Ronald Blythe: Akenfield
Akenfield, subtitled Portrait of an English Village, is a book I've wanted to read for thirty years or more, and have finally done so. I first heard of it in the old Common Reader catalog, a treasure killed or at least assisted toward death, I assume, by the Internet. The catalog was published by and for book lovers, and was itself an excellent read. (I first heard of Alice Thomas Ellis there as well.) I fear too many of its readers were like me, reading the catalog avidly but not ordering from it very often. In my defense, I had much less free cash in those days.
Ronald Blythe was the subject of one of the first entries in the 52 Authors series here: Week 9. Akenfield is a famous book, but I'm not sure it's Blythe's most famous. That might be Word from Wormingford, one of several collections of weekly columns he wrote for the Church of England's Church Times. (I'm just guessing about that, on the basis of which books I've seen discussed.)
I don't recall ever having heard the term "oral history" before some time in the 1970s, but the thing certainly existed, and Akenfield, which was published in 1969, is a prime example. It is in a sense slightly misleading to call Blythe its author, because most of it is the transcribed voices of the people who live in Akenfield, a pseudonym for the village in which Blythe lived.
All the facts about the economy, the population, and social life of Akenfield are drawn from a village in East Suffolk; only the names of the village and the villagers have been changed.
Blythe, then, was not a journalist who dropped in to inspect colorful rural life and went back to the city or the suburbs to write about it. He was writing about a place and people he knew intimately (though that is perhaps not the right term for his relationship with some of the very reticent people). He was in his forties in 1967 when he decided that the changing culture of the village was worth documenting--what it was changing from, what it was changing to. The former, as has been the case for more than a century now, was fast passing out of living memory, with whole trades, such as thatcher, and the knowledge and skills involved in them ceasing to exist. So he talked to, or rather listened to, dozens of people, from the elderly to teenagers, to assemble this absolutely fascinating picture of a place and a culture. His introductory commentaries on the interviews are a pleasure in themselves, rich in both perception and quality of writing.
I wonder how many of us mentally prefix the word "quaint," or at least some unarticulated sense of that idea, to the phrase "English village." I've begun to have a grudge against the word. I hear people apply it to any place or structure that doesn't look like it was newly erected in and for suburban sprawl. By now the word is not all that far removed from "cute." It's usually, among other things, patronizing, with suggestions that the thing so described is somehow removed from "the real world."
I can imagine someone approaching this book and thinking, if not in so many words, that he is about to view a picture of something quaint. Picturesque. Charming. And so forth. Well, it may in some ways merit those terms, but not in any sense akin to that of another that sometimes goes along with them: idyllic. There was nothing idyllic about the agricultural life which was still, in 1967, the foundation of Akenfield and which not so long before had been more or less the entirety of it. It was a hard life in its nature, and was often made much harder by injustice, by landowners who held more or less life and death power over farm workers, literally working men to death at times in a condition of near-slavery. The first section of the book is called "Survivors." Here is the first voice, a seventy-one-year-old farm worker describing the situation ca. 1910:
It must seem that there was war between farmers and men in those days. I think there was, particularly in Suffolk. These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour.
Neither Blythe's villagers, nor Blythe himself when he introduces their commentaries, shies away from these dark things. The very long hours of very hard labor were rewarded with bare-subsistence poverty. There was vast ignorance, there was stifling insularity. And there was often a great and quite understandable eagerness to escape the village which seemed defined by those things.
I'm over-emphasizing the negatives here, in an effort to knock away any expectation that the book is anything less than clear-eyed and hard-headed about rural English life between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, that it is in the least sentimental. But that is far from the whole story. For all the hardship described, there is in fact a great deal of charm in the picture, the deep charm of stable and deeply-rooted human ways. And what comes through in one interview after another is that most of these people are or were in touch with reality, especially the reality of the human connection to the earth, in a way that few of us are now, especially younger people. And it gives them an elemental wisdom hard to find and maintain in the whirlwind of distraction that is contemporary culture.
Akenfield is not explicitly philosophical at all. There is hardly a trace of abstraction in it, but nevertheless it forces one to think about what it means to be human, and whether our luxurious culture makes us less so. How is it that the life depicted here seems to have a depth that can't be found, or at least is hard to find, in a world of advertising and sensational entertainments, that in fact seems to be mocked by them?
