Akenfield revisited

Who would dare attempt a 21st Century version of the evocative book Akenfield? Steven Russell talks to the Canadian writer who - prompted by an American - immersed himself in rural Suffolk to pull it offIT'S a wacky idea reminiscent of the film Local Hero (American businessman sent to a remote Scottish fishing village) or the TV series Northern Exposure (uptight New York doctor despatched to eccentric Alaskan town).

Who would dare attempt a 21st Century version of the evocative book Akenfield? Steven Russell talks to the Canadian writer who - prompted by an American - immersed himself in rural Suffolk to pull it off

IT'S a wacky idea reminiscent of the film Local Hero (American businessman sent to a remote Scottish fishing village) or the TV series Northern Exposure (uptight New York doctor despatched to eccentric Alaskan town).

Plant a young Canadian writer deep in rural Suffolk, armed with mini-disk recorder, notebook and access to a three-speed bike. His mission: to talk to the locals and produce a follow-up to the book Akenfield - the classic book written by the very English and very East Anglian author Ronald Blythe that achieved mythical status and inspired a film.

Blythe had spent the winter of 1966-7 listening to three generations of his Suffolk neighbours in the villages of Charsfield and Debach, learning their views on the stuff of life: education, class, welfare, religion, farming - naturally - and even death. There was a natural beauty to life, but there was also a brutal side and for some inhabitants a sense of captivity.

Published in 1969, it painted a picture of country living at a time of change - its stories told in the voices of the farmers and villagers themselves. Such was its power that Akenfield was translated into more than 20 languages, including Swedish.

It became required reading in American and Canadian high schools and universities. In 1999 Penguin re-published it as a Twentieth-Century Classic, which helped bring it to a new audience of readers.

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Then there was the film from the mid-1970s, which added to the mystique. Directed by East Anglian Peter Hall, and based on a 20-page “treatment” by Ronald Blythe, its cast was drawn predominantly from folk who lived in and around the villages upon which the fictional Akenfield was based.

Because of concerns by the acting union Equity, there could not be any real written-down lines. Dialogue had to be invented by the folk speaking it at the time, which did lend authenticity. Moreover, the local amateurs could portray only realistic characters, such as farm workers and local schoolteachers, as they evoked the rural lives of past generations. Ronald Blythe even had a part himself, playing a vicar - but, then, he was a lay preacher.

Most of the filming was done at weekends, when the cast was available, and shooting took almost a year - following the changing seasons in the process.

Thirty-five years from the publication of the book, at around harvest time, the London-based Canadian journalist and playwright stepped out of a taxi and checked in to what is now French's Farm bed-and-breakfast at Debach. It was in the heavily-beamed 16th Century Suffolk longhouse, then his home, that Ronald Blythe wrote his famous work. His study is now an en-suite bedroom christened the Akenfield Room.

The book was published at a time of great change in agriculture, with fewer and fewer labourers needed as mechanisation made tasks quicker and easier. Social developments, such as greater mobility, also affected the feel of rural communities.

And change - being the one thing you can count on - has carried on ever since. The number of people employed in the agricultural sector in East Anglia has continued to fall. The buying power of supermarkets has increased, which brings consequences for growers. Opportunities for young people to move away have changed the age profile of many rural communities. Many villages have become attractive retirement havens for wealthy incomers, or dormitories for commuters to the larger towns.

Craig Taylor arrived in east Suffolk just a few days after Charsfield was switched on to broadband. Once, people fretted about a decent harvest; nowadays, tribulations can include trying to get a mobile phone signal in the valley.

He spent weeks talking to locals - orchard workers, incomers, a shopkeeper, teacher, publicans, farmers, migrant workers, horticultural students, an itinerant sheep-shearer and even a man with a metal detector - to learn about their lives and thoughts.

Return to Akenfield points out that all the villagers who appeared in the original book and worked in traditional country trades - the saddler, blacksmith and wheelwright - had died, and most of their professions had gone with them.

“Others have moved on . . .” he writes. “In their places are now commuters and entrepreneurs and retirees from other parts of the country. The family names in the local graveyard are no longer the surnames of the people living in the houses.

“The broad Suffolk accent caught in Akenfield is more muted too. The language of the 'old boys' was full of mischievous [italics] os [close italics] that sneak into words normally without them. But the families moving into the village speak in the 'Estuarine' accent that has spread throughout southern English, or in what used to be called BBC English. The headteacher told me she was a little worried when she heard her young son say the word compoo-ah.”

