Voices of Akenfield
This is the first of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.
The rule with land is to give–then you can take.
– Duncan Campbell, aged sixty-six, sheep farmer.
It is amazing how many quotable moments can be found in this 125-page extract from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield first published in 1969. Each chapter or section tells the story of a different Suffolk villager in the first person. Taken from interviews conducted in 1967, the subjects, many in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, are witnesses to great upheaval in social mores, technology, and agrarian society. We meet horsemen, shepherds, orchard men, a district nurse, blacksmiths, a saddle maker, and others.
Not only are some of the subjects colorful characters, but they provide an ethnography of a time and setting that I understand intellectually but also find hard to believe ever existed. It brings to life all of those working class characters who make cameos in many a BBC period drama. Any tendency to romanticize these folks and their lives is kept in check paragraph by paragraph by the sheer difficulty and hard-work that characterized their daily lives. Not only did they work hard, but they got little compensation for it and had little opportunity for economic or social mobility. But they were close to family, to the land, and most took great pride in their life’s work. And simple pleasures were life sustaining. I was pleasantly surprised to come across the following lines by Fred Mitchell, a hardworking 81-year old horseman:
But I have forgotten one thing–the singing. There was such a lot of singing in the village then, and this was my pleasure, too. Boys sang in the fields, and at night we all met at the Forge and sang. The chapels were full of singing. When the first war came, it was singing, singing all the time. So I lie; I have had pleasure. I have had singing.
I have known these words in slightly altered form for many years. They were adapted and beautifully put to music by composer Steven Sametz in 1993. And this recording of the work by Chanticleer really does both horseman Fred Mitchell and composer Steve Sametz proud.
The words to the song are slightly different and worth reading while you listen to this short choral piece. I think it is very evocative. Check out this link and listen, see if you aren’t transported.
There was so much singing then,
and this was my pleasure too.
We all sang,
The boys in the fields,
The chapels were full of singing, always singing.
Here I lie.
I have had pleasure enough.
I have had singing.
I think my favorite character is William Russ, aged sixty-one, gravedigger. He felt called to be a gravedigger from early days, conducting all sorts of animal funerals as a child, digging his first human grave at 12 and becoming the legal sexton by 13. And he is not afraid to speak his mind. In one case he resents the daughter of an old canon who kicks up a fuss regarding the way Russ has interred her father’s ashes.
Well, of course, as everybody knows, all that family, particularly the daughters, were over-educated. They were old maids. They weren’t cranky because they hadn’t had a man but because they’d had too many old books. Their brains were strained.
He says this about clergy who miscalculate the fees due to the sexton:
And talking of money, I must mention the Table of Fees…You would think it was plain enough but I have to read the damn thing aloud to half the parsons or they’d diddle me out of a mint of money…believe me when it comes to little money matters, parsons are the biggest swindlers on earth.
Russ gets the final chapter and indeed the final word. His bittersweet stream of consciousness is indicative of the kind of honest stories that make up this volume. Having buried 150 to 200 people a year for about 40 or so years, Russ seems particularly candid in summing things up in what could be a metaphor for the ways of life Blythe captures in this time capsule of a book.
I’m not a Christian. I do a lot of things I shouldn’t do, so I can’t count myself as one. Life isn’t as comfortable as it used to be. Nobody wants to know you. I have been widowed for ten years. I go to church every Sunday but nobody speaks to me unless they want something. Snobbish. They’re all snobs now. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but almost ever since I was born I have been at everybody’s beck and call. I have no family, none at all. No one in all the world is my relation. I never did read a lot. I never could give my mind to it. I talk too much, that is my failing. I come into contact with many people at a serious time, so I have picked up serious conversation. What most folk have once or twice in a lifetime, I have every day. I want to be cremated and my ashes thrown in the air. Straight from the flames to the winds, and let that be that.
Next up: The Wood by John Stewart Collis