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Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, By Ronald Blythe

Reviewed by DJ Taylor

The first thing to strike anyone who browses through this monster compendium will be the emollience of its tone.

Did Ronald Blythe ever review a book he didn't like, or come across a fellow-author that he didn't in some way esteem? From Virginia Woolf to Graham Swift and Denton Welch to Stevie Smith, it all seems the same to Blythe (slight coldness towards Golding's Darkness Visible notwithstanding). Even a certain Dr Caunce, who decries the lack of method in his masterpiece of rural life Akenfield, is let off with a caution. "I had never heard the term 'oral historian' when I wrote it in the mid-sixties, nor have I ever called myself an oral historian" Blythe gently chides.

This isn't to say that Blythe is ever complacent. For another of Aftermath's distinguishing marks is its habit of capping a great deal of stealthy approach work with a brisk and sometimes faintly wounding judgment. Thus, of Nancy Mitford, he decides that "what we glimpse remains witty but seems infinitely longer ago than it was". Reviewing Beryl Bainbridge's novel Watson's Apology, on the other hand, he dives straight in off the topmost board: "When they abolished the death penalty, they cut off one of the main supplies of sensation required by the British soul." Having ruminated on Victorian England's pastoral impulse, he pulls up short to declare (this is 1987) "what is so attractive about this book is its old classic liberal tone."

The same could be said of Blythe. In his introduction, Richard Mabey talks of his mentor's "intense curiosity and unselfconscious sense of connectivity between life's elements", going on to suggest that for Blythe writing is "simply conversation... extended gossip about the stream of one's consciousness and activities". Most of Blythe's "sides" get an airing: the clerical side; the pastoral side (Clare, WH Hudson, Gilbert White), the painterly side (Nash, the Ashington Group). Literary good manners never disguise a basic radicalism.

If I had to pick a favourite piece, it might be "The Shepherd Observed", taken from Going to Meet George (1999). It starts with a skim through some ancient religious newspapers found in the loft, continues with reminiscences of his Suffolk grandparents and then moves on to a discussion of Rider Haggard's A Farmer's Year, PH Emerson's photographs of late-Victorian rural blight and the bitter short stories of Mary Mann. Beautifully produced and neatly assembled by its publisher, Peter Tolhurst, Aftermath has only two slight drawbacks. There is no index, and no indication where most of the contents first appeared.

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