This essay is the introduction to Akenfield by Ronald Blythe. The new edition is out now from NYRB Classics.
First published in 1969, Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield is an enormously vivid and affecting portrait of life in one village in the southeast of England, as told through the voices of the farmers, workers, and villagers themselves. Blythe, a novelist who had edited editions of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy for the Penguin Classics series, chose “Akenfield” as a pseudonym for a village in the East Anglian county of Suffolk, where he had grown up. He spent the winter of 1966–67 in what he called “a kind of natural conversation with all three generations” of his neighbors, capturing their thoughts on “farming, education, welfare, class, religion and indeed life and death.” The best-selling book that resulted captured the changing nature of English rural life, and it has remained in print in England ever since as a Penguin Modern Classic.
Akenfield was also greeted enthusiastically in America, receiving rave reviews from John Updike, Paul Fussell, John Leonard, and Jan Morris (then still writing as James). Tellingly, many of the reviews hailed Akenfield as “a classic of its kind,” judiciously dodging the question of just what kind of book it might be. The original Penguin edition classified it as “Sociology/Anthropology,” which was fitting given its blend of popular ethnography and sociological survey.
But Blythe saw it less as a work of social science or oral history than as a travel book. He described writing it as “making a strange journey to a familiar land,” and like George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier or Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Blythe’s grand achievement in Akenfield is fundamentally that of the writer as eyewitness reporter, as traveler with a fresh eye and a great ear for language. These are books that ignore the question of what experience means and instead burrow deeply, richly into describing experience itself. Their writers are obsessed with the particulars of a place and the lives lived through it, with a time and the lives lived across it. They ask the deepest and most vital question, and answer it as well as any work of art can: What does it feel like to be anyone other than ourselves?
The place and the people Blythe chose to document in Akenfield couldn’t have been less promising subjects for such a work. “There is one thing about Suffolk folk,” a sixth-generation East Anglian named Christopher Falconer says in Akenfield, “and that is that they find talk terribly difficult.”
Blythe himself acknowledged the challenge of what he called “that famous Suffolk taciturnity,” and he wrote movingly about how easy a village such as Akenfield was to miss:
The village lies folded away in one of the shallow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain. It is not a particularly striking place and says little at first meeting. It occupies a little isthmus of London (Eocene) clay jutting from Suffolk’s famous shelly sands, the Coralline and Red crags, and is approached by a spidery lane running off from the “bit of straight,” as they call it, meaning a handsome stretch of Roman road, apparently going nowhere. This road suggests one of those expensive planning errors which, although cancelled in the books, will mark the earth for ever. It is the kind of road which hurries one past a situation. Centuries of traffic must have passed within yards of Akenfield without noticing it.
As he explained years later, Blythe had been commissioned to write the book jointly by Penguin Books in the United Kingdom and Pantheon Books in the United States, as part of a series on how village life was changing around the world. “When they came to me and said I should do Britain, I told them I was not a sociologist remotely, nor had I heard of the term oral history at the time.” He had no idea how to get started on the task.
At some point they said, “Have you started this book yet?” So I went for a walk around Akenfield. It was an awful February day. The ditches were full of churning water coming through the field drains. These were partly the medieval ditches of the village, and when I looked down I could see what people had seen for centuries. I went to speak to the village nurse, a very old lady. Although I knew her very well, I soon realized I didn’t know her at all. When she started speaking about her own life, another person emerged. When I got home, I was astonished, shaken really, by knowing what I now knew about her. When I wrote it down, that other person emerged: she worked in what was really an army hut, she’d got a club foot (which I never put in the book because I thought it would upset her), she delivered all the children and laid out all the dead and patched people up with basically vaseline and strips of sheets. From there, I just shaped the book. … Often I hardly asked any questions at all, I just listened.
Blythe spent the next two years cycling around the village on a Raleigh bicycle and talking with its people. “My only real credentials,” he wrote later, “was that I was native to its situation in nearly every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking.” Blythe is an extraordinary listener—patient enough to identify and buttonhole the most interesting sources, garrulous enough to get them to reveal truths beyond the cheerful banalities every reporter hears. As one man in the book says of East Anglians generally: “You’d hardly call them colorful yet they certainly aren’t grey.” In teasing out the most subtle differences in their experiences and views, Blythe revealed a teeming world in the smallest and barest of places. The experience of reading Akenfield feels like standing before a rich but outwardly inaccessible painting and finding its deepest beauties slowly emerge, both as individual details and as a unified whole. Blythe’s first wish had been to be a painter, after all, and it’s no accident that Akenfield is subtitled Portrait of an English Village.
The book is divided into 20 sections, such as “God,” “The Forge,” “The Craftsmen,” and “The Law,” which introduce some 50 people. We meet women and men, the old and the young, all of them identified simply by age and vocation: There are farm owners and farmworkers, a plowman, a shepherd, orchardmen, teachers and students, a deacon, a group of bell ringers, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a thatcher, a saddler, a military man, a doctor, a nurse, a vet, a poet, a gravedigger. The book opens with the 71-year-old farmworker Leonard Thompson, in a section called “The Survivors,” who tells the story of having first left the village for the war in 1914. What the English experienced in the trenches of the western front or, as in Thompson’s case, of Gallipoli, was famously a shock, but even amid the vast and horrifying literature of World War I, there may be few passages more viscerally affecting than Thompson’s:
We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging— even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying, “Good morning,” in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath.
There are dozens of passages like this one in Akenfield, moments when a reader is forced to pay closer attention, to notice as much as the people of Akenfield do. As when the thatcher recounts his satisfaction in the look of a finished roof, in which “the reeds shine silver and grey, and the deep eaves are cut razor-sharp.” Or when the forge worker declares, “I look at everything. I don’t open a church door without looking at the hinges.” Or when the gravedigger insists, “I can always tell if a person is dead by looking at the eyes. I never make a mistake about dead eyes. I see at once when the seeing has gone.”
