Another second-hand bookstore treasure from someone who knows me well, Akenfield (1969) is a remarkably engrossing (and surprisingly undated) study of an anonymized rural Suffolk village, in the voice of fifty or so local residents. It tells the story of post-war England, agricultural modernization, social liberalization but also lingering fealty and class boundaries. The author, Ronald Blythe, interviewed and synthesized each voice, sometimes adding a sympathetic preamble of description and context. Surprises abound, such the description of WWII as a boon: conditions were so mean pre-war, that young men worked to the bone on farms found war service easy (with more food), and even bad farmers grew rich to supply that food. Some of the most compelling parts for me related to the farm landscape and how it was perceived and used. For instance, in the Introduction:
“…its hedges – now being slaughtered – were planted in the eighteenth century and, where they remain, shelter all the wild life of the particular fields they surround. Earlier field boundaries can be easily traced by ridges and ditches, and here and there a great tree spreads itself out in Time, making no sense at all. The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written … I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.” (p. 14)
About the taciturn field workers, the last holdout of peasantry, working over generations for the same farmer, for compensations that keep him bound – a farm cottage, etc – Blythe writes: “Science is a footnote to what he really believes. And what he knows is often incommunicable “ (p. 15) . That younger generations continue to look to farming is described such: “perhaps, they have inherited the small residual static quality in all village life, that thing which is either condemned as apathy or praised and envied as contentment, but yet which is really neither of these. The attitude contains something determined and enduring, and also incorporates some kind of duty or loyalty to the village fields” (p. 91). For instance, a young ploughman bemoans the loss of the hedges, being undertaken to expand farms and enable increased mechanization, which make it difficult for a ploughman to keep his bearings:
“A well-kept hedge is a good sight and tells you where you are. The hedges belong to the village. You get used to seeing them standing there – they are like buildings and you miss them when they are knocked down. Some hedges are important and when they go you feel as bad as if a wood had been taken away. I think that there are certain hedges which the farmer’s shouldn’t touch without asking the people – although I can’t see this happening.” (p. 279).
An older farmer, an emigrant from Scotland, gives an outsider’s perspective on the impact of landscape on long-time residents, reminiscent of Swift’s observations in Waterland of what flat fenlands make of fenlanders: “The big skies leave the East Anglians empty. The skies are nothing. The horizons are too wide. There is nothing for a man to measure himself by here. In Scotland you have the hills, the mountains. They diminish a man. They make him think. … they last and he doesn’t.” (p. 320)
Blythe’s anthropology is thorough and generous, but does not shrink from difficulty. I do not know how he negotiated access and approval within such a small village given the blunt assessments many interviewees make of one another, individually and collectively, but it is a true gift that he made this record. It was made into an eponymous film in 1974 and is still in print – I just saw a new edition in Bookmark last week. This book is of a piece with early and modern tales of shepherding by Hardy and Rebanks discussed last year, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways. A recording of Blythe and Macfarlane on the dais together at the Charleston Festival in 2013 for a celebration of rural life and sense of place is worth a listen.