Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village gained “modern classic” status very soon after its first publication in 1969, for several good reasons. First, and most obvious: the writer Ronald Blythe conducted the fifty-odd oral histories that make up his portrait of a (renamed) village in rural Suffolk with an exceptionally sharp eye for poignant situations and an equally fine ear for telling phrases. Every one of his interviews is a compact drama of identity—often riveting in itself, and always contributing to an idea of community that is at once coherent and varied.
Farm workers, a doctor, a retired military man, a teacher, a thatcher, a blacksmith, a saddler—they are all allowed to give their valuable witness, and almost all of them speak at least intermittently in ways that Wordsworth would have admired. The two-time widow who exclaims, “Nobody could have wished for two better husbands. My horsemen—both gone!”; the farmer who warms up by presenting himself as “a man without machinery, as you might say,” then remembers some mowers in the old harvest days who “mowed so quick they just fled through the corn all the day long”; the forge worker who philosophizes, “You don’t have to go far to see a long way”; the farrier who insists that he has his grandfather’s 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.”
The command of these passages depends (as Wordsworth’s poetry often depends) on plain speech being heated into new and exciting sound-shapes by the pressure of strong feeling. And a similar flood of strong feeling—which is the second main reason for the book’s success—pulses from Blythe’s own writing in the book. The linking passages that he provides, sometimes to introduce a new interviewee, might easily have been restrained to perform the same sort of part that recitative has in relation to an aria in an opera.
In fact they have their own unobtrusive poetry, and create a sense of momentum and coherence throughout the book. In the opening pages, for instance, when Blythe writes that “the East Anglian wind does far more than move the barley; it is doctrinal”; or when he glances over the surrounding landscape to remind us of Akenfield’s setting, and we see the “wind-chilled sunshine” highlight a faintly archaic but wholly sympathetic texture in his language as he describes
an oceanic climate maintained by the North Sea, which is a dozen or so miles away on the other side of a great tract of heath full of rare steppe flora, fossils and the bones of ancient men, and in which lies the royal burial ground of Sutton Hoo.
This is fine in itself, in a modestly exalted way, but a few lines later, with an air of persistence that is typical of his method as a whole, Blythe reinforces its power when he writes, raising the rhetorical stakes just a little, “The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written, as John Clare did, I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.”
“Nothing remains.” This is the third main reason why Akenfield became so quickly beloved. As Matt Weiland sensibly points out in his introduction to the present reissue, Blythe (still alive and writing, and now aged ninety-three) recognized right at the beginning of his history-gathering “that under the placid surface” of his village “lay a clash of virtual tectonic plates, as a class-riven, tradition-bound, nearly feudal community began to erupt and fissure.”
This sense of actual or immanent disruption means that the book has always been read as a kind of grief-song—a lament for diminished language (not just the now-often-diluted Suffolk accent, but the vanished terms it included—“neats” for cattle, “stook” for sheaves, and so on); for time-honored practices (the Horkey—or harvest—supper, and men shouting through the empty stubble fields on their way home afterward); for faded or vanished religious practices; for the disappearance of craftsmen (blacksmiths, saddlers, wheelwrights, and thatchers); for long-established patterns in the use of landscape (arable or dairy, orchards or not); and, most comprehensive of all, for the place of agriculture itself in the life of the community.
Because these changes seemed so threatening in 1969, and because their effects seemed likely to be irreversible, the note of elegy resonates across Akenfield’s landscape as loudly as a peal of bells (then another apparently dying sound). Indeed, it was difficult not to feel, reading the book when it first appeared, that one was attending a wake. Difficult too, therefore, not to value its various acts of witness all the more. Difficult, in fact, not to call the book a classic because the world it presented would never be seen again.
This tendency might, of course, have been a way to acknowledge that there was something sentimental in Blythe’s presentation of the place. Actually one of the greatest strengths in his book is the way it balances the sense of sorrowful leave-taking against an equally powerful feeling of relief that a frequently unfair, unkind, and unenlightened way of life was finally becoming extinct. Blythe is clear-eyed, for instance, about the generally stifling operation of the old class structures, the near brutality of many long-established relationships between employers and employees (the bosses “took all they could from the men and boys who worked the land,” says one laborer; “they bought their life’s strength for as little as they could”), the low wages and extremely tough physical conditions endured by the farm workers, and the lack of oversight and support by religion or the state.
He also understands very well that these injustices and ignorances all helped to create a grinding, grudging element in the character of the people who live there. On page after page of Akenfield we hear about their cramping small-mindedness, their almost pathological inversion and silence (“cold and hidden,” one comparative newcomer to the village calls them), and “the really lumpen ones [who] plod on the land because they simply haven’t got the gumption or enterprise to try anything else.”
All of which proves among other things that Akenfield is an elegy of an unusually complicated sort. It grieves for things lost, but at the same time it consoles us by marking the end of many bad old practices. One effect of this is to suggest that any feelings of sentimentality provoked by a reading of the book have more to do with us as secondhand readers than they do with Blythe as firsthand observer. Which is to say: we react to Blythe in the same way as when we look at John Constable’s The Hay Wain, or read Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” Many of the old rural tropes and images fire regretful feelings in us regardless of the conditions implicit in what we are seeing. Very tellingly, when Peter Hall made his film of Akenfield in 1974, he reported on an episode of horses plowing a field, saying that he had chosen the worst possible ground—deep sucking clay—the most miserable rainy day, the least glamorous location, and it still looked lovely and appealing in the camera’s eye.