Return to Akenfield is down to a friend of Craig's: Minnesotan Matt Weiland, an editor at Granta Books, who was one day enthusing about Ronald Blythe's tome.

“It is a very vivid book; so full of the central aspect of the land,” says Craig, 29. “It is seen as an exotic, dark and odd place, with its own customs. We were both kind of curious about what had happened to this place.”

There were initial thoughts of producing an article about what had happened over the past 30-odd years, but it was quickly apparent the material merited a bigger stage - particularly when Craig returned with 30 or 40 90-minute mini-disks of recorded oral history.

He spent various lengths of time in Suffolk in late 2004, from harvest time to the December, including the whole of October.

Many writers would think twice about attempting a follow-up to Akenfield, which over the years has become cloaked in a kind of mystique. It no doubt helped that Craig wasn't a son of Suffolk, daunted by the legend. He wasn't even born when the book came out or when the film was premiered.

In fact, he was grateful for a lot of help from Ronald Blythe, who now lives close to the Essex/Suffolk border. “He was a great guy. I went to see him many, many times; I had a lot of great afternoons down there. We would just eat and go for long walks, and he would show me the local churches, and take in the fields and river. He treated me like an equal - which I'm absolutely not!”

Akenfield featured fictional but representative characters based on composites of local people; Craig favoured a more traditional journalistic approach, using real names and his interviewees' “voices”.

Suffolk welcomed him into its embrace, with no-one unwilling to talk. A flavour of what some of them had to say, drawn from Return to Akenfield, can be found on these pages.

“I found that not having a British accent helped a bit,” he grins. “If I had sat down and had a plummy Oxford accent, people would not have known where I was coming from. And it meant I kind of stood out. I remember someone saying 'We always knew what the American was up to in the village.'”

He spent a lot of time meeting people at church services. He was introduced to EADT columnist Peggy Cole - Akenfield personified, and Dulcie Rouse in the film - and was put in touch with some of the older folk in the villages.

“I would walk around and talk to one person after the next. Part of that was just hanging out. I would go down to the orchard and spend time talking to the people working there. People would tell someone else what I was doing, or suggest someone else I could approach. It was quite an organic process - and I would hang out at the pub quite a bit!

“Because I didn't have a car, I followed the pattern of people who lived there 50 years ago. I would go out, come back for lunch, and go to the pub in the evening. I went out to a couple of places with Peggy Cole and was taken out to an art festival at Saxmundham by one of the farmers, Peter Holloway.

“I think a lot of people were just happy to be able to talk about their life and work. It is not often one asks a dairy farmer to sit down and talk about what his life is like.

“A lot of people were stunningly eloquent; (farmer) Jonathan Pirkis, for one, had a natural gift of imagery. I came away from that interview almost shocked by how beautifully he looks at his land.”

That scenery found its way into Craig's soul.

“I come from Vancouver Island” - on the border with the United States, and not far from Seattle - “which has dramatic scenery and is a beautiful place with views of mountains and the ocean. Suffolk is beautiful in a different way, and its beauty reveals itself a little bit slower. It is a bit more subtle. I think some of the farmers allude to this.

“I remember some of the walks home, with the sky huge. There was not a lot of light; and then you'd see the outline of a Norman steeple. It is a beautiful place, but not in a showy way.”

There were moment of pathos shared with the people he was interviewing, and moments of humour as he grappled with his temporary environment.

“The B1078 is a weird and scary road!” he shivers. “I would cycle down it and pray a big truck wouldn't crash into me and push me into one of those ditches.”

It wasn't all work, either. Nearly, but not quite. “I did have one day off, when I went to Woodbridge. I just needed to see a movie. I had a big Indian meal and bought some magazines - and saw a terrible movie, Shark Tale, and sat among a lot of noisy children.”

Craig hopes Return to Akenfield will fan discussions about what is happening. “I think what it points out is that people do care about community and about place, and that sense of community is changing. There is a lot of talk in the book about work and food, and I think those are big issues for everyone.”

He recognises the dichotomy in the public generally appreciating the countryside, and valuing the rural way of life, but being unable to resist cheap food - often from abroad. Supermarkets and customers call the tune.

He heard about the consequences in Suffolk, where apple trees were being steadily phased out and replaced by blackcurrant bushes, and where schoolchildren's free fruit snacks consisted of imported food rather than locally-grown apples.