Flight from the real is now the single most striking feature, the most ardently pursued goal, of life in our culture, at least for certain prominent and often dominant elements of it. There seems to be a fair number of smart people--"smart" in the sense that they would score well on an intelligence test--who believe that it's possible and desirable to escape entirely from the physical by some technological means. I don't think it's at all unfair to call this insane, even if we set aside the fact that what goes on inside a computer is as physical as what goes on at a construction site. The invisibility of the electronic allows these same smart people to believe that it's something different, something disembodied, more like the mental.
Suppose it were. Suppose it were possible and desirable to live a purely mental existence. Suppose even that it could be supported by technology. We have no technology which is not directly dependent on machinery, whether mechanical or electronic, which in turn had to begin with the stuff of the earth and with physical labor, and which could not continue functioning for very long without physical maintenance. There is no path, even in theory, by which we can sever this dependence. I doubt that anyone interviewed for this book would entertain that sort of delusion for a moment. Maybe "sanity" is the most important idea here, the most essential of the things of which it reminds us.
This very nice 2015 edition, published by New York Review Books, includes an insightful introduction by Matt Weiland which mentions a 2004 sort-of-sequel, Return to Akenfield, by Craig Taylor, in which he visits the village and interviews as many of the people from Blythe's book as he could find. It's probably interesting, at least, and maybe very good in its own right. But somehow I don't really want to read it.
You've captured the book very well here, Mac.
Blythe turned 100 this past Nov. 6 and The Guardian had this lovely commemoration of him, in conjunction with the publication of large collection of his "Wormingford" pieces in one volume.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/12/2022 at 05:52 PM
That's a great piece (and glad you liked mine). I find that if you look past the current political and culture-war stuff The Guardian is excellent. This is a perfect one-sentence summation:
‘This may be a way of life that’s passing, and it’s not perfect, but you’re going to be much worse off if you’re not ready to learn from it, so let me help you learn from it.’
I've actually considered giving The Guardian a donation, but then I see stories like this one and think "nah".
Posted by: Mac | 12/12/2022 at 07:35 PM
You make it very appealing! I hope it won't be 30 years till I read it. If you've read Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, how do the two books compare?
I gave the Guardian a few bucks a while ago because they give non-subscribers access to their crosswords.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 12/12/2022 at 08:19 PM
I haven't read Lark Rise. I did watch an episode or two...or was it more?...I can't remember...of the TV series and wasn't keen on it. There was kind of a sweet sentimental air about it, but maybe the book is different. On the basis of the series I would say the two don't have much in common. If nothing else, Akenfield is not a story--there's no narrative.
Posted by: Mac | 12/12/2022 at 10:31 PM
I'd say that Thompson and Blythe both documented the same thing but in different ways. I've not watched the "Lark Rise" TV series but from various comments I've read it seems that it's much more romanticized than the books, which are basically fictionalized autobiography and are not particularly "sentimental." Some people who watched the show then read the books didn't like the latter for precisely that reason. (I remember one comment I read that said the books were disappointing because they had too much description and not enough storytelling.)
Richard Mabey, the writer friend of Blythe's quoted in the Guardian piece, has written a book on Thompson and Lark Rise, Dreams of the Good Life.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/13/2022 at 06:36 AM
Huh, I don't remember Lark Rise having a story. I remember it as pretty much all description. Maybe it's been longer since I read it than I like to admit.
I lived for a year in an English village that my aunt, visiting from the US, called "quaint." I don't think she meant it patronisingly, but my friends were nevertheless somewhat offended. Now it's become definitely "cute," as almost all the houses have been bought by rich London weekenders.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 12/14/2022 at 01:20 PM
That last bit is why I felt like I'd rather not read the 2004 update.
I doubt "quaint" is usually meant patronizingly, but it just sort of is. A little bit like calling old people "sweetie" and stuff, which happens to me pretty often. Happened today as a matter of fact. I just tell myself it's meant kindly. Very interesting that you say "quaint" is definitely "cute" now. I wondered when I wrote that if it was just my curmudgeonly reaction.