This is a valuable story in its way, because it reminds us to pay close attention when we close Akenfield and ask what has happened in the forty-seven years since its first publication. Was Blythe right in his warnings and predictions of decline and dissolution? What other forces that he did not imagine have shaped the landscape and its people? Did a whole way of life really end when he said it did?
An interim report came out in 2006, when Craig Taylor (with Blythe’s participation and encouragement) published Return to Akenfield,* using a similar interview-and-comment method as his predecessor. He had inherited from Blythe a story line in which farming (at the expense of the craft activities associated with it for generations) had recently, by the late 1960s, been transformed by the means of mass production, which had already changed the look and functions of the landscape in dramatic ways.
Since then, Taylor found, the impact of EU demands and subsidies, the catastrophe of foot and mouth disease, the continued movement of country people to the cities and of city people to the country, and the arrival of migrant workers from mainland Europe had only accelerated the rate of change. The “drift from agriculture” that Blythe had observed, the abandonment “by the young countrymen” of the “ideas, beliefs and civilizing factors belonging to their grandfathers,” was now an even harder and more looming fact of rural life. The village was less centered and settled, the ancient ties even more sorely stretched, and a whole calendar of ceremonies and celebrations had disappeared.
At the same time, Taylor found compensations. For one thing, all his interviewees agreed that life was simply more comfortable than it had been a generation previously—warmer, less arduous, fairer, and in many but not all respects more tolerant. More respectful of the environment, too. One of the interviewees, Steve Coghill, who was then lecturing at a nearby agricultural college, said that instead of emphasizing “production, production,” farmers were now managing the land
in a more diverse way. We have larger headlands. We have beetle banks that encourage predators to come in and knock out the pests rather than spraying them with phosphorous compounds every ten minutes. Also new technologies like companion planting.
These things make Return to Akenfield less funereal than its predecessor. They suggest, in fact, that the countryside was weathering the storm that had so bedraggled it in the middle of the century. They also imply that despite all the forgetting and neglect of ancient customs, a sense (not necessarily sublime) of “something far more deeply interfused” had survived. (In Akenfield itself the blacksmith Gregory Gladwell had told a wonderful story to suggest that there is robust proximity in rural life of past and present—for those who have eyes to see it. Remembering that a “great pile of Roman nails” had recently been unearthed in the Welsh mountains, he asked Blythe: “Do you know what I thought when I heard of those great Roman nails?—those would have been like the nails they would have used for the Crucifixion. They would have been made with iron smelted with charcoal.”)
Having said that, at least one warning light continued to flash. Blythe had written very shrewdly in 1969 about the complicated connection between countryside neglect and countryside idealization, and seen that the idealization might in its own way be a form of destruction. And indeed, throughout Taylor’s book we see proof of this prophesy coming true. We observe that there has been a gradual sanitization of rural life, and a replacement of nature red in tooth and claw with nature carrying a tray loaded with cream teas. We notice an equally gradual takeover of rural villages by people who certainly take pleasure in country life and want to live there peacefully, but whose work patterns (at home on a computer), whose transport needs (in a car, with no need for the local bus), whose use of their houses as second homes (which leaves part of the village standing empty a good deal of the time), and whose inevitable ignorance of traditions mean that community life is challenged if not actually broken.
And in the ten years since Taylor’s Return? At least as far as damages to the old ways are concerned, “more of the same” appears to be the predictable but accurate answer. The village that I grew up in, for instance, which lies about twenty minutes’ drive southwest of the village Blythe called Akenfield, is typical of the whole region and much of the rest of England as well. It has a sprinkling of second homes (there were none in my late-1960s childhood), no pub (there used to be two), no village shop (but a tea shop instead), no post office (the shop used to double as that), and a not-working fake white-painted gate standing in the long grass beside the village name on the way in, which suggests that the place sees itself as a sealed-off and largely gentrified community, at once threatened by the outside world and superior to it.
These prettifications certainly mark the end of something, and are equally certainly the outward and visible form of deep continuing social and demographic changes. Some of these are invigorating and welcome: a modest but healthy rise in the rural population (as more people find ways of working from home with the extension of rural broadband); a rise in farm wages and an improvement in working hours; an increase in better-quality housing.
Other changes are troubling in the same way that those reported by Blythe and Taylor were troubling: small farms have continued to disappear, and the big farms that remain employ fewer workers except perhaps at harvest time; the infrastructure of rural transport grows flimsier by the year; shops and schools are increasingly concentrated in towns; the arrival of city newcomers drives up house prices and makes them unaffordable to locals; and in some areas (for example Boston, Spalding in Lincolnshire, and Wisbech in Cambridge) the limits of social toleration have been tested by the comparatively sudden arrival of large migrant communities from the expanded EU.