It's not easy striking a healthy balance, though.

“I think that's the biggest conclusion: People do care about the countryside, but I think you have to care a bit more. I know it's an individual decision, and it's easy to generalise . . . We all know, on one level, that we should be buying food that is produced closer to us; but life's complicated.

“There's the mother who would drive to the farm shop, but she's got two young kids and asks what should she do? It's hard to take them in, and she doesn't want to leave them in the car, so it's easier for her to drive to Tesco's.”

Those weeks in the countryside sharpened his views on the importance of community. In the city, Craig admits, people do live in close proximity but it's also easy to exist with minimal contact with neighbours and your surroundings.

In a village, you can see the practical reasons for a local school, church, pub and shop - the Araldite that binds a village together. These institutions act as a focal point and support people throughout their lives.

“The cycle of life is very defined. A lot of older people are saddened by the way paths of connection laid down over the years are changing. If there is no shop, it is very difficult to find a gathering point.”

Someone once spoke about how important it was to hear the sound of children's voices in the playground - something that's lost if schools close and private homes are built on the site.

It would be interesting to return to Suffolk in 10 years' time, Craig muses.

“In order to be able to buy a house in a village like Charsfield, you are going to need a substantial income, which is going to change the profile of people there.

“The older people who had a physical connection to the land will soon be gone - and after that, who knows? It might just be a pretty place to live. I cannot see it ever going back to 30 men on each farm, working the land.”

On the other hand, there are villagers working hard to get new residents involved in local life and keeping organisations in good health - such as amateur dramatics. “They don't want sterile communities.”

Excuse me, but is that the sound of chickens outside? It can't be. This is sophisticated Hampstead, after all. Yes, he smiles: it is clucking. The owners of the house where he maintains an office do have a coop out back.

“I was doing a piece on the phone the other day about terrorism, and during the interview the person stopped what he was saying and asked the same question. It must seem a little odd.”

I wondered if the rural charms of Akenfield had taken such a grip of your heart that you'd brought some poultry back to London on the train.

“Now that would have been a good line . . .”

Return to Akenfield is published by Granta at £14.99. ISBN 1-86207-887-4

RONALD Blythe's nose hasn't been put out of joint by Return to Akenfield. He had many opportunities to pen a sequel of his own, but was never tempted. He was happy for his classic book to stand alone.

“It was often suggested by publishers,” he confirms - “which always happens when you have a book. But I always declined.

“It was slightly autobiographical, and was meant to highlight the wider condition of the countryside. When I wrote it in 1967, it didn't strike me that we were on the edge of an agricultural scene in which, very soon, very few people would be working on the land.

“I left it as it was.”

Rural life has since changed enormously, admits the writer born at Acton, near Sudbury, in 1922. “I saw the last of the 'old'. Now, people have TVs and foreign holidays, and everybody goes out. It has totally changed.”

On one hand we have lost a sense of traditional craftsmanship; and there's homogeneity about much of the western world: people wearing the same casual clothes, humming the same songs and watching the same television programmes. On the other hand, many people have knowledge of - and respect for - the countryside because of the popularity of natural history shows.

“I don't know if it is good or bad,” Mr Blythe says of the changes. “It's just different.”

Life in Akenfield - some modern views:

Orchard foreman Malcolm Peck: “There was eighteen men working on the farm full-time (about 1980). Now there's three . . . All the apples the supermarkets want now are Coxes and Bramleys . . . The supermarkets don't sell them small and they don't sell them big. The apples have to be a perfect size and they have to be a perfect size and they have to be a perfect colour too . . . If they see it's got a mark it will have to go on the floor. But look at this big Cox. That's a lovely apple, isn't it? I think in years to come the English apple will be gone.”

London-born Keith Gipp, a retiree to Charsfield: “When we moved in, the village newsletter said, 'We wish to welcome Keith and Jill to the village.' You wouldn't get a hello in Surrey . . . There were one or two stars we used to see in Surrey. We see them all here.”

Primary school head teacher Jackie Lomas: “If you took the school out of this community there would be another nice house, but there would be a huge gap. People in the community say there's nothing better than being out pegging your washing and hearing the sound of kids in the distance: that shrill laughter.”

Farmer Peter Holloway, whose sons work in teaching and for a land agent: “My sons are smart. They can start work at eight o'clock in the morning, have a company car, have six weeks' holiday or whatever a year. Get a bonus. Leave off at five o'clock . . . Who's the mug, really?”

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