The Welshman who struck gold in Suffolk!
A Suffolk village is hanging out the bunting and banging the drum, literally and figuratively, to honour one of its most famous adopted sons - the father of oral history, no lessIT often takes a stranger to see the wood for the trees, so Blaxhall enjoyed a slice of good fortune when Welshman George Ewart Evans and his young family moved to the Suffolk village in 1948 for an eight-year stay.
A Suffolk village is hanging out the bunting and banging the drum, literally and figuratively, to honour one of its most famous adopted sons - the father of oral history, no less
IT often takes a stranger to see the wood for the trees, so Blaxhall enjoyed a slice of good fortune when Welshman George Ewart Evans and his young family moved to the Suffolk village in 1948 for an eight-year stay. Wife Florence took over as headmistress of the 36-pupil school while George became a house-husband - a real novelty in those days - and also plugged away with his stop-start freelance writing career. Then he realised how rich were the memories, how poetic the speech, of retired farmworkers. He recognised times were changing, with increasing mechanisation and fewer folk employed on the land, and he sought to capture the recollections, customs and flavour of an era that was slipping rapidly away. Evans began interviewing his neighbours with a tape-recorder and distilled his findings into prose. It took a while to find a taker, but eventually Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay was published by Faber and Faber in 1956. It later earned classic status and effectively began a series highlighting the reality of rural life in the late 1800s and early 20th Century - books such as The Horse in the Furrow and The Pattern Under the Plough.
A couple of months before Ask The Fellows was published, the family moved on to Needham Market. Six years later they moved again: to Helmingham. But it's Blaxhall that's forever linked with George Ewart Evans. As the chairman of Blaxhall Archive Group says: “The story starts here, really.”
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With the writer born a century ago this year, the group is taking the opportunity to honour Evans's legacy on the weekend of July 25 and 26. There's something for everyone, including old films in which he appears or which are based on his stories, music and historical displays.
A Celebration of Midsummer, a 24-minute film from 1966, for instance, shows step dancing and singing at The Ship Inn, Blaxhall. The 127th Hadleigh Show, including young people's marching bands and the Pony Club, is also featured.
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The 1986 offering Let Dogs Delight, based on the original story by Evans, is a humorous tale about a Welshman who sees a wild greyhound on the hills. “The film is really pleasurable,” says Rodney West, chairman of Blaxhall Archive Group. “People think of him as being a little bit dour, but that's really fun.”
The showpiece is a Saturday seminar examining the man and his pivotal role in spoken history research. It's drawn numerous academics who hold him in esteem. There's a talk by Prof Hamish Fyfe, co-director of the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of Glamorgan, for instance. Dr Rob Perks, a curator at the British Library, will explore Evans's legacy to oral history. Ivan Cutting, artistic director of Eastern Angles Theatre Company, will speak on “Oral history on the stage: from documentary to verbatim”.
Press-ganging wasn't required. “It's been easy, because you just open your mouth, say 'George Evans', and they want to come,” smiles Rodney. “He's respected in academic circles for his legacy. He's called the father of oral history. I know it's a nice soundbite, but it's true: George laid the foundations.”
The author had had a batch of stories accepted by the BBC before he came to Suffolk, and had just seen his first book, The Voices of the Children, published by Penmark Press, but his writing career was still touch and go at that stage.
“He knew how to write properly - read classics at university and things like that - and some short stories were accepted, but as he said himself, he saw there was living history all around him, with these retired agricultural workers speaking Shakespeare's English.
“He wrote about the common man and the common woman” - as in the average person - “rather than the great and the good. In the history records there's virtually nothing about your working man. He's effectively silent. George saw there was a value in their experiences and they responded, because they felt he was interested in their hard lives. One of George's talents was to spot what was going on and to recognise its worth.”
But preserving oral history was only one part of the story. The family left its mark on Blaxhall by pitching in.
“He and his wife are remembered with affection in this village,” says Rodney. “The children then - now in their 60s and 70s - remember it as a renaissance for the things they did. And neighbours were very kind to the family. As the (Evans) children say, it was a very hard time, with not very much money. He would open the door and there would be a plucked chicken sitting on the doorstep for the children.”
Violet and Terry Skeet, who last year celebrated their golden wedding, are two who remember the Evans era. Violet, born in 1940, lived in thatched Acorn Cottage, in Langham Road. She says of headmistress Florence Evans: “She was quite firm with us, but fair. There were a lot of us passed our 11-plus and went to the grammar school at Leiston, so I think her teaching methods were good. She did it by saying 'You've done well', and praise.
“I think she taught us to play the recorder, and put on maypole dancing - which made school not boring. She did introduce a lot of different things.”
Florence's husband supported her. “George was what I would term in Suffolk dialect a dry old stick, really. He'd got this different way of talking to what we had, and, because he couldn't hear very well, it must have been difficult for him. But he was good with the children. He took a genuine interest in people and that was his strong point, and that's why people trusted him.”
Terry was a boy when George arrived. “He used to take us for rugby-touch and boxing lessons. There was the old tractor put on the playground - he had something to do with that - and he did nature walks.