Posted by: Mac | 12/14/2022 at 05:42 PM
Yes, the narrative in LRTC is fairly minimal, but apparently in the TV series they brought that element to the fore, which then caused some confusion for folks who went to the books after they had watched the show.
I have a copy of 'Return to Akenfield' but haven't read it yet, mainly for the same reasons you mention. But Taylor did have Blythe's cooperation and he wrote the prologue, so I'm thinking it can't be too bad....
It seems that "quaint" has become much more common/overused now that so many everyday things we experience are decidedly non-quaint. I guess it's become the catch-all word for cute/old-fashioned. I've even heard it in commercials. It does make me cringe when used that way.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/15/2022 at 07:46 AM
I used this to refresh my memory about Lark Rise, and as you can see it's very definitely focused on narrative. A bit soap-ish, to tell the truth. I only watched the first season.
Re Return to Akenfield, it's not that I think it would be badly done, just that the changes it documents would probably be on the sad side. As in what Anne-Marie said about the rich Londoners buying up houses. That kind of thing is already getting under way in the original.
Posted by: Mac | 12/15/2022 at 08:56 AM
"the changes it documents would probably be on the sad side" -- right, I see your point.
Yes, the Lark Rise books aren't soap-ish at all. They're fairly straightforward memoirs with a lot of description, even if done in fictional form. There is a decent amount of humor however, which gives them a slightly Austen-like feel, and which is one of the things I enjoyed about them.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/16/2022 at 06:02 AM
I'm thinking now that I would enjoy the Lark Rise books. The TV series had put me off them a bit. Not that the series is bad, just not that good.
Posted by: Mac | 12/16/2022 at 04:47 PM
Yeah, I've been meaning to do a re-read myself. Maybe over my Christmas break. I'm trying to remember the first time I read it and I think it must've been in the mid 90's.
Odd thing is, I can't remember who recommended it to me. The old friend that I thought had done it recently told me he's never read it. And I don't know who else it could have been.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/17/2022 at 08:08 AM
Because of this post, my husband gave me Akenfield as a Christmas present, but it only arrived in the mail yesterday. In what seems like a fitting coincidence, today I participated for the first time in a friend's butchering of one of his pigs.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 01/14/2023 at 10:13 PM
It is fitting, but I hope you find the book more enjoyable.
Posted by: Mac | 01/15/2023 at 01:59 PM
Just got an email from a friend: Blythe died on Saturday. RIP.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/16/2023 at 02:35 PM
Can't be too sad about that. If anybody ever lived a long and productive life....
Posted by: Mac | 01/16/2023 at 03:05 PM
Posted by: Rob G | 01/16/2023 at 05:46 PM
I see from the obituary that there is also a film version of Akenfield that sounds different but also interesting. I would love to hear people's actual voices.
The butchering was actually very enjoyable in some ways. It's always enjoyable to learn about how a task is done well. The sheer amount of labour required was impressive, and it was very satisfying to contribute to that. Plus, of course, a lot of socializing went along with the work.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 01/16/2023 at 08:14 PM
I was present, though only marginally participating, at the butchering of a pig once. The main thing I remember (it was over 50 years ago) is "Now I now why people say 'screaming like a stuck pig'."
A quick search did not turn up the Akenfield movie, but there seems to be a long series of clips from an interview with Blythe. This one is about the film:
Posted by: Mac | 01/16/2023 at 08:29 PM
The pig on Saturday did not squeal at all. My friend says that the shot stuns it, so it doesn't feel being stuck, and it bleeds to death before it regains consciousness.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 01/18/2023 at 05:18 PM
Just finished reading the Guardian's obit on Blythe. The thing that jumped out was his "thing" with Patricia Highsmith because we had discussed that here when he was part of the "52 Authors" series. We sort of assumed it must have been when he was pretty young, but the Guardian says it was in the 1960s, when he would have been somewhere in his 40s. Just so strange. I can't imagine two people with more different takes on life.
Posted by: Marianne | 01/18/2023 at 09:16 PM
I've wondered about Blythe as to when he "made the switch" from Bohemian to believer, and to how gradual the transition was. I didn't know for certain that he was homosexual, but presumed he might be, although that didn't show itself in his writing (it was evident more by association). If he remained actively homosexual after becoming a churchman he seems to have been very quiet about it, and thankfully not one of those given to proclaiming "the love that won't shut up about itself."
