by Robert Forryan

Those of you who are the top side of 50 years will probably remember Kenneth Allsop, broadcaster, writer and journalist. For what it is worth there is a tenuous Dylan connection in that his article ‘Beat and Ballad’ is published in ‘The Dylan Companion’. His Dylan connections, such as they are, are not my reason for writing now, though it is of interest that Allsop wrote ‘Beat and Ballad’ in 1965 and in it defended Dylan for “having embellished himself with organ, strings (sic) and – fie! – amplified guitar”. This serious journalist, at the age of 45, was therefore able to accept what many much younger people, myself included, would be unable to accept in the Spring of 1966. In one of his letters to his daughter from California, dated 24 July 1965 (the day before Dylan went electric at Newport, in case you’ve forgotten), he wrote: “One record that’s being played a lot here is by Bob Dylan ‘Like A Rolling Stone’; I don’t know whether or not that’s been released in Britain… but I do like it enormously”. I was also much amused by his description of Dylan as “like Dame Edith Sitwell in a Davy Crockett cap”, though you probably need to be over fifty to understand this too.

I always rather liked Kenneth Allsop. By the time he had become a familiar figure on television in the 1960s his hair was mostly silver, but there was plenty of it and he, and his hair, had style. He was softly-spoken and probably sounded more obviously ‘middle-class’ than might be fashionable in today’s regional-accented media. The words ‘suave’ and ‘cultured’ and ‘sophisticated’ somehow spring to mind when I remember Allsop. Also a word that was popular in those days but which has now gone out of fashion: nonchalant. He seemed to wear his learning lightly, though it was measured out with gravitas. In memory he always wore a suit, tie and, especially, a striped shirt.

His TV career was centred upon news analysis in programmes such as ‘Tonight’ and, from 1965 until 1972, ’24 Hours’. I initially became aware of him through television and only later came to know his journalism when he wrote a weekly column, ‘In The Country’, based around his love for the countryside and natural history for ‘The Daily Mail’ (he also wrote for journals such as ‘Punch’, ‘The Spectator, ‘New Statesman’, as well as ‘The Observer’ and ‘Sunday Times’ newspapers). At that time nature and ornithology were more important to me than Bob Dylan - more important even than football. So to learn that such a savvy, well-read and worldly individual as Allsop could be genuinely concerned because the swallows had ceased to nest in his barn meant a lot to me. I felt an affinity with his distant public persona. He also campaigned on environmental matters long before the rest of the world seemed to realise that there was an environment that mattered. His writings on nature were eventually collected in a book, also called ‘In The Country’.

Kenneth Allsop was born in Yorkshire on 29 January 1920 and, as an only child, learned early that displays of affection were neither expected nor approved of by his mother. Possibly as a consequence he was remembered by his daughter, Amanda, as “inwardly-directed, perhaps self-absorbed”, and as someone who was more comfortable with his intellectual peers and not good at adjusting himself to the interests of his young children. Though not without personal charm and warmth, it would probably be true to say that he was intolerant of those he perceived as fools. Amanda Allsop collected his letters to her and published them posthumously as “Letters To His Daughter”. In the introduction she wrote: “he never found close relationships easy to make or maintain. He had an abundance of acquaintances but very few intimate companions”. Maybe that was why he liked to escape to the woods and the fields of the English countryside. It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that he seemed so polished, so at ease, in the television studio. Or maybe the maternal insistence on self-control served him well on the public stage.

Allsop was young enough to see service with the RAF in 1940 and it was while on service that he suffered the injuries which led to the amputation of a leg. For the rest of his life he was served effectively by an artificial leg but often at the cost of great pain. I assume that technology has moved on since then. He was self-conscious about the leg and would not willingly let anyone see it. He was, for instance, shy of public swimming. Nonetheless, he married before the war was out and was father to three children. Many years later he would write about “the lovely summer days of 1940 when to die in a Spitfire had the allure of sainthood”.

Music was an abiding love, both classical and jazz – particularly Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. But he was no music snob as this delightful anecdote from his daughter indicates:

“I recall when I was about thirteen years old, driving with him unwillingly into Stevenage to search the record shops for a newly-released single by a then unknown pop group called the Beatles, which he insisted I should hear. So often he picked up on fads and innovations long before we did – and long before they became popular”.