Does all this mean that previous warnings about the fragmentation of rural communities were justified? It might seem so, but once again the effect is more surprising and complicated than doomsayers find easy to accept. The initial hoo-hah about recent arrivals has largely calmed down, or at least been reduced to a simmer. The flight of young people to the city has slowed. There is a much greater awareness among farmers that they are custodians of the landscape, and not simply people whose proper determination to make a living entitles them to rip out hedges at will and squirt dangerous chemicals over the earth.
There is also a much greater willingness among these same farmers to diversify their work, so that it’s now commonplace to see landowners “adding value” to their operation by making their own cheese or cider or potato chips or ice cream and selling it directly to the public. At the same time, their commitment to environmental care has deepened—so a walk through the fields no longer means tasting agrichemicals with every breath, and does mean seeing more margins where wildflowers, butterflies, bees, owls, and other previously embattled species can flourish. In the last few years, the red kite has made a spectacular return to the Chiltern region of Oxfordshire. This year, 150 bittern have been counted in restored areas of habitat in East Anglia and the west; they were extinct in the UK in 1900.
Given all this, it’s no surprise to find that a Commission for Rural Communities “State of the Countryside” report, issued in 2010, found that 84 percent of those living in rural areas felt strongly that they belonged to their neighborhood, compared to 75 percent in urban areas—and only 12 percent of them felt that antisocial behavior was a problem, compared to 25 percent in urban areas. And yet, in the same way that Blythe knew he was witnessing the end of the postwar consensus in 1969 in Akenfield, anyone thinking about the English countryside in 2015 should consider the fact that we are living at the end of another great cycle. We have an overwhelmingly urgent need, after all, to think about how best to manage the planet, and the chance—after a thirty-year experiment with a highly energized, consumer-driven, and individualistic form of global capitalism—to think again about our relationship with the land. As Western economies emerge from their recessions, the temptation of course will be to return to business as usual. But the financial crisis we have all been through, and the larger climate crisis we are now facing, are as much questions of values as of economies.
Plenty of contemporary American and British writers understand this, and the recent flowering of books about environmental issues on both sides of the Atlantic proves the point. But politicians? In the UK at least, during the recent general election, nothing audible was said by leaders of the three main parties about larger climate issues, and precious little about more local rural matters—as though such matters could be left to the Green Party and therefore considered marginal. The broad insult of this silence has loud echoes, especially in the countryside itself; people living in rural areas have long felt isolated from Westminster by wide gulfs of ignorance (on subjects ranging from transport to the foxhunting ban passed by the New Labour government), let alone by the smaller matter of geographical miles.
But there is one major exception to this neglect. It was generally agreed by all parties during the election, and has been frequently confirmed since, that Britain needs to build more houses, and especially more affordable ones (“affordable” being a highly contentious word: one person’s affordable is another person’s expensive). The Conservative manifesto, for instance, pledged to build at least 200,000 “starter” homes with a 20 percent discount for first-time buyers under forty. It is also widely understood that any significant building program will put pressure on rural spaces in general and the Green Belt around London in particular. As things stand at the moment, opposing arguments are stalled in a gigantic sumo lock, with conservationists, government officials, local planners, builders, and the population that needs to be housed or rehoused all straining for dominance. But the need is such that a resolution must be found soon.
The hope of course is that it will be a well-balanced one, that it will continue to provide on the one hand an adequate protection for the countryside, for green spaces, and for areas of outstanding natural beauty, and on the other hand that it will lead to the construction of thousands of new homes, including genuinely and permanently affordable ones in villages, with as many as possible on brownfield sites. (In the countryside, the need for affordable homes is as acute as it is in the towns: many villages lost most such houses in the 1980s, when it became possible under the Thatcher government for local authorities to sell their council houses: only 8 percent of homes in rural areas are now classified as affordable, compared with 20 percent of urban housing.)
As things stand, the chance of there being a well-managed solution to the problem looks very uncertain. The government is requiring local housing associations to sell off their properties at a discount to their tenants, which is bound to mean a decrease in the number of affordable homes if they end up on the open market. Philanthropic landowners will also be much less likely to make a gift of land or sell it at a discount to provide low-cost housing for local people if they know the homes are likely to end up on the open market in a few years’ time.
Simultaneously, the government is loosening planning laws to allow builders (who are not all devils, but do have profits to make, and are therefore likely to serve their own needs before those of the wider community) to build more easily where it suits them. As far as the countryside is concerned, this means a danger has arisen that could change its character even more fundamentally than anything described in Akenfield.
This was confirmed last summer, when British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Liz Truss published a joint newspaper article setting out their “vision” for rural areas. They appeared to see them purely from the perspective of their potential for economic growth—as pleasant places for homeowners and commuters to live, certainly, but as somewhere to be built on, built over, and exploited to suit financial imperatives before all others. “I thought it would last my time,” Philip Larkin wrote in his poem “Going, Going,” when warning about previous threats to the countryside in the 1970s. Anyone writing an equivalent to Akenfield today, while celebrating the adaptability and resilience of rural life in the last half-century, would be justified in making the same lament in even more doubtful and dolorous tones.