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Book club: Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

by
30 November 2023

Malcolm Doney reads Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield

RONALD BLYTHE was an inside-outsider. He was friendly, sociable, and helpful. He joined societies, and helped to run the Aldeburgh Festival in the early days, with Benjamin Britten. He worked alongside the artists John Nash and Christine Kühlenthal, and even helped to nurse them in old age. He was a licensed Reader in the Church of England, a regular worshipper at his parish church. But he was also, in his own words, “a listener and a watcher” — part of him always at one remove.

That is what made Blythe such a good writer, and makes Akenfield such an exceptional book. Here, we have the writer eavesdropping and making observations about his neighbours. Between 1966 and 1967, he interviewed a selection of locals in the conjoined Suffolk villages of Charlesfield and Debach, where he was living at the time. To preserve anonymity, he wrapped the two up in the name Akenfield, from the old English for “oak”.

Blythe was Suffolk born and bred, though not exactly a son of the soil, even though his father was a farm labourer; but he experienced the rhythms of rural life, and saw — at first hand — the “glory and bitterness” of it.

But Akenfield defies categorisation. Blythe confesses that he was no oral historian — indeed, had no idea that such a thing existed. Nor was he a journalist: more of a poet. As Sir Peter Hall, who directed the film of the book said, “What Ronnie did was to talk to many, many people, and shaped and formed what he heard, so that it is neither documentary nor fiction. It is a kind of emotional and environmental truth.”

Blythe spoke to close to 50 people: men and women, young and old, farmers and their labourers, teachers and former pupils, a doctor and a nurse, a gravedigger, a parson. This was not a representative sample of villagers, though neither was it random. I sense that the author gave voice to those who had a story to tell or a particular observation to make. Sometimes he taped, sometimes he took notes, but always he tried to tell the truth.

One of the things that makes Akenfield such a landmark is when the conversations took place. The years 1966-67 were something of a pivot point in British history. Settled values and hierarchies were challenged; and youth culture was in its ascendancy, as the clean-cut, mod mid-’60s blossomed into the bell-bottoms and beads of the counterculture.

While rural Suffolk may not have quite caught up with flower power, its own revolution was taking place. For centuries, those who owned the land ruled lives. “The farmers owned us then — or thought they did,” said a farm worker, George Kirkland. Christopher Falconer, a gardener at “the Big House”, talked of the staff’s invisibility. “We must never be seen from the house.” He continued: “If you were seen you were . . . warned, and as you walked away Ladyship would call after you, ‘Swing your arms!’ It was terrible. You felt like somebody with a disease.”

The villagers were slowly emerging from decades of intense, wearying physical work, on terrible pay. “Our food was apples, potatoes, swede, and bread, and we drank our tea without milk or sugar,” Leonard Thompson recalled of the years between the wars. Water “had to be fetched from the foot of a hill nearly a mile away. ‘Drink all you can at school,’ we were told — there was a tap at school. You would see the boys and girls filling themselves up like camels.”

This neo-feudal life of tied cottages, physical labour, and low wages was beginning to shift. The horses were gone; the machine age had arrived. Hedgerows were beginning to be grubbed up, and intensive agriculture was the order of the day.

© Church Times/Nick SpurlingCountryman Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield

Blythe captures, in the lilt and lore of the language, a population whose history was firmly rooted in the Suffolk clay and its traditions (many of those he spoke to had never left the county). But he also hears from a rising generation who feel that there’s no future on the land, and who hanker after “another sky”.

Akenfield is no misty-eyed bucolic vision, but it is no dystopia either. The stubborn Nonconformity, the value of a skilled job well done, the almost puritanical love of hard work; the neighbourliness, the traditions, and the singing are here too.

Blythe’s own pain is evident, too, at the appallingly low expectations of children by teachers and pupils alike, and at the fact that no one seems to read. At times, he himself seems trapped himself by some of the stereotypes of the time. Women are underrepresented, and sometimes his judgement is questionable. For instance, he rather passes over the relationship between the 48-year-old odd-job man Persis Ede and 14-year-old Linda Malyon, as if they are quaint hillbillies. But this is rare.

Many of his pen-portraits are exquisite: “Bruce is thin and fair. His long, pale neck grows out of his leather jacket like an iris stylosa stem out of glossy damp, dark mould.”

Blythe once said: “I cycled around on a Raleigh. . . I would ask someone to talk to me about keeping pigs — and, suddenly, he would tell me something astonishing about his life. . . Often, I hardly asked any questions at all. I just listened.” This is the power of the stories in Akenfield, all it requires of us is to listen.


The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest, who lives in Suffolk.

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe is published by Penguin Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-14-118792-1.


Listen to Malcolm Doney in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.

 

AKENFIELD –— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. Is Ronald Blythe’s choice of interviewees representative, and does that matter?

  2. Whose story do you find most compelling?

  3. What does reading Akenfield do to your picture of rural life?

  4. Is country living still riven by class and social background?

  5. What do you make of Blythe’s treatment of the characters in the stories of Persis Ede and Lana Webb?

  6. Roger Adlard, the factory farmer, is conscience-stricken. What should he do?

  7. How does the Church fare in Akenfield?

  8. If you had grown up in Akenfield, when you reached adulthood, would you stay or leave?

 

IN OUR next Book Club page on 5 January, we will print extra information about our next book, Charlotte by David Foenkinos. It is published by Canongate at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78211-796-4.

 

THE BOOK

David Foenkinos’s French novel Charlotte, translated into English by Sam Taylor, retells the tragic story of a Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon, who died with her unborn baby in Auschwitz at the age of 26. Fleeing Berlin to escape Hitler’s reign of terror, the young artist found refuge in the south of France before her final transportation to the concentration camp. It was during this time that she created most of her work, a series of autobiographical paintings imbued with a sense of urgency and foreboding. The book is written in verse form. Each sentence is separated by a single line of spacing. Its lyrical style, while not sentimental in tone, adds poignancy and pace to the short story.

 

THE AUTHOR

David Foenkinos is an award-winning French novelist and screenwriter. Born in Paris in 1974, he studied literature at the Sorbonne University and jazz at the Centre d’Informations Musicales, both in Paris. He is the author of 18 novels, all of which have been translated into more than 40 languages. His verse novel Charlotte won both the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2014. Foenkinos has spoken of his resistance to becoming a “vampire of reality”, seeking absolute veracity, and, instead, trusts in the “strange, almost mystical” human bond that can evolve between the reader and a character.

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

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MARCH: Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

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