“Lords and people like that, if they came to the village, they might think they were above everyone; but he didn't think like that - he joined in with the kids.”
Then there was the Festival of Britain in 1951. Rodney explains: “An edict went out from Government that all the parishes ought to try to do something to celebrate the Festival of Britain [a series of exhibitions designed to give post-war Britain a feelgood factor]. In fact, it turned out only three parishes in east Suffolk did anything.
“What George did was create an exhibition of bygone items. He'd sent a letter round to all the villagers: have you got any old tools or old shepherds' smocks and things like that? I think they all thought he was holding a jumble sale!” The display got his elderly neighbours talking - and they used older language that was poetry to his ears.
Amazingly, Blaxhall then had no mains water, mains sewage or electricity. “He was worried about babies suffering from cyanosis because of well water. I think a couple died.” Evans, who'd become a parish councillor and clerk, was angry at what he saw as “class government” further up the line. He made himself “an aggressive nuisance” in meetings and fought for improvements.
Many neighbouring villages had electricity, but Blaxhall was missing out. The parish council by-passed local government and appealed directly to the Minister of Housing. That was one Harold Macmillan, whose wife was a sister of Lady Blanche Cobbold, of nearby Glemham Hall and lord of the manor of Blaxhall. “The poles went up round the village and light came shortly afterwards,” Evans noted wryly in his autobiography.
“He did a great deal for the village,” says Rodney West. “He was a very well-liked and respected person, and we felt it our duty to mark his centenary here with something very special.”
GEORGE and Florence Evans's youngest child, Susan, is thrilled her father is being celebrated. She was nearly two when the family moved from London. “My overriding memory is of the school and playing in the lane and on the heath behind with children from the village and the newly-built council houses.
“My sister Mary and I often sat in the background whilst George made his recordings and were told to keep quiet. I particularly recall the fireside at (former shepherd) Robert Savage's house and being fascinated by the 'mighty midget' tape recorder slowly turning on the table.”
Her dad “combined bringing up the children, doing cooking and domestic chores whilst finding time to work in his study. He was an attentive and affectionate father who was very keen for his children to read and expand their knowledge. It was hard work for my mother running the school and coming home to more noisy children; initially they had help in the house, but couldn't afford to keep it and so shared the washing and the housework: a difficult task with no running water or electricity for the first few years”.
Violet Skeet remembers Susan and Matthew Evans as fellow pupils. In fact, she recalls regularly elbowing Matthew in the ribs when they were playing. “Well, I had three brothers . . . I was used to it,” she smiles.
Matthew went on to become chairman of publisher Faber and Faber. He was made a life peer nine years ago. Lord Evans of Temple Guiting will talk at the weekend on “Memories of my father”. Violet chuckles about the rise of her ex-schoolmate. “There's no way I'm calling him 'Lord', though!” she laughs.
Susan and husband David Gentleman, the designer and illustrator, have a home near Halesworth. David is producing drawings for a new print of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay planned by new Suffolk publisher Full Circle Editions. It's important to treasure George's work in preserving “the lively and inimitable words” of Blaxhall folk, he says.
“George's tact, sympathy and patience persuaded them to tell the truth about their lives, their work, their knowledge and beliefs. They spoke honestly, vividly and expressively about a hard and now-vanished way of life. Their words ring true today.”
George Ewart Evans, the man
Born Glamorgan, April 1909
Son of a grocer
Trained as a PR teacher
Worked at Sawston Village College, near Cambridge
Met teacher Florence Knappet there
They married in 1938
Had four children: Jane, Mary, Matthew and Susan
Joined the RAF during the war, training in radio and electronics
In his autobiography, he said the Edmonton school where he later taught English was a “bleak nineteenth century learning-factory”
He felt the London air repeatedly made most of the family ill
In 1948 they moved to Blaxhall, near Woodbridge
After eight years they moved to Needham Market and then Helmingham
When Florence retired, they settled in Brooke, Norfolk
Evans died there in 1988
Things he said:
“It was as if their work, the work of their hands, had fashioned their tongues and moulded their speech to economical and often memorable utterance”
“Oral history is not an academic technique but a human relationship”
Blaxhall's big bash - July 25 and 26
On the Saturday -
Blaxhall Village Hall, 9.30am to 5.30pm: Seminar “George Ewart Evans & the Spoken Word”
The Ship inn, from 9pm: folk music and singing
The Playing Field: East Suffolk Morris Men
Saturday and Sunday -
The Old School: displays on Evans
Memory Marquee: Features The Blaxhall Family Database and photographic database
Other marquees: Include displays by history groups, East Anglian Traditional Music Trust and live music
On Sunday, on playing field, steel quoits league match
Full details: www.blaxhall.com/gee
Everything is open to all and free, apart from the Saturday seminar
This costs �10, including a buffet lunch
To book tickets: email Blaxhall Archive Group on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01728 688611
Admission to the Sunday film shows is free, but it's advisable to book as there is limited seating