AKENFIELD, PORTRAIT OF AN ENGLISH VILLAGE, by Pantheon, $6.95
“England has changed less in this century than in any corresponding period of time in its history” according to the recent complaint of an editor of the New Statesman. Many of the English, impatient with the slow progress of social modernization and economic development, would agree with this provocative statement. However, Ronald Blythe’s superb documentation of the changes which have revolutionized modern England is as impressive a put-down of this thesis as could be imagined.
As a social chronicle of the changes in English village life since the Edwardian era, Akenfield is without equal. The revolution which swept the horses off the farms, transformed farming from a way of life into an industry, abolished the servile relationship between landowner and farm worker, and immeasurably weakened the power of the Church is every bit as astounding a phenomenon as the cataclysm which forced the Chinese peasants into the communes or which broke up the big sugarcane estates in Cuba. However, while Jan Myrdal’s brilliant Report From a Chinese Village made the village of Liu Ling in northern China seem far more comprehensible to the Westerner, it was almost impossible for the reader to identify with the young Chinese farmers being trained in the spirit of Mao’s revolution.
Akenfield today is equated with what we consider to be the good life:
... a tall old church on the hillside, a pub selling the local brew, a pretty stream, a football pitch, a handsome square vicarage with a cedar of Lebanon shading it, a school with jars of tadpoles in the window, three shops with doorbells, a Tudor mansion. . . .
The almost religious intensity of the regard for rural life which now predominates the English world is firmly exposed by Blythe. In England the urban dweller has always looked upon his existence as a temporary necessity which he would correct one day by finding a cottage on the green and adopting its “real values.” This penchant borders on a cult of village happiness, but it is one with which we can readily identify.
The image of this village ideal is more an illusion than it ever was. Today gasoline fumes from the passing traffic pall the summer air, and the roar of jet fighters fragments the quiet of an isolated existence. Precariously balanced between the Middle Ages and the Space Age, Akenfield is already invaded by blaring transistor radios. “Nobody walks about the village anymore,” complains the blacksmith. “You don’t say you saw your neighbor, you say you passed his car. People wave and look where they used to talk.”
Blythe intentionally focuses on the change in outlook to build up the dramatic effect. For literary purposes (and also to preserve a certain amount of anonymity) , he has amalgamated two real Suffolk towns. In this modern Domesday Book of East Anglia, Blythe lets the village people speak in their own dialect with a minimum of interposition. The voices of the blacksmith, the thatcher, the district schoolteacher, the magistrate, and the gravedigger, to mention only a handful, Speak the growing pains of the twentieth century. The characters in Akenfield protest vainly against the social forces which are sweeping them into the unchartered future.
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Not that the inhabitants of Akenfield are nostalgic for the past. “Every bad thing gets to sound pleasant when time has passed. But it wasn’t pleasant then, and that’s a fact,” says one farm worker in his eighties. Life for the women was one of continuous childbearing, tempered by occasional stretches of flintpicking in the austere, wet fields. Life, even forty years ago, was one of strictly maintained rotation: washing on Monday, baking on Tuesday, housecleaning on Wednesday, and so forth. The old people tell of the time when they were virtually serfs —working brutal hours for starvation wages—and when the local farmers used to raid the village school for child labor.
Fred Mitchell, eighty-five, a horseman by profession, described what life was like at the turn of the century. Who knows anything now about the skills involved in plowing a field with a team of horses? Half a century ago a “straight furrow” was all a man had, it was his signature. But the rural dean comments that it seemed wrong to him that “a man’s achievement should be reduced to this.” Physical strength was the pride of these East Anglian farmers, and as soon as it was gone the men became timid and dispirited. “It was the farm versus their bodies,” says one worker, “and the farm always won.”
Christopher Falconer, thirty-nine, an estate gardener, perhaps gives the most impressive testament to the proximity of the Victorian era. Christopher began his apprenticeship at the “big house” where lordship and ladyship used to scream at him: “Be alert, boy! Swing your arms!” It was always “swing your arms.” The rule was that the gardeners in their green baize aprons must never be seen from the house. It was forbidden. If guests were sitting on the terrace or on the lawn and the gardener had a barrow load of weeds, he would have to push it as much as a mile to keep out of view. Nowadays, says the gardener with a mixed sigh of regret and relief, the newcomers buy “expensive ugly things. Their gardens look like shopping.” But as Christopher himself says, there are hardly any gardeners of his caliber left.
Although the blacksmith, the thatcher, the saddler, and the wheelwright all keep on going, it is only because rich, retired people liked to keep up their quaint period properties. The real villagers remain aloof from the Arcadian notions of these urbanized newcomers. The average agricultural wage remains half of what it is in industry, and the young men are resentful. The young worker of the 1960s prefers the impersonal contract of the factory to the farm’s “special relationship” where he earns less and has to give more of himself.
Brian Newton, nineteen, is bitter because the farmer he works for likes to give him little perks, like extra gasoline, for good work done. “He needs me to be beholden to him in some way. Loyal. He is emotional and patronizing. He should pay me for what 1 do and not expect my whole life to be his.”
To an extent, the village is still imprisoned by the implacability of the everlasting circle of nature: spring-birth, winter-death, and in between, the harvest. Harvest festivals, with homemade beer flowing in the shade of the hedgerows, used to be the climax of the cyclical year. Now a solitary youth riding a big red combine has replaced that Brueghel-like scene. Instead of living by loyalty, the agricultural technician lives for what he can get. And when the ten-hour day is over, he jumps on his scooter to visit his girlfriend in the anonymity of a nearby town.
Akenfield is becoming increasingly divided. The farmers continue to leave the land to be replaced by outsiders: commuters, ex-colonels, technicians, and city people searching for the realization of their dreams. One wonders how far the process of alienation from the land can go. What will be left of the English village in another hundred years? At the current rate of change it should be unrecognizable, its poetry restricted to the graveyard.
The rural dean confesses that to the young “the past is boring and shabby.” They don’t even want to know about how their forefathers struggled and suffered. The swinging farmer’s daughter in her miniskirt and mini-car is not interested in “respectability” which restricted the life of her mother and grandmother before her. And if one looks over the past record of incest—and the Chairman of the Akenfield Bench alludes to this—then the new mores may not be all that unhealthy.
The extremely penetrating changes in the traditional way of life of a people inspire deep, contemplative thought. Somehow, one feels sentimental about all the uprooting. Maybe that is why the farmers of Akenfield feel so resentful of the townspeople who drive out to the lanes and woods in the springtime to tear up the flowers.
The spiritual revolution that has swept Akenfield in two generations is a valid commentary on the change that has come over men everywhere, and Blythe makes the most of it. As the village farrier says with genuine nostalgia: “The old people have gone and have taken a lot of truth out of the world with them.”