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REVIEW: Akenfield, by Ronald Blythe
Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, Ronald Blythe (1969; NYRB Classics, 2015).
I was raised by wolves, so all too often I only discover impressive people via their eulogies. I had never heard of Johnny Cash until 2003, and when Norm Macdonald died and everyone started posting their favorite clips I went, “wait, that guy with the dark but thoughtful tweets was a comedian?” To that extremely embarrassing list we can add a rather more obscure figure: Suffolk writer Ronald Blythe died in January and accordingly I have now read his most famous book.
Akenfield is a poet’s oral history, a slightly fictionalized account of the tiny village of Debach and its larger neighbor Charsfield (21st century populations 126 and 250, respectively) that freezes this corner of the East Suffolk countryside in the winter of 1967-8 and so preserves a fascinating moment of transition. The old village life is vanishing but isn’t all gone; the future is arriving in fits and starts, unevenly distributed as yet, but clearly coming. Three very different generations of Akenfield coexist without ever quite mixing or understanding each other, “walled-off” from one another by the “extraordinary intrusions” of two World Wars: the oldest men of the village are the sons of those who remained despite the agricultural depression that began in the 1870s and themselves left only once, for the Great War; the long-haired youths listen to pop music on the radio and attend the local agricultural college to learn the inner workings of the latest machinery and the advances of scientific management; between them is Blythe’s generation, born at the end of the depression and witnesses to the Second World War’s upending of rural life, the consequences of which are still cascading through the village. And yet there is a common village feeling, at least among those who have remained to be anthologized, if only in contrast to the newcomers — retirees enamored of country life, young professionals commuting the ten or fifteen miles to Ipswich, even Scottish farmers transplanted to untended Suffolk fields in the years between the wars. The character of the Akenfielders is perhaps recognizable to American readers for its resemblance to the Yankee strain in American culture: a private, taciturn people, religiously dissenting, conservative by disposition, savers rather than spenders.1
But Blythe’s portrait is as much a picture of the place as of the people. You almost feel, by the end of the book, that you know would recognize Akenfield if you came upon it: the heavy clay soil, the ponds and standing water (the gravedigger: “I float grass on the water so the mourners can’t see it but when the coffin is lowered it has to be held under with a pole until you can get a bit of heavy soil on top of it”), the wind, the thatched and whitewashed cottages. And since the business of the village is the land, both Blythe and those he interviews consider the people and the place practically impossible to separate. Here’s Blythe, in his introduction to the village:
The wind catches at his house. The East Anglian wind does more than move the barley; it is doctrinal. Probably no other agent except, perhaps, the great forests which once covered this plain, has done more to shape the character of the people who have dwelt on it. It is a quite unmysterious wind, dispelling the fuzziness of things. On a clear day — and they are mostly lear days in this part of the world — you can see as far as you can bear to see, and sometimes farther. It is a suitable climate for a little arable kingdom where flints are the jewels and where existence is sharp-edged.
And Jamie McIver, a Lanarkshire man who came to Akenfield in 1932:
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 are there for all time. Every man who has lived in Scotland since the world began has looked at these same mountains. He knows they last and that he doesn’t. there is nothing like this in East Anglia. The water moves in Scotland but in Suffolk it stands still — or as good as. Because they are a flat-land creature there is a lack of imagination and excitement in the Suffolk character. You get very few real characters here. You don’t meet many men who are outstanding. At home we make a point of being very individual. Every day you will meet men who will not conform. The Suffolk people conform easily, they are natural conservatives.
Like any great work of art, Akenfield is so rich that I could spend an entire Substack post just on its picture of the complexities of labor relations, or class dynamics (two very different things), or the role of education and professionalization, or the complicated relationship between village and town, or the increasing specialization of agricultural production — all of which impersonal forces have desperately personal consequences for the village’s inhabitants and for the soul of the village itself. Beneath all those threads, woven through the interviews and Blythe’s beautiful interstitial prose, is a common question, which he poses himself in the introduction: “How much is preserved? How much lost?”
The opening tour of Akenfield gives us the aftermath of mechanization in the “empty secondary horse village, a deserted complex of packways, stables, smithies, chaff and collar houses, loose boxes, abandoned wagons, carts, harness rooms, and tackle.” The saddler has reinvented himself as a maker of canvas belts for the machines that harvest the peas for the frozen-foods industry, and the blacksmith does a thriving trade in recreating custom fixtures for the newcomers who want to restore the old houses they’ve purchased, but the dozens of horse-teams that once ploughed the village fields have been replaced by a single man and his tractor. “The truth,” Blythe writes, “is that there is a void where the old village culture existed. Ideas, beliefs and civilizing factors belonging to their grandfathers are not just being abandoned by the young countrymen, they are scarcely known. A motor-bike or universal pop might appear to be a reasonable exchange—but not after you have begun to think.”