The great subject of Akenfield, and the reason it remains such a vital book to read now, even in America, thousands of miles from its milieu, is the ways people grapple with changes in the patterns of life in their own time—whether through social flux, cultural variation, demographic shifts, technological progress, environmental degradation, or some combination. Blythe recognized that under the placid surface of a place as seemingly unchanging as Akenfield lay a clash of virtual tectonic plates, as a class-riven, tradition-bound, nearly feudal community began to erupt and fissure.
The people of Akenfield express deep reverence for the past and its traditions, and at the same time an overwhelming urge to leave it all behind—and this tension gives Akenfield its distinctive drama.
The villagers describe with palpable regret bits of knowledge that were fast being lost—how to shape a corn-dolly, how to thatch a roof. Their reverential views of the past and its continuity and stability are often moving: “I have a lot of my grandfather’s features,” says the blacksmith. “I have his hands. Hands last a long time, you know. A village sees the same hands century after century. It is a marvellous thing but it’s true.” Their heartfelt faith in an older order and a slower way of doing things, which even in 1966 was disappearing, can sometimes turn comic: “Life now is much less elaborate and, consequently, much less interesting,” says a gardener. “[The newcomers] buy expensive ugly things. Their gardens look like shopping.” And it’s arresting when one of the bell ringers recalls the lost tradition of tolling bells for the death of a fellow villager:
It was three times three for a man and three times two for a woman. People would look up and say, “Hullo, a death?” Then the years of the dead person’s age would be tolled and if the bell went on speaking, “seventy-one, seventy-two … ” people would say, “Well, they had a good innings!” But when the bell stopped at eighteen or twenty a hush would come over the fields.
Yet Akenfield does not bow to sentimental ideas of the countryside as idyll, and even the villagers we might expect to romanticize their work, or to sink into simple nostalgia for the past, take a more complex view of it. They speak candidly of the brutality of country life and of hopes to escape the village. “I don’t want to see the old days back,” says one farmworker. “Every bad thing gets to sound pleasant enough when time has passed. But it wasn’t pleasant then, and that’s a fact.” The owner of the harness shop, in recounting for Blythe the traditional way he makes harnesses from horsehide and cowhide—“We worked the fat in with a bone, just as a soldier bones his boots”—looks back with pride on the quality of his work, but he recognizes the irony. “Our harness lasted for ever, as you might say. It was our downfall, wasn’t it! We made these things so well that after a while they did us out of a living.”
The people of Akenfield are well aware of their own anachronism, their struggle with time’s passage and the social changes they see all around them. Their refusal to simply accept the prerogatives of the future, to both resist it and want it on their own terms, gives Akenfield a novelistic potency as mournful and wary of the coming of modernity as Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White or John Williams’s Stoner. Who doesn’t cheer for the plowman when, describing his solitary vocation, plowing furrow after lonely furrow, he insists that, “It is surprisingly interesting. The gulls are with me.”
The book also speaks to a very contemporary yearning in America, as we struggle to retain some connection to the land and pastoral traditions and values as they inevitably get, in the immortal words of Laurie Lee, another great English writer, “bulldozed for speed.” Even the views of gentrification expressed in Akenfield can sound utterly of the moment: “The blacksmith’s shop in most villages is now either a garage, a smart cottage called The Olde Forge or a forlorn lean-to still redolent of horse musk and iron, its roof gradually slithering down to the couch-grass mat which covers the yard.”
Akenfield does not seek to draw a single lesson of meaning from the lives it captures so resonantly. The book’s lasting power lies in the way it takes those lives, which might otherwise be missed or seem too circumscribed to draw in great detail, and renders them fully, richly, memorably. As Blythe later remarked: “I think my view of human life is how brief and curious most people’s lives are. Yet when you come to talk to them you realize how strong they are and how unbelievably rich their lives are; also how subtle and various.” Or as Updike once put it, “Perhaps, as Proust suggested, the transformation of experience by memory into something ineffably precious is the one transcendent meaning each life does wrest from death.”
In 2004, the writer Craig Taylor was commissioned by Granta magazine to return to the village in Suffolk on which Akenfield was based to see how things had changed in the generation since the book appeared. In Return to Akenfield, the acclaimed piece and book that resulted, Taylor described his method: “I sought out locals who had appeared in the original book to see how their lives had changed, and met newcomers to discuss their own views. The thatcher and saddler have disappeared; in their place is the gas station attendant and the commuter,” he wrote. Among the many contemporary residents of Akenfield, Taylor also included an interview with Blythe himself, in which he spoke about what he had seen in Akenfield:
I think what I understood was the emotional aspect of the countryside and the people in it. Just underneath the sometimes hard exteriors are many things: erotic, emotional sides. Because writers can see it, can’t they? They can view it in a sense and take the whole person in. When this last generation is gone there will be a break from people who have had any experience with this life at all. It will be missed. Some of it will be missed: the part that cannot be put into words.
Ronald Blythe lives today some 20 miles from the village he called Akenfield, in a house that once belonged to John Nash, the painter to whom Akenfield is dedicated. In the nearly half-century since the publication of Akenfield, he has written books about aging, botany, and the poet John Clare, and he contributes a popular column in Church Times that has been hailed by the Guardian as “one of the most elegant and thoughtful columns in British journalism.” In an interview with the writer Robert Macfarlane in 2013, Blythe, then 90 years old, confessed that, as ever, he still lives “half in the present and half in the past.”
Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe. NYRB Classics.