Posted by: Rob G | 01/19/2023 at 05:15 AM
I figured it was fairly likely that he was homosexual, or mainly so.
Here's the discussion Marianne is referring to--scroll down to 3/3 in the comments. I had of course totally forgotten about that. It is decidedly weird.
"The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won't shut up"--I think that's one of the wittiest things anyone has said in recent years. I don't know who said it though a bit of digging might turn it up.
Posted by: Mac | 01/19/2023 at 12:15 PM
Anne-Marie, do you mean an injection or a gunshot?
Once upon a time, as a member of the Junior Cattlemen's Association, I toured a slaughterhouse. It always surprises me a bit that I didn't stop eating meat. Especially hot dogs. And it's always bothered me to think what working there must have done to the men who did it.
Posted by: Mac | 01/19/2023 at 12:18 PM
I think that quote's attributed to Neuhaus, Mac.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/19/2023 at 01:16 PM
I was able to read some of a 2009 biography on Highsmith (The Talented Miss Highsmith) at Google Books, and found some stuff that makes Blythe’s friendship with her, though odd, seem somewhat less weird.
The following is based on conversations/correspondence the author of the biography had with Blythe:
But there are sharp drops into strangeness in their friendship. Cycling home from a visit to Pat, Ronald -- then a warden of his village church, now a canon of the cathedral -- was once "overcome by a kind of terrible darkness, I felt quite ill, as though I'd been in the presence of something awful.... And then the next time we saw each other she said that, well some things about her, I wasn't to worry about them. She knew [what I'd been feeling].... It never happened again[,] but I had just felt awful in her presence."
And on "one of two occasions," Pat breached the boundaries of their friendship with "a faint, physical exploration.... Her attitude was a kind of trespass on my body, rather like a man examining me.... I couldn't understand it really, [but] it was of no importance whatsoever."* They were never, says Dr. Blythe, lovers in any conventional sense; this was something else. Something, quite possibly, to do with Pat's rather clinical interest in the male anatomy and in what she once identified as "the thrill of domination."
Ordinarily, though, Pat is "very close and affectionate and warm and touching. [Our] relationship was almost entirely about writing....We didn't have anyone near we could talk to about writing [and so] we talked by the hour about our work."
*Ronald Blythe was "surprised" to see himself featured in a BBC documentary about Patricia Highsmith as one of her "lovers." The idea, he says, is "ridiculous".
Posted by: Marianne | 01/19/2023 at 04:12 PM
Mac, it was a gunshot, fired at very close range from a .22-calibre handgun. (I'm not sure what point-blank range means, but the muzzle was almost touching the pig's forehead.) The shooter manoeuvred very patiently till he had the shot he wanted. Apparently the angle the gun makes with the skull is critical.
Years ago, in Nova Scotia, we went on a homeschoolers' tour of a slaughterhouse/sausage factory. My 6yo said afterwards, "It's sad for the pig, but it's delicious for us." Oddly enough, a visiting scholar who wrote a lot about the Christian case for vegetarianism came to dinner the following day. According to him, regulations in Canada made slaughtering much more humane than in the US, chiefly because the animals had to be stunned before being killed.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 01/19/2023 at 09:28 PM
I heard somewhere--maybe here, or maybe from my father reporting on a TLS article--that Highsmith was truly depraved, deliberately entering on adulterous liaisons with both men and women for the fun of breaking of marriages. I wonder if that evil is what Blythe was sensing.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 01/19/2023 at 09:35 PM
I don't know what to make of the Highsmith stuff at all. I've never read anything by her and barely recognized her name when we discussed this earlier. For what it's worth, here's what Wikipedia says about her personal life and sexuality:
Posted by: Mac | 01/19/2023 at 11:15 PM
Remarkable reaction by your 6-year-old, Anne-Marie.
"a gunshot, fired at very close range from a .22-calibre handgun" Reportedly that's how the mafia like to do it. Less mess. :-/
Posted by: Mac | 01/19/2023 at 11:17 PM
I knew Highsmith's name only because she wrote the book that the film The Talented Mr. Ripley is based on. She appears to have been quite attractive in her younger years but did not age well. No surprise, given her lifestyle.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/20/2023 at 05:46 AM