Given that Allsop was of the same generation as my parents, I think this story shows the measure of the man. At that time (1962) my parents would never have heard of the Beatles and even if they had it would never have occurred to either one to want to introduce me to their music. He was a man in tune with his times; a man who sensed any shifts in the prevailing zeitgeist before the shift took place. And his interest in popular music was genuine: in 1969 he wrote “I’m just playing the new Dusty Springfield LP (‘In Memphis’): terribly nice and soully; I’m very keen on Dusty”.

As with music, so with literature. His reading and interests were boundless and took in Scott Fitzgerald (a big favourite), Hardy, Yeats, Orwell and William Faulkner and the writers of the Deep South. He published a number of books of his own, notably ‘Hard Travellin’ – an exhaustively researched history of the American hobo. His literary interests were apparent in his 1958 book, ‘The Angry Decade’, which focussed upon such writers as Colin Wilson and John Osborne. The book’s opening line seemed to reflect the turmoil within its pages: “Before Seymour Glass, a character in J D Salinger’s short story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, goes up to his hotel room to shoot himself, he…”

‘The Angry Decade’ was a serious attempt at an analysis of what it was that so many young people were angry about in 1950s England. In the process Allsop demonstrated that he was certainly a man who knew what was happening as his conclusion to the book indicates:

“…anger has a limited use. Love has a wider application, and it is that which needs describing wherever it can be found so that we may all recognise it and learn its use”.

It was a prophecy that would be realised in the following decade in ‘The Summer of Love’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’. Allsop ahead of the zeitgeist. I have wondered what gave this seemingly-reserved and inwardly-directed man such sensitive antennae in relation to the outer world. Maybe it was that his senses, being so calmly attentive to atmosphere were somehow attuned to the soundwaves and echoes adrift on the ether. Maybe it was just a gift.

Whatever it was, he was a man of the world who always sought to escape into nature, and his writing was a delight, even when not intended for publication, like this extract from an October letter:

“I’m sitting out on the balcony typing this in blissful unwavering sunshine as it has been since morning; not, now, quite so hot but with a rather wan warmth and an over-ripish light in which the apples glow like red fairy lights and the hedges beyond the orchard are ablaze with haws and hips and have clusters of purple bruises which are blackthorn fruit. The Knoll’s got a faint haze over it, like butter muslin, and all the trees straggling up to it are flaked with rust; a general air of decline and fall but with an acrid smell of coming frosts in the sickly decay”.

Discovering that this TV personality loved and wrote about nature forged a link with my lost adolescence which had been a time when I was entranced by the romantic rural idylls of Henry Williamson, author of ‘Tarka The Otter’. So you may imagine the frisson – the hairraising tingle of excitement I received - when I learned that, not only did Allsop revere Williamson too, but that the two men were actually friends, though Williamson must have been an old man by then.

There was one line quoted by Williamson in an essay that had cleaved itself to my heart and to my mind at the age of sixteen: “The beautiful swallows, be tender to them” – which were the words of Richard Jefferies, 19th Century essayist and novelist, and much beloved by Williamson. Until I read these words I had never heard of Jefferies, and now, many years later, I find Jefferies reaching out to me again in Kenneth Allsop’s prose:

“In the first Richard Jefferies book I ever had, his ‘Life of the Fields’, I was caught by his ‘dreamy summer haze’ – the murmur and rippling of a meadow, ‘scented as though a hundred hives of honey had been emptied upon it’… In that same essay Jefferies said he believed that ‘ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become interwoven into man’s existence’. Did the flower-children of our time read Jefferies? ‘To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature,’ he wrote. Did the Glastonbury pilgrims know that their slogan had been written a century ago?”

At the end of the ‘Letters’ Amanda Allsop writes that on 11 May 1973 “my parents went to Exeter for the West Country Writers’ Congress, where my father met up with a very dear, and briefly estranged, friend, Henry Williamson. ‘There were warm greetings all round’, my father wrote in his diary.

He had recently been fitted with a new artificial leg, which caused him pain and despondency.

But there were compensations. The weekend of 18-21 May, my parents went to Wales, and were exhilarated by the countryside and the birdlife. 20 May was a ‘red letter day’ – two kites, two buzzards, a kestrel, and a peregrine falcon and tiercel sighted in one spot. On the way back to Dorset on 21 May he returned to watch the peregrines and ‘felt satisfied and full of delight for them’”.

Kenneth Allsop always loved peregr ine falcons – they symbolised for him a freedom and a beauty beyond the reach of humanity.

The 23rd May 1973 was Amanda Allsop’s 24th birthday. It was the day that Kenneth Allsop took his own life.