Return to Akenfield, by Craig Taylor

Eavesdropping on the blacksmith
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The Independent Culture

It's exactly 40 years since Ronald Blythe started work on Akenfield. Cycling round the Suffolk countryside on an old Raleigh bike, and equipped with a tape recorder, Blythe listened receptively as members of three generations of a rural community, from the 1880s down to the 1960s, told him their stories. The resulting book, published in 1969, gives readers the impression that they are eavesdropping on an extended natural conversation. Weaving together the memories of blacksmiths, farm workers, gravediggers and other country folk, and interspersing them with his descriptions and elements of his own autobiography, Blythe had produced an instant classic that evoked a way of life that was already fast disappearing.

"Akenfield", named after the oaks which stood in the field opposite the house in which Blythe was born - acen is Old English for "oak" - was in fact two neighbouring Suffolk villages, based mainly on Charsfield, but with the surrounding countryside drawn into it for the book's purposes. But part of the secret of the book's appeal and lasting value is that Akenfield could be any one of the hundreds of villages in East Anglia, with their churches, Baptist chapels, and, of course, local pubs. There was, as its chronicler admitted, nothing "spectacular" about the place; indeed, "Centuries of traffic must have passed within yards of Akenfield without noticing it."

This portrait of Suffolk village life at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century contains evidence that for some, such as the farm worker who recalled the horrors of Gallipoli, the First World War remained a livid memory. In its celebration of the cycle of rural existence, seed time and harvest, it touches on age-old traditions immortalised by Hardy in novels like Far From the Madding Crowd. At a most instinctive level, the farming inhabitants of Akenfield describe their relationship to the old clay of Suffolk's soil, revealing, as Craig Taylor says, stores of knowledge that modern technological progress was beginning to erase.

Blythe saw his work as less that of an oral historian, a discipline still in its infancy, than of a poet, and this is reflected in Akenfield's delight in reproducing the distinctive dialect and speech rhythms of old Suffolk (and in its turn harks back to the interest of the 19th-century poet Edward FitzGerald, buried close by in Boulge churchyard, who was fascinated by the dialect of Suffolk sailors). For Craig Taylor, returning to the area in 2004 to discover how much had changed in the generation since Blythe's book was published, the disappearance of the Suffolk accent, and its replacement with something more "Estuarine", was merely one of the more identifiable breaks with the recent past. As two local horticulture students, interviewed by Taylor, observe, the accent is now so unusual that it's laughed at. "There's a guy at the Suffolk Show... You could pay him and he'd do a Suffolk yarn for you... He had such a rich accent that half the time you couldn't understand what he was saying."

Taylor's Return to Akenfield lacks the poetry of the original, but then the absence of the richness of community and tradition that threaded through the earlier work is an essential part of Taylor's theme. The population of Akenfield may have increased slightly (from 298 living in the area in 1961 to 358 listed in the 2001 census), and, as Taylor arrived in the village, it was being wired for broadband Internet access, but in other ways life in Akenfield appears diminished in the gap of four decades. The old occupations - wheelwright, saddler, blacksmith - have vanished to be replaced by commuters, entrepreneurs, weekend visitors, and retired people from other parts of the county. There's no shop or post office any longer, and no traditional village pub. There's a lack of community feeling: no more social evenings, only a village flower show, and local people seem reserved and unwilling to stop and chat, something not helped by the thundering of heavy lorries along the dangerous stretch of the B1078 that winds through. Even the vicar, a recently appointed woman priest, is responsible for six villages and five churches.

Taylor's book, like Blythe's, is constructed from interviews, which have been carefully edited and positioned with a good eye for pace and variety. Some, especially with older residents, are nostalgic and regretful about the pace of change. A former orchard foreman in his late eighties, who once supervised the growing of 30 types of apple, has lived to see apple trees uprooted and large orchards replaced by arable land. More recent incomers bemoan the lack of a central meeting point.

The influx of rich people, buying up the best property, has introduced, as one dairy farmer testifies, blandness, "a sort of sameyness about everything". Yet, along with the blandness, Taylor also allows us to see and understand the introduction of new processes to the countryside. A farm worker, riding a tractor, drilling wheat into the field, describes the effects of computerisation on the modern combine, which analyses the crop as its combining, and spreads rates of fertiliser according to the parts of the field that need more and aren't producing enough. Another farmer speaks up for the subsidies he's awarded. It may be ridiculous that farmers are paid money just for having fields, he says, but with milk sold at around the cost of its production, subsidies are the only way that many farmers are going to remain in business.

However, Akenfield never pretended that rural life was an idyll, and nor does its successor. In a postscript to the new book, Blythe himself, now 83 and living an hour away from the village he made famous, in a cottage that once belonged to the painter John Nash, reminds us of the hard lives that so many villagers once led: the sheer poverty, physical toil and oppressive atmosphere, where everyone seemed to know everyone else's business. "No, there's not a lot to envy about the old days," says Blythe. "But something has been lost."