Saturday, 22 December 2012

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

This is the third book in my Suffolk triad, meant to be read during a holiday in that county which didn't quite happen (we went to France instead).  Akenfield is a collection of interviews with Suffolk villagers, conducted by Ronald Blythe during 1967 and described by him in his introduction as a "quest for the voice of Akenfield".  The interviews are divided up thematically: we hear from the survivors, those connected with God, the law and education, the craftsmen, the farmers, and so on.  Sometimes the interviewee's words are prefaced by a short description or introduction to the person from Blythe himself; in a couple of cases he recounts the person's story in his words rather than theirs.

It took me a long time to read Akenfield, mainly because each interview is like a little novel, full of complexity, detail and meaning.  Because the interviews are so wide-ranging, from the old men, those born in the nineteenth century who fought in the First World War, to the striplings, the boys learning to farm at agricultural colleges, by way of the Baptist minister, the midwife, the teacher, the retired colonel now a chicken farmer, this makes for a dense, rich book, absorbing and stimulating, that needs a lot of careful consideration and digestion.  I also found it personally evocative - I recognised some of these voices, these manners and morals, from my own rural childhood in the 1970s, especially the perpetual, not unfriendly, separation between villagers and incomers that permeates these interviews, and the perpetual divisions of class.

Some of the social changes that we now associate with the 1960s are apparent here.  There is more geographical mobility, more people working in industry in Ipswich rather than continuing to work the land.  Working the land itself is becoming a complex, scientific job as the white heat of technology reaches agriculture.  Everyone in the book who remembers life in Akenfield before the Second World War (or even the First World War) agrees that life is better now, especially in terms of the working conditions for farm employees; some descriptions of 1920s and 1930s farming practices make farm workers sound like little more than slaves.  Some of the young men are, daringly, sporting what is described as "long hair".  Some express quite radical political opinions, although a rich stream of conservatism flows through the interviewees.

There is also nostalgia (and probably a retrospective nostalgia that now applies to the book itself) for the old country ways, the traditions of bell-ringing, the farming year, and especially rural crafts.   A whole section is devoted to the men who work in the forge; Gregory, the blacksmith, has ensured the survival of his trade once the farming work no longer needed horseshoes by creating new iron objects of desire, and recreating Tudor door-latches and the like for people who are restoring Suffolk cottages.  This pleasant nostalgia is off-set not only by the accounts of poverty and exploitation but also by the attitudes expressed to sexual crime, which can be casual and almost tolerant.

While reading the book I wondered how much was genuine transcription, and how much Blythe built his texts back up from notes.  In this BBC Radio 3 interview he describes the work as a novel, but if it is one he has inhabited the language and mind of his multitude of characters with incredible accuracy and sympathy.  Whoever is writing or speaking here, the words are often a delight; Anthony the young shepherd's description of his dog put me very much in mind of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who had a William of her own:

William is my dog.  He was bought by the farm but he thinks he is my dog, and I think he is too.  He does a good half of the work.  He can do anything.  He can put the whole flock through the footbath without my even being in the field, and he is fond of conversation.
Blythe has written a number of other books that sound equally enticing, and there is a sequel to Akenfield by Craig Taylor called Return to Akenfield which takes up the story forty years on, as well as a film by Peter Hall made in 1974, which looks to be worth seeking out, and features Ronald Blythe as the vicar.


  1. I had to read Akenfield at school & I'm afraid I hated it. However, disliking a book at school isn't definitive & since then I've read several of RB's books, collections of his columns for the Church Times & enjoyed them very much. I would really like to read Akenfield again now with a bit more maturity & perspective.

  2. I think I would have hated it too as a teenager, Lyn - too close to home for me at that point and therefore boring. I would like to read more Ronald Blythe though, and his collected columns sound like a good start.