on 25 February 2009
This is a book to read if you have any forebears from the English peasantry: it will bring their lives sharply into focus and cure you of any lingering faith you might have had in the joys of the Rural Idyll. If you were at the bottom of the heap, the Rural Idyll was cold and impoverished and extremely hard work.
Blythe, a Suffolk boy himself, based this book on a series of interviews he carried out in the village of Charsfield, not far north of Ipswich. He caught the community right on the cusp, the horses just recently surrendered to the tractors, the commuters starting to move in. He spoke to men and women, young and old, and from all walks of life: older people recollect stone picking and tater picking and children being sewn into their winter underwear; the young blacksmith talks of his work almost with obsession.
Although it brings us up to what was the modern day when the book was published (the early 1970s) it's the harshness of working-class rural life at the end of the Victorian era and into the 1930s which really sticks in the mind - and the compassion and affection people could feel for one another even under quite brutal circumstances.
The whole lucid outline of the village is given to the reader in clear, fluent and beautifully readable prose. It helps that the author is very familiar with the landscape and people of which he wrote: he loves both, and is in enormous sympathy with them.
It is one of the best books I have ever read.
on 25 April 2012
I studied this book as part of my history degree and found it fascinating both as history and literature. It's a book, like Cider with Rosie, of a time past which is harsh and yet makes you strangely nostalgic for simpler times when we were more connected with the land.
My grandfather was from Norfolk and for hundreds of years my forbears must have faced poverty and hardship that I can only guess about.
The film, which I saw on tv on its release, is amazing too as a slice of social history ( I love the theme tune - very haunting).
AND amazingly what is equally as fascinating is the documentary made about the film (was it 25th anniversary?) which features the most charming group of people who made the film.
Makes you proud (after all it is Jubilee year) to be English!
Akenfield is a book which makes a concerted effort to fall between boundaries of fiction, biography and reportage, and as a result, is all the richer for the elements which it draws from each and blends into a most satisfying and enjoyable whole.
To deal with each element in reverse order, the book's reportage is that of a documentary of a Sussex village in 1974, although its field of vision extends as far back as the years before the Great War. The feeling is one of decline and fall, of a community which no longer is bound together by its old practices and habits, but which in many ways has benefited enormously from the changes brought about in society after the Second World War. At no stage is does this become a nostalgic lament for a lost England, but rather does Blythe reveal to us quite how hard life was for the poor in England's villages well into the Twentieth Century.
The biographical aspect of the book is to be found in the way Blythe presents a succession of different characters from the village and its surrounding area, from the farmhand to the housewife, and the magistrate in the Town. Each has his or her own story and fascinating, and often very funny, account of their lives, and one is left with a rich picture of a village society, where no one perspective is privileged over another.
And fiction? Well, Blythe makes plain in his introduction that Akenfield is a palimpsest of many villages, and its people are not single individuals but prisms through which the lives of many are reflected for us. Blythe's style of writing is brilliantly neutral and understated, even when dealing with harrowing or very funny topics (frequently the two go hand-in-hand).
Few books have made such a great impression on me.
First published in 1969, "Akenfield" is an oral history of a Suffolk village. Ronald Blythe, a long-term resident, presents us with a wide range of inhabitants from the 'survivors' - those old enough to remember the bad old days when farm workers were literally worked to death - to the district nurse, WI members, farmers, farm labourers, a magistrate, blacksmiths, churchmen, craftsmen, and finally the gravedigger - a philosophical curmudgeon. Sometimes Blythe introduces the speaker, but other times they launch right in.
