Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village
Working Class Community
It seems a pity that, in common speech, the people of England are so vaguely categorized as “middle class” and “working class” (the expression “upper class” being almost obsolete). If the word “class” were reserved for defining groups of people according to their property and production, we could agree on a definition of the working class: all those people (white-collar or blue-collar) who produce the bulk of a nation’s wealth by selling their labor power to the lucky few who own and control the means of production. But in fact we are generally talking about rank. There is a universally recognized division in British society between the upper and the lower ranks: the upper call themselves “middle class” and, when they talk of the working class, they mean “everybody else, everybody except us.” It is hard to generalize about such a loosely defined majority, this large number of outsiders—what Hazlitt called “that body of individuals which usually goes by the name of the People!” They call themselves “ordinary working people,” when obliged to label themselves.
Both these good books are about communities: now, community of place, interests, thinking, and way of life is not enough (by Marx’s standards) to make a class, in any important sense of the word. There must be a feeling of separation from other classes, a spirit of hostility and competition, however mild—and it is generally very mild in Britain. “Separate individuals form a class only to the extent that they must carry on a common struggle against another class.” In Britain the struggle is very polite: the lower orders are too genial, too easily amused, to struggle hard unless it is absolutely necessary. The different ranks have labels for each other, euphemisms and antique nick-names, but rarely insult each other face to face. Here is a random selection. The upper may refer to the lower ranks as “common,” “trogs,” “plebs,” “proles,” “early school-leavers,” “wage-earners,” “non-U,” “the locals.” The lower may refer to the upper as “queers,” “snobs,” “stuck-up,” “good family,” “educated,” “done well for himself,” “la-di-dah,” “very British.”
It is the contrast between “the locals” and the “very British” which is most relevant to these books, both of which deal with specific English localities. Ronald Blythe has interviewed some fifty people, of both ranks, living in close proximity in a small Suffolk village (population 298): his book’s charm, for many readers, is that it presents a locality where distinctions in rank are strongly marked but do not invalidate neighborhood and acquaintanceship. Brian Jackson (with his collaborator, Dennis Marsden) describes areas of social life in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield (population, 130,000): the upper ranks are not present at any of the scenes described. They are not local: they live on a different network.
Ronald Blythe is “very British.” He asserts that “the townsman envies the villager his certainties and, in Britain, has always regarded urban life as just a temporary necessity…. Akenfield, on the face of it, is the kind of place in which…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.