In 1969, Ronald Blythe published a work of non-fiction which he thought would be received as an unassuming social history; a snapshot of life in a small, unexceptional Suffolk village.
Much to his surprise, Akenfield became a bestseller. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Blythe’s account of this “not particularly striking” village captured a key moment in English rural history, when many of the old ways were about to be swept away by industrial agriculture, global trade, car culture and the seductions of modernity. He let the people of the village speak for themselves: the book was presented as a series of stories, told by villagers interviewed by Blythe, whose words are transcribed as they are spoken. The result was unique and powerful.
What became of Akenfield? The journalist Craig Taylor’s desire to find the answer led him, 35 years later, to the Suffolk village to repeat the experiment in the age of foot-and-mouth, second homes and teleworking. Return to Akenfield is as fascinating, and relevant to its time, as Blythe’s original.
Like Blythe, Taylor spent several months talking to a cross-section of the inhabitants of Akenfield (the name is a fiction invented by Blythe, which allowed him to amalgamate two neighbouring villages). For a powerful snapshot of how village life has changed, look at the contents page, which lists the people featured and their professions. Akenfield is populated by farriers, tower captains, horsemen, brigadiers, ploughmen, thatchers, saddlers and blacksmiths. Return To Akenfield gives us agricultural college lecturers, walkers, horticulture students, entrepreneurs and retirees. By my calculation, Akenfield featured at least 22 villagers working on the land or in associated trades. Return to Akenfield features 13, four of whom do not live or work in the village.
But this is not a Romantic lament for a dead past. For every Akenfield-bred orchard worker like 74-year-old Bernard Catchpole, full of memories of cobbled boots and Suffolk Punch horses and overflowing with knowledge about lost apple varieties, there is a Julie Taplin, a 32-year “incomer”, much of whose time is spent with “dynamic” working mothers and who seems puzzled that “the local characters are quite reserved” when they meet her.
There is an internet entrepreneur determined to fit into Akenfield life, full of ideas about using the web to sell locally-sourced produce. There are managers working to re-inject character into a pub which had been turned into an “Ikea” by previous tenants, Polish migrant workers whose stories have to be translated, and a bricklayer from New Zealand who has transformed himself into an itinerant sheep shearer. Akenfield is not dead yet.
Nevertheless, if there is an overwhelming theme, it is the tearing up of roots which previously kept places like this, and the people in them, connected to the land. Blythe himself, now 83, warns about romanticising those roots. “People then were extremely poor,” he explains. “Their houses were uncomfortable and damp. Children left school very early … it was very hard to get away, to do anything or to be yourself, and people worked and worked until they died.”
But even the old writer can’t help regretting some of what has been lost. “When this last generation is gone, there will be a break from people who have had any experience of this life,” he says. “Some of it will be missed: the part that cannot be put into words.”