Most of these spiritual losses have come in the name of greater efficiency. Roger Adlard, who comes from a family of farmers, describes his own longing to “do arable” (i.e., grow grain), but he can’t afford the land. Instead he owns ten acres, on which he intensively factory farms pigs and poultry. “I feel that the kind of farming I do now isn’t quite ‘right,’” he says. “Certainly it isn’t satisfying.” But farming is “splitting up into specialist groups and getting away from the concept of the old mixed farm. The old mixed farmer had a few hens, a few sows, a few bullocks, a little sugar-beet, a few greens, a little orchard—just about everything. It was all so cosy.” He feels quite guilty about the fact that he may one day have to keep his pigs entirely confined indoors, “but I also know that everything has got to go this way. Dreams of the past, like my dreams of cutting corn in the sun, have got to be abandoned.” He is a modern man who accepts the modern world:
Of course, you’ve got all the additives to make [the pigs] get fat quickly. But then we have all kinds of additives in our food. Take bread, it isn’t natural bread, there are all sorts of things in it. It is bought all cut-up in cellophane and is horrible, but we eat it. We eat it because it is the food of our time. My factory farm is the farm of our time.
The local vet, who came to Akenfield after the Second World War, remembers that in those days “[t]he stock was small and ‘knowable,’ as you might say—twenty cows, each with a name, each milked by hand, more often than not; five or six sows with their litters and their funny old ways.” Today things are different:
We can no longer afford to let animals roam on fields as valuable as this. They have to be locked up. They will never eat another blade of living grass. It is unprofitable. But they will have a ventilator to every pen and thermostatic heat control, sawdust floors, and automatic feeding and watering. Hotel conditions. The stockmen must change too. There is all the difference in the world between a man who just feeds stuff to pigs for a few weeks and a man who calves a cow, milks it with his hands and walks with it daily to the pasture.
It’s not only the close identification with the animals; identification with the work itself is also vanishing. Gregory Gladwell, a blacksmith from a long line of blacksmiths, has been able to hang on in his family smithy:
I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it, but you see I am the only one out of all my family…who had any intention of coming to the smithy. My brothers couldn’t have cared less about the place. I wanted to come, had to come. But it is silly to be sentimental. What I sometimes think is that I am my grandfather, an old one. It is the truth when I say that I can sit in the shop of a Sunday, smoking my pipe, and be as happy as if I were sitting in a house. I wasn’t born soon enough, that is the trouble. By rights, I should be gone and dead. I think like the old people. … We have our pressures now with bills and bank managers and book-keeping, but I say to myself, this is not the highest thing; this is business. You are a tradesman; this is the highest thing. Making, doing. I feel I should have lived during the 1700s. That would have done me. But I am losing my place, aren’t I?
The ploughmen — horsemen, as they were called in Suffolk — used to have something like that feeling. John Grout, eighty-eight years old and a retired farmer, recalls:
Each man ploughed in his own fashion and with his own mark. It looked all the same if you didn’t know about ploughing, but a farmer could walk on a field ploughed by ten different teams and tell which bit was ploughed by which. Sometimes he would pay a penny an acre extra for perfect ploughing. … The men worked perfectly to get this, but they also worked perfectly because it was their work. It belonged to them. It was theirs.
And the dean of the local Church of England parish, a Welshman, agrees:
I have sometimes dared to question the incredible perfection attached to certain tasks—this is heresy, if you like! Take ploughing or ricking, why should these jobs have had such tremendous finesse attached to them? The harvest would not have been less if the furrows wavered a little. But, of course, a straight furrow was all that a man was left with. It was his signature, not only on the field but on life.
But compare this to the newer generation in the person of Brian Newton, a nineteen-year-old student at the local Agricultural Training Centre, originally from Lancashire but living in Ipswich and commuting to an Akenfield farm:
The older farm-workers aren’t all that keen on boys like me. …you’ll still meet quite a few who, if they had their way, would be back with the horses tomorrow. They’ll fiddle about with some ditch or other miles away, making such a rare fuss of it. It is all quite unnecessary but nobody are say so, of course. They are so slow. …They would do the sugar-beeting perfectly—the worst damn job on the farm—even if their fingers were half-dropping off with the cold. If they saw one on the heap with a bit of green left on they’d be scrambling up to get it. All unnecessary. … The worst thing about these older workers is that they really do believe that we shall have to come round to their way of thinking. They have some sort of fear of the boss. The boss used to expect them to be hard at it all day, although I don’t know that he can expect it these days. What they can’t understand is that work is just work—something to be done and paid for. Of course we know the old men had art—because they had damn-all else! It kept them from despairing.
