Upon hearing yesterday’s news that Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I started reading her book Voices from Chernobyl. So far, I think the book, a kind of oral history of the survivors (meaning the individuals making up entire communities), is brilliant and powerful. While the content is not the same, I was struck at how similar in approach and consequent power Voices from Chernobyl is to Ronald Blythe’s “brilliant and powerful” (I’m quoting myself from above) Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, which has just been reissued by NYRB Classics. Akenfield is also an oral history taken of, as Blythe himself calls many of them, “survivors” who make up a changing English village in the 1960s. So far, Akenfield is the best book I’ve read in 2015.
Akenfield itself is a fictional village, but it is based, Blythe says in his preface, on the Suffolk village of Charsfield, “but with the surrounding countryside and myself drawn into it.” When he sat down to write Akenfield, Blythe did not have any idea what a oral historian was and, therefore, did not set out to write an oral history but rather “the work of a poet.” And, indeed, this poetic chronicle of the village both celebrates the unsung lives of its inhabitants and frequently hints at the unfathomable universe we all partake in.
Blythe, who is 92 and still writing (look here for his latest column, posted today, for The Church Times), was born in 1922. As a longtime resident of the small village of Acton, Suffolk, which borders Charsfield, he is not an outsider biographer, which may result in some disadvantages but, in this case, seems to have been to our benefit — he is a poet who understands the rhythms of his subjects. He comes at it from a position of reverence even:
Akenfield, on the face of it, is the kind of place in which an Englishman has always felt his right and duty to live. It is patently the real country, untouched and genuine. A holy place, when you have spent half your life abroad in the services. Its very sounds are formal, hieratic; larks, clocks, bees, tractor hummings. Rarely the sound of the human voice.
And so that’s Blythe’s job — to amplify the human voice that is present. And it is varied, especially, as he avers, due to the major events of the last fifty years: “I saw the two World Wars as extraordinary intrusions, walling off two successive generations from each other, and giving each of them a distinctive voice.”
The first section of the book, entitled “The Survivors,” focuses on the oldest generation. On its surface, this section focuses on those of that generation who against the odds returned after World War I. They survived the war. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Blythe is working on several layers. Yes, these are survivors because they survived the war, at least in some senses. However, these are also survivors because against all odds, they survived the harsh working conditions of the village (many were literally worked to death), any freak injuries and accidents that maimed them for life, and whatever diet their poor wages afforded. And in perhaps the melancholy sense, they are survivors because they have survived those they loved. The seventy-nine-year-old Emily Leggett lost two husbands during her life, one back in World War I and one in the waning days of World War II. Her sections ends:
Nobody could have wished for two better husbands. My horsemen — both gone!
As the book proceeds, we meet nearly 50 inhabitants of Akenfield, often known by their professions — farmer, doctor, teacher, blacksmith, thatcher, ploughman, etc. — and Blythe organizes them in interesting ways so that the multiple voices can sing together to form a richer portrait of the village.
For example, the second section is entitled “God,” and while we do hear from the Baptist Deacon and the Rural Dean at this point, we also hear from the Doctor, a Teacher, and an Orchard Worker as they share their thoughts on God, giving a varied, rich glimpse at the perception of God and religion in the village over the troubled century. The Rural Dean, The Rev. Gethyn Owen, is sixty-three when Blythe talks with him. He’s experiencing the difficulties of getting people together to talk about faith, but he’s also trying his best to help people rid themselves of their “cruel and ugly taboos.” His section ends by him saying people do best if they leave Akenfield for a time and then return. And thus our perception of this village becomes even richer as we see that it is a product not just of its inhabitants but also of its traditions and taboos. The place is its own living thing.
One of my favorite sections, which also deepened my sense of Akenfield as a place with its own past and powers, was “Not by Bread Alone,” which concerns The Poet.
When I was a boy I lived in a country suburb of London — it was still possible to talk of a suburb being in the country then. After Oxford, I worked in London, where I wrote a poetry of despair. It was a continuous cry for what I ahd lost, for the hills and fields, and the vixen wood, with the dog-fox barking at night. I imagined myself dying inside and so I came to this village to find my health. My wholeness. That is what I am here. It was not my village but to say that I had returned to it seemed a true way of describing what had happened to me. Suffolk amazed me — the great trees, the towering old buildings soaring out of the corn. The huge clear spaces.
I am now at home here. I know everybody and everybody knows me. Words have meaning for me here. I am lucky, I came here to get better but I have in fact been re-born.
This section, which really is a beautiful tribute to the village and to the country in general, plays more profoundly coming, as it does, late in the book, when we’ve read so much about the hardships of village life, about the sorrows and failures people experienced here, about the pain the country can inflict. Also, we’ve read the section from “The Young Men,” who are inheriting the land and the hardships from the old generation or abandoning the village entirely. Again, all of this makes Akenfield a beautifully complex place, and we can feel the effect of the land upon the people.
That effect seems to dig deeply into the generations; land and identity are linked in ways that aren’t easily affected, even by time. The book begins with some wonderful generalities about the people of Suffolk:
If a man comes from Akenfield he knows that he is telling someone from another part of the neighbourhood a good deal more than this. Anything from his appearance to his politics could be involved. But on the whole the villagers don’t volunteer much about themselves. They are not loquacious people. The old ones have emerged from indignities and sufferings which taught a man how to hold his tongue, and a guarded note marks much of their conversation.
Late in the book, in a section entitled “The Northern Invaders,” Blythe introduces some outsiders from Scotland, including the sixty-year-old farmer Jamie McIver. The strange thing is this: the McIvers (and others in this section, having come to Suffolk between the wars) have been in Akenfield for forty years, yet their identity still seems hinged on their Scotish roots and haven’t been affected over the years:
The McIvers farm a tenancy of 180 acres east of the river. Forty years of East Anglian life have made little or no mark on their Scottish positivism or Scottish sentiment alike. Jamie is a man who doesn’t change his views to suit the times and, now that he is getting older, he clings more than ever to the clear-cut rules laid down during his boyhood. He is didactic and authoritative, stating strong opinions in a way which contrasts dramatically with Suffolk caution. Like most of his countrymen, he has remained both emigrant and exile.
In so many ways, while exploring the village lives, Akenfield burrows into the roots of the relationship between identity and place. It ends with “In the Hour of Death,” a section on the rather grumpy gravedigger William “Tender” Russ. He’s been digging graves for forty years, since he was just twelve. He’s familiar with death and with the similarities and differences in which the people of Suffolk approach it. He remarks, “Dust to dust they say. It makes me laugh. Mud to mud, more like.” Earth to body to earth: there they stay, in Akenfield.