Monday, 31 December 2012

My 2012 reading

Here's how my reading went in 2012:

How many books read in 2012?
61 books completely read; I've not counted books only dipped into for study purposes.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
34 fiction and 27 non-fiction.   I was surprised, looking back, by how many novels I've read this year.

Male/Female authors?
23 books by male authors, and 38 by female authors.  I've read more fiction by men this year than in the last couple of years.

Favourite book read?
This year's highlights include Kathleen Jamie's Findings, Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and, among the novels, Loving by Henry Green, which I read thanks to Henry Green Reading Week.

Least favourite?
I thought Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death would be an amusing holiday read.  It really wasn't.  Thankfully I borrowed it from the library so it only cost me a precious hour or so of time.  I loathed the short story "Cake" in Stella Gibbons's collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and clearly I should rant about books I hate more often, as that was one of my most-read posts this year.

Oldest book read?
Madame de Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, in Nancy Mitford's translation.  The original was published in 1678, the oldest book I've read for many years.

As I live with the small publisher Victorian Secrets I get to read some books ahead of publication.  This year I got a preview of Carolyn Oulton's marvellous life of Jerome K. Jerome, Below the Fairy City, Maurice Leonard's moving biography of the contralto Dame Clara Butt,  Hope and Glory, and Gary Hicks's fascinating study of Thomas Bish and the early days of the advertising industry, The First Adman.  Do support the small publishers ...

Longest book title?
Not counting titles with post-colon suffixes, I think it must be Jeannette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Shortest title?
Nicola Humble's delightful little book Cake, which really is about cake and is not an antifeminist fable that endorses wife-beating (yes, I know Stella Gibbons can't hear me).

How many re-reads?
Only one this year, Virginia Woolf's  The Years.

Most books read by one author this year?
I've not read anyone in large quantities this year.  Two books by Dorothy L. Sayers, two by Stella Gibbons, two by E. F. Benson, and two by Joe Moran who I see I didn't blog about, but who comes highly recommended as a historian and celebrator of the everyday; the books I read are On Roads and Queuing for Beginners.  His blog and his regular articles for the Guardian are also well worth worth reading.

Any in translation?
Diderot's The Nun and Mme de Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
Again, about 20 from the library and a few borrowed from other people.   I also read about 10 books on an e-reader this year, some of which were borrowed, but have retained my preference for the printed page.  They are great for travelling with, however.

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.