And it’s true, they did need something to keep them from despair, because while Akenfield has its moments of threnody for the dying village life, it’s also unsparing in its depiction of how much suffering went with it. Here’s Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, on his childhood around 1900:
…it was very hard living indeed for the family. There were seven children at home and father’s wages had been reduced to 10s. a week.2 Our cottage was nearly empty—except for people. There was a scrubbed brick floor and just one rug made of scraps of old clothes pegged into a sack. The cottage had a living-room, a larder and two bedrooms. Six of us boys and girls slept in one bedroom and our parents and the baby slept in the other. ... Our food was apples, potatoes, swede and bread, and we drank our tea without milk or sugar. Skim milk could be bought from the farm but it was thought a luxury. Nobody could get enough to eat no matter how they tried. Two of my brothers were out to work. One was eight years old and he got 3s. a week… Our biggest trouble was water. There was no water near, it all had to be fetched from the foot of a hill nearly a mile away. “Drink all you can at school,” we were told—there was a tap at school. You would see the boys and girls filling themselves up like camels before they left school so that they would have enough water to last the day. I always remember the bitter metal taste of the tap in my mouth; it was cold—beautiful!
A few villagers had wells, but the rest walked to the nearest pond (which often dried up in the summer) and suffered occasional “pond pox” and regular goiters until water mains came to Akenfield in 1944. The conditions before that, the village nurse reports, were “natural but bad. … It was nothing for me to nurse where the boiled water was bright green!” Blythe’s introduction to the nurse is particularly chastening to our image of a bucolic, Shire-like rural England:
She neither condemns nor feels any nostalgia for Akenfield between the wars. As for the wistful paternalism revealed in programmes like Dr. Finlay’s Casebook and talk of old-style village self-help and charity, mention of such things causes her to smile and shake her head the merest fraction. “Certainly people were more neighbourly then. They went in and out of each other’s houses to help with what was needed, and thought themselves well-paid with a cup of tea, yet [a small smile at the paradox] it wasn’t better than now. It was worse, much, much worse.”
And in her own voice:
The old people were not taken care of. This is another thing which people like to think now, that grandfathers and grandmothers had an honoured place in the cottage. In fact, when they got old they were just neglected, pushed away into corners. I even found them in cupboards! Even in fairly clean and respectable houses you often found an old man or woman shoved out of sight in a dark niche.
The farmers practically owned their workers, swooping in on the village school to take a boy away for harvest-time if his parents hadn’t already sent him to work, but only paying him half what a man would earn. Fred Mitchell, eighty-five, who was a horseman until he was crippled in a ploughing accident, remembers, “I had to accept everything my governor said to me. I learnt never to answer a word. I durstn’t say nothing. Today you can be a man with men, but not then. That is how it was. It will never be like that again. I lived when other men could do what they liked with me. We feared so much.” George Kirkland, forty years younger and the secretary of the local branch of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, is even more explicit:
I don’t want to see the old days back. Every bad thing sounds pleasant enough when time has passed. But it wasn’t pleasant then, and that’s a fact. … I’m definitely happier than I was years ago and I’m sure most farmworkers are. We had depressing jobs which lasted so long. Sugar-beeting was very depressing. You’d start it in September and it would go on till January. It made life seem worthless. Now you just sit on the harvester!
The village veterinarian came to Akenfield just after the Second World War and remembers that in those days surrounding country “was as it always was—nice old parks, oak trees, rabbits, a few stags to make things look grand, sheep by the lake’s edge, cattle up to their udders in the pond. That is how it was when I came here—England as it used to be. But it will never be a Constable again.” But he also remembers the poverty:
[The villagers] had to eat all the fat they could to keep them warm. They had such poor clothes and often nothing to change into after having been out in all sorts of weather. Many’s the time I’ve seen them, men dressed in rain-hardened boards and little capes of sacking hanging down from their heads. The Suffolk women won’t buy fat now—perhaps it reminds them of these shivering men in the lea of the wind, eating their bait and chopping at pure white hunks of the stuff. The fattest pig-meat from Suffolk now goes to Yorkshire—the miners still like it very much.
It’s striking what there isn’t: no “we were poor but happy,” or “we didn’t have much but we had each other,” or any of the other cliches of past poverty. Blythe asks “how much lost,” but the people of Akenfield who choose to pronounce on the topic — the educated ones, mostly — want to tell you how much has been gained. In place of Leonard Thompson’s 10s. weekly wage, the NUAW has bargained for £14. There’s clean water, there’s enough to eat, the children aren’t lousy or beset by impetigo. Yes, the horses are gone, the cows and pigs are increasingly locked up, the chickens are stuffed into sheds of ten thousand birds and thought of as “little machines which wear out in ten months and are then replaced,” but the children are fed. A vocation may have transformed into mere “work,” but the men can look their employers in the eye.
