he was given three days' leave before going to the western front, but the water was so rough that he only had one day and one night with me. That was the only time I saw him between his joining up and his going. One day. He was blown off his horse and blown to pieces. There was nothing left of him to find. So he hasn't got a grave. The chaplain wrote and told me all about it. When the telegram came, I read of his death. I couldn't possibly believe it. I couldn't think that it was true. My poor young husband. I'd only just got his last letter. I still have it. It said not to worry. He was just 25. I was born in this house, so was my father and his father. It is a charity house, or was, and we have to pay rent and rates now. Nearly all the people I used to know are gone. I went to school here. What little I went. I was blinded by eye ulcers a lot of my childhood, and so I didn't do much schooling. We took our poorness naturally. We knew within a little of what we were going to get and what they would -- what they would never be any more." Oh, I'm so sorry -- "And that there would never be any more. So that was that. My father was one of eight, and I often heard him say that he didn't know what it was like to have a new pair of shoes on his feet. He only had shoes which other folk passed on to him. We ought to be thankful to be as we are today. Whatever would our poor old mothers and fathers have thought if they could see all the money we get now. We know that it doesn't go far, but we touch it. I can remember the men mowing by hand, 24 of them in one field and each behind the other. The children helped in their way. We started field work when we were five or six. I used to carry my father's food to the harvest field. It'd be crowded with men, and then when they saw the food they would laugh and cheer. The farmers gave each man two bushels of malt and a pound of hops for doing the harvest. They would cost six shillings, you had to buy them. Then they got five pounds largesse or bonus when it was all over. The quicker they got the harvest in, the more money they got. Of course they worked all hours God ever made to get this money. My father would go to the bean field at two in the morning to get the beans when they were dew damp, so they didn't get shell out just when there was enough light to see. People now get as many pounds in the week as they got shillings when I was a girl. We women and children went gleaning when the last wagons left the field. We picked up the corn for mother, and she cut the ears off with her [pig?] knife and put them in a sack. We were allowed to keep all this, and we fed it to the fowls or ground it into flour. A lot of people shared bedrooms in those days. I mean, four or five to a room because of the big families. We never saw anything wrong. People think we did, but we didn't. My sister and me and my brother shared a room until we married, but we knew nothing. I'm sure of this. Today they hear too much about sex. My father was church warden and a good man. He never went to bed without kneeling against his chair and saying his prayers. After I'd been a widow for five years, I married Bob, another horseman. We had no children of our own, but we brought up a foster daughter. We managed all right, although it was hard. I walked ten miles there and back to Woodbridge every Friday for the shopping, and if it was a dry summer, so that the pond disappeared, I walked two miles there and back for a couple of pails of water. This water came from a spring. And it was a treat after the pond, I can tell you. Worth going after. The dust from the roads in the summertime was enough to blind you, and if it rained, the mud squirted up into your long skirts and made them filthy. People got very dirty then, but it wasn't their fault. When the second war came, it changed the village more than it ever had been changed before, or so I believe. It was because they sent the Irishmen to build the aerodrome. Blackies as well. Hundreds of Irish and Blackies concreted the fields. Can you imagine that? They got the stones for the concrete from Shingle Street. Two of the Irish boys were billeted on me because I had two bedrooms. The Germans came to bomb the aerodrome and then this happened. The Irishmen used to run outside and stand in the pond when they bombed. Me and my husband, we sat in our chairs and just waited. Things would fall off the mantel piece and the village would shake. It was awful. My husband began to be ill then. On the days when I had to take him into Ipswich for treatment, I always came back to find the tea ready. The Irishmen had done it. I had been blessed with beautiful boys. My second husband was -- had an awful death. Worse than the first, I sometimes think. I never had my clothes off except for washing for 20 weeks. I never left him for an hour. The doctor wanted me to have him put away. They always do. But I said no; men should die where they have lived. The nurse came in and washed him every day. It didn't cost me nothing. So I saw the end of him. He died on the Friday and was buried on the Sunday because he was a bad corpse. It was cancer of the throat. The war was over then, and they were smashing up the aerodrome and putting back the corn. 'I shan't live to see it,' he said, and he didn't. Nobody could wish for two better husbands. My horsemen, both gone."

Studs Terkel Very