Showing posts with label suffolk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label suffolk. Show all posts

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.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Joseph and his Brethren by H.W. Freeman

This 1928 novel is another Suffolk book, telling the story of a farming family, the Geaiters, who take on the unpromising Crakenhill Farm and, through astonishingly dedicated hard work, make it profitable.  Benjamin Geaiter, the patriarch of the family, generates gossip in the local village; he has served time for manslaughter and, it is rumoured, beats his wife.  Emily Geaiter expires (due to overwork and not any sort of assault) in the first chapter, and the novel focuses on Benjamin and his sons and their unassailable passion for the land they work.  Repeatedly, the younger Geaiters toy with the idea of leaving Crakenhill, and repeatedly they are drawn back to the farm.  None of them marry; even handsome Harry, the youngest, is persuaded by his brothers' arguments and his own love of the farm to break off with his sweetheart.  But when their old housekeeper dies, she is replaced by eighteen-year-old Nancy, hired almost on a whim by Benjamin, who spots her scrubbing a doorstep and recognises strength and diligence when he sees it.  Nancy makes Crakenhill much more pleasant, but she also disrupts the delicately balanced relationships between father and sons, and brother and brother.

All the brothers fall in love to some degree with Nancy, but their hamfisted competition for her affections falls away when they realise that she is pregnant, and Benjamin is the father.  Benjamin marries Nancy at the eleventh hour, and their son Joseph is at first an unwelcome addition to the family.  But gradually the Geaiter brothers come to dote on Joseph, and he loves nothing more than to go with them about their daily tasks, absorbing their skills and their passion for their land.  Second marriages and half-siblings create tensions around inheritances, as all listeners to The Archers will know, and the last part of the novel shows how these factors affect the brothers, and how they seek to preserve their affectionate unity through difficult times.

The date of this novel and the characterisation of the Geaiter brothers make me think this must have been one of the many texts satirised by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm.  There is an awful lot to remind us of the male Starkadders here, especially among the dimmer Geaiter brothers.  Here is Ern, tempted to leave Crakenhill for the army, having second thoughts:

Ern was sitting with his head in his hands, looking intently out of the window, and he was hankering after his cows.  He had just caught a glimpse of a farmyard with cattle chewing tranquilly in the byre, just as they did at Crakenhill [...] In a neighbouring field five big black sows were routing in the turf with their litters tumbling happily around them; they looked up with a grunt, snout in the air, to watch the train roar past [...] All the longing which had been struggling with him for the last two hours, suddenl burst out and took possession of him - the longing for his cows and pigs, for Crakenhill with its sagging roof and crow-stepped gable, for his brothers, even his father, because they belonged there.

Nancy's transformation of shabby, uncomfortable Crakenhill into a pleasant farmhouse also prefigures Flora Poste's good offices at Cold Comfort.  While the book is necessarily focused on its male characters, and the constraints and pleasures of rural life for them, Freeman is also acute in the way he depicts his few female characters and the limited scope they have.  Nancy, orphaned and exploited, quite possibly raped by Benjamin, still chooses to marry him because marriage to a successful farmer increases her status hugely.   The emphasis throughout is on the hardness of rural life, the endless backbreaking toil of farming and housekeeping and childrearing, but Freeman also stresses the beauty and nobility of this work and the rewards of such a strong connection to the land/.

As well as Cold Comfort, this book has obvious echoes of Hardy, although for me it lacked the ironic narrative voice that you get in Hardy; the narrative is straightforward and generally reticent, although you occasionally do get a little narrative comment on the actions of the characters, who are mostly seen in the round, their good and bad aspects unflinchingly examined.  This can make them difficult to love or even like, although they remain interesting and I found, once the plot had wound itself up, that the novel was rather compelling.  So did a lot of other people, apparently, because this book was a bestseller in its day and an American Book of the Month choice.  This book was written away from its location, when H.W. Freeman was living in Florence; I think this helps account for the intensity and the lyricism of his descriptions of the Suffolk countryside, conjured from his imagination and his memory. The primacy of the landscape in this novel does mean, however, that the characterisation is occasionally simplistic, although eldest brother Ben, Harry and young Joseph do all emerge as distinct personalities.