When I first read the book, I was struck by the Akenfield orchards, which as described by foreman Alan Mitton seemed a symbol of these tradeoffs:
In the days when I began, out of the twenty men on the fruit farm, only four were allowed to prune. This was because of the old-fashioned idea that when you were cutting a piece of wood you were taking so many apples off the tree. So the trees went up and up, and bushed out and became enormous. They got so thick it was difficult to spray them and so tall it was hard to gather. And they didn’t get enough air. But about fifteen years ago we tried a drastic new cutting method. We said, ‘Right! We’ll have this bit out and this bit out!’ The old men came and looked and said, ‘You aren’t pruning, you’re pollarding!’ They were very shocked. ‘Poor trees, poor trees…’ they said. All the middles were ripped out; the trees looked like umbrellas.3 In fact, it looked really shameful. It was always the old boys’ pride to keep the shape of a tree, so they were shocked. It was their main art, to keep the tree-shape. Well, nothing was said. The sawing went on. The middles were taken right out and the lower boughs removed so that the tractors and sprayers could drive through the orchard. These trees looked terrible and the next year they grew so much spur-wood where the boughs had been that we wondered if we had done right. Then, the next year, the fruit started to come. It was exciting. The apples got better and better. It was amazing; you had to see it to believe it.
It does seem a shame — the poor trees! the poor chickens! the poor ploughmen! — to deform something so natural in the service of efficiency and productivity. But of course there’s nothing natural about any of this, the old or the new, at least not in the sense of “how it would be without our involvement.” The landscape of the British Isles has been actively managed for human purposes for at least four thousand years, in ways that varied tremendously as technology changed. Constable’s pastoral idyll is no more representative of the “truth” of East Anglia than an early medieval village amid the undrained fens would have been. And similarly, we mustn’t assume the immiseration of Akenfield’s rural laborers in the years before the Great War was representative of preindustrial agriculture writ large: the particular history of East Sussex is important, from its unusually early enclosure to the land’s direct ownership by wealthy farmers rather than aristocratic landlord/small tenant relationship more common in other parts of the country. The worldwide agricultural depression driven by cheap grain from the North American prairies is extremely relevant, too.
But in another and perhaps more important sense, what’s “natural” is exactly what’s at issue here: not what a thing would be without us, but what is in accordance with the true character of the thing. The nature of an apple tree is to give fruit, the nature of a chicken is to turn grass and bugs and sunshine into a brief poultry life, and the nature of man is to leave his mark on the world — which is easier to do when you’re not starving, but is still something more than “just work—something to be done and paid for.” More useful than “which of these two ways is better,” the question the nurse and the labor organizer want to answer, is the hunt for a third, secret, way: respecting the nature of things but molding them to our uses. It’s a fallen world, we can’t have all good things at once, but surely we can have more or fewer of them — and just as surely we ought to search out the more.
In places, Akenfield has hints of that compromise. The blacksmith with his “making, doing” has held onto something of the soul of the old village. Terry Lloyd, a 21-year-old pig farmer with four acres and thirty sows he knows by name, dreams of a “little traditional farm, plenty of muck, plenty of grass” where he might live “virtually hand-to-mouth…yet comfortable” with “everything…traditional, but without the struggle and misery.” He could add more pigs, like the factory farm, but he doesn’t see the point; one man simply can’t scale the sort of attention he gives his animals. “Pigs are funny animals,” he says, “and like a sense of being cared for.” There’s no reason Roger Adlard, the factory farmer, couldn’t raise his pigs more in accordance with their own natures, or bake his own “natural” bread — except the money, of course.
In 2006, reporter Craig Taylor went back to Debach and Charsfield to track down the people who had appeared in the original book but I’m not sure I have the heart to read his Return to Akenfield. (You can, if you like, get a glimpse of the present situation online: Charsfield has a rather primitive WordPress site, and you can explore last year’s Debach on Google Street View.) I like to imagine one of Gladwell’s sons is still working his forge, or that Terry Lloyd, who sometimes rode his motorbike to dances in Ipswich, found a wife and still lives on his farm with his children and grandchildren. I don’t have high hopes, though. The social trends already at work in 1967 have only accelerated since 2006, and I would hate to learn that the smithy was turned into a gas station or the little farm with its stream has been replaced by a two-thousand-pig factory. I would prefer, instead, to maintain the profound ambivalence, the superposition of states, that Akenfield creates: gratitude for technological progress and material prosperity, sorrow for the loss of a world that was knowable and ours.
“The clay acres themselves,” Blythe writes in his introduction to the village, “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.”
Price translations across the years work poorly, because the relative costs of various goods and services vary enormously — food and textile production used to be far more labor-intensive (and thus expensive) than they are now, transportation was less efficient, and physical labor was much cheaper — but in 1900 10s. would just about buy three pairs of cheap children’s shoes in London and in the town nearest Akenfield a good scythe cost 7s. 6d. (The d. stands for penny; a shilling is 12 pennies and there are 20 shillings to the pound.) More on Victorian prices here.