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Village Voices

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village

by Ronald Blythe
Pantheon, 287 pp., $6.95

Working Class Community

by Brian Jackson
Praeger, 190 pp., $4.50

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 an Englishman has always felt it his right and duty to live.” He cannot mean that the upper ranks like to live in villages, and consider this way of life traditional and typically English. There are obvious reasons: a farmer has the hard pleasure of natural manual work without its usual concomitant, poverty (wealthy British farmers and farm managers devote three-quarters of their time to manual work). There is a satisfying sense of both antiquity and development: the passing years seem as meaningful as the changing seasons. There is the land—to which land-owners refer, with elegiac possessiveness, as “all this.” If they have to go to a town, they say: “I can’t bear to leave all this!”—flapping a hand vaguely at the landscape.

But what they like best, perhaps, is the presence of “the locals,” the real country people who, literally, “keep in their place,” so near and yet so far. One of the Suffolk farmers, a hard-grafting man from Scotland, told Ronald Blythe this: “It is the cottage man who is the continuous factor. There are three main families in this village and they are all working-class, and they are the ones whose names cover the churchyard right to way-back. I call myself middle-class and I will go from here unremembered. So will all your Major Blanks, your commanders and your colonial Sirs. We’ll have left no record. But the village men are the descendants of the old farmers who lived here when this house was built, centuries past. They have come down while others were going up. They are tied in here by history but they don’t know it.”

These families are, of course, steadily leaving the land and will continue to do so until we, as a nation, devise a sane policy of co-existence for town and country. There are villages in southern England which seem to be populated by massed squires, searching for a vanished peasantry. There are large “commuters’ villages,” turning into dormitory suburbs inhabited by mobile, urban-minded wage-earners. The sociologist, Ruth Crichton, has described one such: “Ex-army officers and their wives have slipped easily into leadership. Within a very short time of ‘retiring’ to the village, the officer finds himself president of the football club or the secretary to the British Legion, while his wife is snapped up to organize the Mother’s Union or the Women’s Institute.” But “almost all the societies studied would welcome more members—church, chapel, Women’s Institute, Silver Link, British Legion, Army Cadets, Men’s Club, Choral Society and all the sporting clubs—with the exception of the Motor Cycle Club.” In this village, the successful motor-cycle club, catering for wage-earners, subsidizes the ailing village cricket club—traditionally a community activity for all ranks together, under the captaincy of the local gentry.

The charm of “Akenfield” (a pseudonym for a real village) is that it has not yet become either a suburb or a hostel for prosperous pensioners. Of the 300 villagers, 85 are full-time earners, almost all engaged in agriculture. There are traditional craftsmen, wheelwright, saddler, thatcher, and blacksmith: this man is following the craft of his ancestors, but he is working now for deliberate antiquarians who want to decorate their reconditioned cottages with relics of the past made to order—bolts, latches, handles, grates and fire-dogs, handmade nails for “the Trust House people who have bought the Suffolk coaching houses.” His wife keeps him in touch with the gentry’s tastes: she is educated, a trained artist. There is a kind of compromise going on here, between the genuine and the fake, a living tradition and an artificial reconstruction: it sums up the spirit of English rural life, the entente between the ordinary people—who belong and who, doggedly, eccentrically, refuse to move—and the newcomers who can afford to choose to live, prosperously, in the country.

The latter are, in these interviews, less interesting than the “ordinary people,” since their experiences and their views can so easily be predicted by educated readers. But the locals talk beautifully: they are original, energetic, and surprising. Ronald Blythe has edited Hazlitt and probably remembers his deep respect for the talk of the common people—whose “conversation sparkles with wild wit, invention ever new. Their faculties are not buried in books, but all alive and stirring, erect and bristling like a cat’s back.” Suffolk people, though, are among the most taciturn and unforthcoming in the country (I have worked alongside them in the army and on Suffolk fishing-boats), so Ronald Blythe must have a great deal of Hazlittian sympathy to have persuaded them to say so much, so well. The local radicals would surely confirm this. The trade union secretary told Blythe: “The young men are so secretive. Why, they’ll tell you more about their sex than about their politics. Politics make them shy.” The Labour Party organizer says: “I am one of them. They don’t need to explain to me. I understand their quietness. I am uneducated like them but I know enough to help them. They accept me. They won’t call me David—it is always Mr. Collyer—I don’t know why.” And these are genuine local men. The clergyman, all the way from Wales, finds communication much harder. Blythe has done extraordinarily well.