There is a current paperback edition of this book, published by Old Pond Press, who also publish a couple of other Freeman novels.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Corduroy - the title comes from the habitual dress of the Suffolk farmer, as opposed to the finer fabrics worn in London - is a memoir of Adrian Bell's first year in farming.  Bell's father was a journalist, and the young Adrian tries newspaper life briefly, but succumbs to the lure of the rural, and goes to live with Mr Colville, part of a large Suffolk farming family; his own family hope this will get the agricultural itch out of his system.  Mr Colville helps him to learn how to farm: Adrian starts from the bottom up, helping with the routine farm chores, but Mr Colville also shows him how to manage a farm, the disposition of labour, machines and money to get the best results.  By the end of the year he has learned enough to consider starting to farm on his own, but will his stubbornly urban family accept this choice?

The book, written about 8 years after the experiences it describes, is like somebody's memoir of the early days of a love affair.  Everything about the farm and country life is fascinating and exciting to Adrian. The language used to describe the Suffolk countryside is lyrical and poetical but also rich in agricultural detail:

"Things had now reached their climax of growth. The corn stood high in the fields, green yet, but with emerging ears, and the grass was deep in the meadows left for hay, and shimmered in the breeze.  Every corner by wall or barn had its growth of grass and nettles.  Nothing was yet cut down, but blades were being prepared.  Scythes were brought from dusty corners and weighed in the hands."

It is, perhaps, Adrian's poet's attention that helps him to prosper in this environment.  In the early chapters, he is a stranger in a new land; the narrative is almost a travelogue as Adrian learns the local language - verbal and not - and begins to find his way about.  He admires the skill of the people around him; he identifies with the ingrained love of the land that means that any local man - the blacksmith, the postman - will have a field somewhere in which he grows a crop of wheat or raises a few pigs.  I grew up in the country in the 1970s and there were still a few people like this, fitting in odd bits of farming around a day job in the local town.   Most of this world, though, was probably disappearing when the book was published.

At first, his class status causes some awkwardness with the other farm labourers, although not with the Colvilles, who are secure in their social position as a successful farming family.  Adrian is particularly annoyed when his boots, which looked so rugged in a London shop, are dismissed as "gentleman's boots".  But his good humour and willingness to learn see him through.  The book is very funny throughout, and most of the jokes come from Adrian's clumsiness and naivety, or the sudden impact of hubris when he thinks he is doing well.  Here he is, a less than expert rider, out hunting on the mare Cantilever:

"I was congratulating myself, saying 'You've been a first-rate horseman all these years and not known it'.  I began to enjoy the hazards. A hedge ahead [...] Cantilever sprang at it.  Next moment her head seemed miles below me and I was flying through the air. I found myself turning a somersault, and as I did so I remember thinking, 'You are coming the deuce of a cropper'.  I hit the ground with my shoulder, then stood on my head.  I seemed poised thus for ages.  It felt undignified; I kept wishing my legs would come down."

The tone is a slightly peculiar mixture of the modern and the conservative.  Socially, the farming world is conservative; gender roles are rigid, hierarchies are fixed.  But Mr Colville is a believer in modern farming methods, and interested in improving his skills and equipment to increase his yield.  Adrian often emphasises, however, the enduring traditions of the farming calendar, and contrasts this authenticity with the Chelsea drawing-rooms he is still obliged to visit; his affinity is entirely with the rural. Slightly drunk at an agricultural show, he feels that he is fitting in at last:

"I lost all sense of strangeness in my surroundings.  It seemed I had become a real agriculturalist at last, for I felt pleased and familiar with everything about me.  I admired the old County gentlemen with their neat check ties, their yellow gloves turned back at the wrists.  I would grow old like that. "

Not all of farming life has such a golden glow over it, and Adrian is willing to admit that some of it is dull, cold, wet or just plain unpleasant.  His strength of feeling has something of the overpowering notstalgia for the old ways that is often experienced by newcomer, and he is not so naive that he cannot recognise this.  Bell keeps the balance between mockery of his early naivety and celebration of his affection for the countryside exactly right, so that neither is overwhelming. Similarly, the equation of the rural with the traditional, and the urban with the modern, recognises that the world cannot be so easily divided up.

Modern readers will find the occasional antisemitism tiresome, although it is not untypical of works of this period.  However, the lyrical descriptions of the Suffolk countryside and Bell's humorous approach make the book well worth reading.  There are two further memoirs, The Cherry Tree and The Silver Ley, which follow Adrian Bell's farming career.  This book is currently available from Slightly Foxed. with a beautiful woodcut cover - the cover of my OUP copy is less elegant, featuring pigs, swill, and mud in large but probably accurate quantities.