Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village – Ronald Blythe (1969)

“…making a strange journey in a familiar land…”

From the introduction, Akenfield (1969).

What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.

I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.

I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.

“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”

Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).

Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers, ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged in general).

In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).

This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the 1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be replaced by an unknown future.

Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in England. Highly recommended.

There’s also a 1974 film (loosely based on the book with Blythe himself playing a cameo role and in process of being digitized by the British Film Institute) and there’s an interesting article from the UK’s The Observer newspaper about a new study that will explore rural communities and the surrounding changing countryside (similar to Blythe)…

And here’s one about Akenfield 50 years on… (from the Daily Mail) and a Canadian author, Craig Taylor, has written an updated version of the book, Return to Akenfield (published in 2003).

Btw, the characters are real, but Blythe fictionalized the place using conversations with people from the hamlet of Debech (where Blythe actually lived) and Charsfield just 10 miles outside Ipswich.

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