He has remarked elsewhere that the people in his book are “very ordinary. I want to normalize life. The poetry of the ordinary. 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 subtle and various.” We may think of another intellectual admirer of the common people, Breughel, who went to fairs and markets, dressed as a peasant, so that he could record “that body of individuals” as if from the inside. But can we now say that the people of Akenfield are “ordinary”? Blythe would like their way of life to be ordinary—and, no doubt, they think it so themselves—but most of us now think them abnormal and would not share it if we could. For a farm worker’s son to follow in his father’s steps would be considered to betray a lack of initiative; for anyone coming from a town to choose so restricted and ill-rewarded a job would seem an act of weird self-sacrifice. The life of Huddersfield described by Brian Jackson—though almost as “local”—seems to me far more characteristic of England’s ordinary people.

Ranks are harder to define than classes. Let us call the two nations the Common People and the Standard English. Suppose that the Common Man has a number of the following characteristics. Having left school at fifteen or younger, he possesses little property, and lives by handling his employers’ equipment. Half-expecting to earn less money as he grows older, he is unlikely to have to punish or dismiss a subordinate. He has a local accent, local customs: he lives quite near his blood relations and former schoolfellows. Urged by superiors to become more mobile, he may find difficulty with new local customs; but he is used to adapting himself, since the Common People is, of its nature, a body of persons very different from one another, with different experiences, different knowledge and skills.

The Standard English may have few of these characteristics. Encouraging their children to extend their formal education, they hope to build up capital and see a steady rise in the family income. They expect to mount a promotion ladder and give instructions to subordinates (this is often called “taking responsibility”). Cheerfully mobile, they like to live among members of their own rank (in residential suburbs, perhaps retiring to “Akenfield”) rather than their own kin. They recognize each other through the customs and speech of their rank, determinedly non-local. The non-local speech is very important to them, and is called Standard English. They are more uniform, more standardized than the Common People—and therefore more insistent that they are “individuals.”

Brian Jackson lists some of these characteristics, but might not approve my formulation. He would rather emphasize the community spirit of working-class groups, the solidarity resulting from their similarities: “The range of income in a working-class area is very tiny, compared with the range and forms of income amongst a middle-class group…. The middle-class man knows that many in the middle class might be ten, twenty, thirty times as rich as he is. This single economic division, whatever else it does, pulls the working class together as a group; and as a self-conscious group—whereas it splits the middle class into much more separate households, even if joined by common bonds of interest.”

But consider how much easier it is for these separate households of the middle class, the Standard English, to combine in defense of their common interests. They have more power and more knowledge about power. They can act together as, say, a motorists’ organization or as investors: suppose “Akenfield” is “menaced” by municipal building or a new airport, they can mobilize successful opposition, forming a national network, rather than a mere local community based on a shared work place or neighborhood. Consider the seven working-class community activities which Jackson discusses here: there are four clubs, which are not exclusive—the Standard English could join but would not want to. These are the Brass Band club, the Crown Green Bowls club (a local sport, not nationwide), the Jazz club, and the Working Men’s club. Then there are two sections on young people’s frustrated search for enjoyable leisure—one about a “riot” whipped up by the press, the other about schoolgirls who find the town’s amenities insufficiently classy. Finally, there is the community of a disagreeable textile mill, not properly unionized: there is a frail sense of community here, based on mild hostility to the employers. The solidarity is only that of people who are “all in the same boat”—gathered together as casually as ethnic minorities under WASP rule:

Brian Jackson sees that the Common People is in many obvious ways superior to the Standard English but, at the same time, lacks qualities which the author particularly values: a “feeling for individual development”; “a manner of speech which can handle concepts, the language of ideas.” He is Director of the Advisory Centre for Education, and is bound to think of class largely in educational terms; but he was born (in 1932) of Huddersfield working-class stock. In Working-Class Community, he has put together “some general notions” about social life in his home town—the kind of community life he might himself have shared if he had not gone on to Cambridge. He admires that way of life, but wants to alter it: he wants to seek out the mysterious “leaders” and opinion-formers among the working class; he wants their help in educating the rest. (He has written elsewhere about the new Open University, intended to further working-class education: he notes that the applicants are largely middle-class, and “of working man there is scarcely a trace.”)

He is concerned here with the positive values of working-class life, but he knows he is talking to middle-class citizens, wondering “how we might communicate effectively with working-class communities.” Communication is a two-way process; but Jackson seems more concerned with delivering communications than with receiving them. He criticizes the inefficiency of middle-class exhortations to coal miners, urging greater productivity. (But suppose they are right to think this would not be in their true interests?) He suggests: “If we knew more than we do about, say, clubs in working-class communities, it is not improbable that we might come across knowledge which might—for instance—help us to overcome prejudice, and integrate immigrants, or help delinquents, or increase that kind of information or activation in the home which gives the child a better chance of profiting from education at school.”

