Return to Akenfield
A review of the new book by Craig Taylor
The Independent, 30th March 2006
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
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