REVIEWED BY JEFF TAYLOR
Ronald Blythe (Allen Lane: 1969)
Ronald Blythe died on January 14th this year having turned 100 the previous November. Local news reports emphasised the publication of Akenfield, his ‘classic’ account of rural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s.
Patrick Barkham, in his obituary of Blythe published in the Guardian newspaper the day after Blythe’s death, wrote ‘In the summer of 1967, Ronald Blythe cycled from his home in the Suffolk hamlet of Debach to the neighbouring village of Charsfield. There he listened to the voices of blacksmiths, gravediggers, nurses, horsemen and pig farmers. He gave them names from gravestones and placed them in a fictional village. Akenfield, a portrait of a rural life rapidly disappearing from view, was immediately acclaimed as a classic when it was published in 1969’.
A major criticism of Akenfield has come from oral history practitioners, particularly in the early 1970s when oral history was in its infancy as a method by which local/community history could be recorded and studied. However, Lynn Abrams, oral history theorist, has suggested that Akenfield ‘…was path-breaking and yet not quite professional enough as some have intimated. Rather, I suggest that it can still teach us a lot about how to write history using oral narratives and dare I say it, offers a master class in the writing of a history which speaks to its readership’ (http://www.oral-history.ir/print.php?id=4084).
Apart from providing academics with much to discuss, Akenfield, as Abrams suggests, has much to offer the general reader. I first read it in the early 70s as a student, probably prompted by having seen the film of the book, directed by Peter Hall. The second time I read it was this January, prompted by Ronald Blythe’s death. The copy I used was the 1999 Penguin reprint with a new preface written by the author. In this he gently bats away some of the early criticism. ‘The book is more the work of a poet than a trained oral historian, a profession I had never heard of when I wrote it. My only real credentials for having written it was that I was native to its situation in nearly every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking. Thus a thread of autobiography runs strongly through it’.
I’ve just started reading Blythe’s Next to Nature (John Murray: 2022), which will, I know, prove to be another classic.