It happens that there is a branch of the National Front, an unashamedly racist body, in Huddersfield. One of the organizers recently reported “a tremendous boost in membership and morale” after middle-class newspapers had reported middle-class speeches on immigration by the Right Honourable Enoch Powell M.P., ex-brigadier, exprofessor, a leading figure in the middle-class Tory Party. “Before Powell spoke, we were getting only cranks and perverts. After his speeches we started to attract, in a secret sort of way, the right-wing members of the Tory organization.” Leaders of white racist movements are usually “well-educated” to the point of being schoolmasters or university teachers. The middle-class party is the more hostile to immigration. “Better educated” citizens make the speeches, organize petitions and meetings, write letters to newspapers. If the objective student wants to help “integrate immigrants,” he needs to learn from elements in the working class, not pass down instructions. He could observe friendly relations between native and immigrant bus-workers—and consider whether the middle class could integrate equally well in the fields of, say, journalism or bank employment. He might study respectfully the old-established Somali community of South Shields, or the intermarriage of working-class people (British, Chinese, and African) in Liverpool.

Must the workers encourage their children to become “late-school-leavers” and join the middle class? How do you “help delinquents?” Sometimes the best (if perilous) course is to shelter them from the police. Laws and sentences are not always just. Such a principle can’t be put forward in terms of politics or education: it is just something you do, especially if you are a member of the working class who can keep his mouth shut—“the people of England who have not spoken yet.” Discussing the working-men’s clubs of Huddersfield, Jackson claims: “If a strict middle-class property code were to be applied in the clubs, most of the members would eventually end up in court”—yet he knows they are no more “dishonest” than middle-class people: simply, their occasional “fiddling” and pilfering of employers’ property and man-hours is highly punishable.

Jackson notes that this working-class community is “ambivalent about deviants” and “ambivalent about immigrants too. And even more ambivalent about the educated…. They know that the educated use their gifts to exploit the uneducated as frequently as they do to serve them.” This is a hard pill for an educationist to swallow, and the truth of it explains Jackson’s own honorable ambivalence, as he struggles to weld together the different virtues of “the educated” and the Common People. But he made the pill himself. Few of the Common People use words like “ambivalent” or “exploit.” They generalize less than the educated do: they make their points with detailed local anecdotes.

Still, one plumber told Jackson that “we” (who?) must think first “on a local scale; everybody in Huddersfield being co-operative and community-minded. Then on a national scale. Then on an international scale. I take it that’s brotherhood.” Now hear “I,” “we,” “they,” and “the village” used by one of Blythe’s informants, the chairman of the Akenfield Women’s Institute, a middle-class individualist:

I’m dead against uniforms. I don’t even wear my W.I. badge. I’m the only person on the platform who hasn’t got one…. We have a nice lot of power. If we think that something has got to be done, the village has to listen to us…. Some of the women believe that the bad weather is caused by Russian and American rockets going to the Moon and Venus. They got very worried about that hospital affair which let the cat out of the bag about a yellow label meaning “Don’t bother to resuscitate. Patient too old.” The village was beginning to trust the hospital but now it is all uncertain again…. People loved being servants. There was so much fun in the servants’ hall. The ladies’ maids had a lovely time and they could watch how things were done and become educated. But the young women in the village say they won’t have any of it. They don’t understand. They simply can’t imagine the pride which Suffolk village girls used to have.

Here is the distinction between the Standard English and the locals—“the village”: note how she identifies herself with the hospital authorities and with the people who used to have ladies’ maids. She talks to the interviewer as an equal: she talks of her neighbors as subordinates. This is the grammar of rank.

We cannot preserve for ever the separate development of the locals and the Standard English in pretty Akenfield. Myself, I would rather live in Huddersfield (which has fine moorland countryside within easy reach). Jackson’s working-class informants mention snobbery less frequently than Blythe’s, since the snobs are not nearby. All the environments Jackson describes are agreeable, except for the work-place and the “riot” arena, and as local as any village, with a respect for tradition and seniority—in a work situation where old age is an economic disaster—and a chance of personal liberation for the young which is denied to the rural world. Both these good books will help to alleviate what Hazlitt called “the ignorance of the learned”—about “servants, country people &c.”—but Akenfield will be more popular, partly because it offers the reading public so charming a picture of the educated, living easily alongside their subordinates, partly because it is so good a written report of the spoken language of the Common People, a local situation made national and international.

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