Blythe's rather dry introduction (combined with the very small print of the Penguin Classics edition) had me wondering whether "Akenfield" would be an effort to finish; however, the moment that 'Leonard Thompson, aged seventy-one, farm-worker' began to speak I was hooked. "Akenfield" transports you to a different world, both that of 1969 and the many decades before as remembered by the speakers. The minutiae of bellringing or shepherding, for example, are fascinating and the voices overlap as well as disagree to present a rich unsentimental record.
on 14 August 2014
A lovely easy read which brings us back to a time when living seemed easier. Despite the advent of the car, the phone, the colour TV, the mobile phone, and a cashless society with a swipe smart card for almost everything, living seemed easier.I was born in 1929 and have travelled along many the years of which Ronand Blythe speaks. Call it Nostalgia but the nearest I can get to living them again is to read about them and this book does just that in an special enchanting way.
on 17 April 2012
This really is a good read for those interested in social history. The book is a collection of stories, originating from older people in the village, about their life when young, especially in the early part of the twentieth century. The stories are quite enlightening, revealing a life style of a past era; the 'old way' of farming as we now describe it. It sounds all romantic now but was, in fact, not at pleasant way of life for the ordinary farm worker. Only the farmer's income really mattered and many families lived in near poverty in two room hovels - not really any change since the early eighteenth century. Mr Blythe conveniently avoids too much comment on the social injustices of the time. Is he unaware of the decline in british agriculture in the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially the effect of immigration to America on the English farm, that lead to this grim lifestyle?
The book is a facinating insight in to a lost world, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the social history of rural England.
on 29 August 2013
What a fascinating book. The portraits and interviews with the inhabitants of a Suffolk village in the 1960's are presented with a profound respect for the individuality of people, animals and places. The glimpses of the inner lives of shepherds, vets and ploughmen are poetic and moving, and the whole work adds up to a privileged depiction of a world largely hidden to outsiders.
This is a book about the people of a village. Set in a Suffolk in the early 1960's the people in this book look both forward and backwards. The young looking forward into the possible time to come, and the old looking backwards into the desperation of the depression and the "Great War".
There are many books in print that concentrate on the changed rural landscape of Britain, but this book focuses on the people. In close to fifty monologues rural people of all ages and backgrounds talk about the present, the future and often the past. In their stories you find the best of times and the worst of times, you find optimism, pessimism and defeat.
Forge workers and farm labourers, carpenters and cart markers, vets and school teachers are all given the chance to speak of the world they know. This was a time when such variety of trade could still be found in a village, although the numbers were falling.
Many themes are present in the book - with time and how it is used recurring throughout the book. The perfect straight lines of horse drawn ploughing were possible in the past because labour was cheap and time was cheaper. Today, time is the enemy and a tractor plough need not be drawn so straight. "I began in world without time" says a saddler, meaning a job took as long as it needed to take. "Time in a village is quite different from time a town...... I knew so little about time and its importance when I came here" says the author who moved into the village.
A second important theme is the link between the village men and the land, a link they was being lost as farm workers left the land and were replaced by "outsiders". The farmers and farmworkers knew their land and they knew their animals. Although there was cruelty in farming, a farmer says "Pigs are interesting people and some of them can they leave a gap when they go off to the bacon factory".
This really is a wonderful book, full of people sitting on the cusp of enormous change and trying to make sense of it. Trying to hold on to what they see is good, and worried about what they see as bad.
My only criticism is in the format of the book, which has squeezed a long book into nearly 300 pages of very fine print. If you have not already visited the optometrists you may need to if you read this book.
This is a remarkable book. Very highly recommended.
on 19 July 2012
Anyone interested in how country life actually was in
the early 20th century to the late 60's should read this book.I didn't want the book to end,i just wanted to keep meeting more and more of these characters and listen to their stories.
The first thing you need to know is that this book is a series of transcripts of the actual accounts, in their own words, of ordinary people. Blythe conducted the interviews and wrote the sections which place the transcripts in context, but he is at pains to stay in the background and let these rural men and women speak for themselves; it is their voices we hear, not the analysis of a sociologist or the drama of a novelist.
The transcripts were collected in the 1960s. Some interviewees cast their minds back to a vanished world; others, like the two seventeen-year-old lads, are firmly of the future. There are many surprises. Labourers and farmers are balanced by magistrate, vet and teacher. Thus a total cross-section of rural life, rather than a "Lark Rise to Candleford" idyll, is portrayed.
"Akenfield" is, predominantly, a real village - Charsfield - in Suffolk; for balance Blythe takes some of his accounts from the surrounding area. I grew up in a similar village in Kent at the same period, and the picture that emerges is true and unromanticised. If you are looking for polemic, you will be disappointed; this is a documentary not an elegy.