I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books. My Review: This book is a history of the British village of. Woven from the words of the inhabitants of a small Suffolk village in the s, Akenfield is a masterpiece of twentieth-century English literature. Akenfield is a film made by Peter Hall in , based loosely upon the book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe (). It can claim a.

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It’s 35 years since Ronald Blythe published Akenfield, his classic portrait of a Suffolk village, but the original impact of the book has never quite died away.

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village

As a piece of oral history, it set new standards of authority and popularity; as a picture of rural life in turmoil, it had exceptional social interest; and as a witness to “ordinary lives”, it had unforgettable pathos. When Peter Hall made his film about the place, he struggled to akenfielx sentimentality in much the same way that Blythe himself had done – and largely succeeded. But his difficulties suggest something important about the book’s power: The emotional strength depends on the documentary discipline.

Much the same goes for Return to Akenfield, which updates the story of the village in reality two villages combined using essentially similar methods.

The author-organiser Craig Taylor interviews locals including the year-old Blythe ; he arranges the results in sections “Farming”, “Incomers”, “The Kids”, etc ; and he keeps an eye akenfiled community issues as well as individual histories. The big difference is that whereas Blythe had known the area all his life and had an intimate knowledge of its deep past, Taylor is an outsider: This might have been a problem had he wished to assert his own views and personality.

As it is, he uses a degree of detachment to boost the resonance of his findings. The result may not have the startling freshness of the original, but it nevertheless brims with interest.

In the late s, Akenfield was struggling to cope with the effects of the most dramatic changes to have affected agricultural communities for generations.

The decision to look on farming as first and foremost a means of production had changed the look and function of the landscape.

It had driven many people away from their native places, eroded the fabric and the feel of rural life, and eclipsed a long inheritance of traditions. The village felt doomed to be changed beyond recognition – either by decay, or by surrendering to an influx of new arrivals who might not want to preserve what they were set to inherit.


In the quarter of a century and more since then, the pace of change has only quickened. The impact of EU demands and subsidies, the national catastrophe of foot and mouth, the continued drift of farmworkers to the cities and of city people to country homes they inhabit only at weekends, the growth of imports and labour from overseas – all these have deepened the crisis that Blythe mapped and lamented.

Oortrait Taylor is good at showing villahe effect. The old Akenfield was harried and bedraggled, clinging to the old ways by its fingertips.

The new Akenfield is even less centred on the sparsely attended church, on embattled local retailers, on the old seasonal rituals. The ancient ties between its life and its land are sorely stretched. Stretched, but not broken. Blythe himself, in the two interviews that open and close Taylor’s book, is at pains to say that although the old normalities have largely disappeared, taking with them a whole calendar of festivities and cohesions, there have been compensations.

He insists that life is simply more comfortable than it used to be – and that individual eccentricities are less likely to be censured. Steve Coghill, who lectures at nearby Otley Agricultural College, adds to this, pointing out that a lessening emphasis on “production, production” also has its rewards.

We have beetle banks that encourage predators to come in and knock out the pests rather than spraying them with phosphorous compounds every 10 minutes.

Also new technology like companion planting. These old wives’ tales are turning out to be true. These improvements matter, but they create a complicated kind kf optimism.

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

Yes the population has increased, yes the standard of living has improved, and yes the landscape has grown in some respects more beautiful to look at. But the mood of the interviewees is often elegiac. As far as the older inhabitants are concerned, this is hardly surprising: The evidence is all the more touching for appearing in terms which conjure the past with wonderful vividness, both dnglish they remember vanishing skills and because of their “good old boy” accent and idiom.

Alan “Bud” Buckles, an year-old rag-rug maker, is a good case in point.

Akenfield portrait of an English village.

I was in a real mess when I finished but I done it. I done it and I cut it.

And that’s how I come to make my rugs so. But it’s a long while ago I made my last rug. And what about the “incomers”? Patrick Bishop, a young entrepreneur, is not alone in regretting a lack of community feeling “we haven’t had a good village pub for a long time”. Others miss local shops and a decent public transport system. Others again worry that they might be contributing to what one of the well-established farmers calls “a blandness, a sort of sameyness about everything”.


Paradoxically, this suggests fnglish similarities between young and old than either like to admit: On the other hand, there’s no doubting the pleasure that incomers take in country life, and many of them speak about this with an enthusiasm that matches that of the village elders.

The darkness of unlit lanes, the clear stars, the wildlife Furthermore, they prove something about the incomers’ willingness to fit in, even if this means admitting that the reality of a country existence is more testing than they first imagined. Keith Gipp, a retiree who moved to Akenfield from Surbiton, says: You eventually realise it’s better to put it out it out of its misery I now a,enfield hold of its back legs and break its neck on a tree. I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing that in Surrey.

By the end of Return to Akenfield, and in spite of everything that continues to make the villagers feel vulnerable or hard done by, this adaptability has produced a mood of quiet hopefulness.

Does this mean Taylor has in fact been gentler in his reading of the place even, perhaps, more sentimental than he appears? It’s certainly true that he does less than he might to show the extent to which Akenfield, like most villages within commuting distance of London, has been merely prettified rather than enriched at a fundamental level.

Neither does he have much potrrait say about the impact of recent legislation the anti-hunting bill, for instance. But even if these things had been mapped in more detail, they portrati wouldn’t have done much to alter his conclusions.

Akenfield portrait of an English village. (eBook, ) []

Return to Akenfield is a generous tribute to the generosity of the place it describes, and tells a heartening story about tolerance and resourcefulness.

Have the same qualities saved and invigorated other villages elsewhere? It’s difficult to say, and reasonable to feel doubtful. The faulty connection between akenfisld imperatives and country living remains one of the great national issues ivllage our time. Portrait of an English Village in the 21st Century by Craig Taylor pp, Granta It’s 35 years since Ronald Blythe published Akenfield, his classic portrait of a Suffolk village, but the original impact of the book has never quite died away.

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