Wednesday 18 November 2015

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

I bought my copy in 1974, the year I came to Ireland. I grew up fifty or so miles south of Akenfield, in east Essex. It is reassuring to know that I liked the spoken/written word in 1974. Polar opposite of Mallarmé and the lads. Or maybe not. There was much that was unsayable whether you were a Suffolk ploughman or a Paris poet. The loneliness and self-determination were the same. Living inside books and never reading books were the same too.

Pigs are interesting people, says the pig man, and some of them can leave quite a gap when they go off to the bacon factory.

It is a jolt now to read about a farm worker my age in 1967, on day release to a college in Ipswich, eating up the chance to think about the broader world. He came to conclusions about the Vietnam war far earlier than I, some way down the path of education, could have: they're just farmers having a revolution, he said. I had to ask my brother who was fighting whom in Vietnam.

The Suffolk village Ronald Blythe creates out of conversations with its inhabitants was, and remains, what I think of as a village. I did not come to live in any such village  in Ireland, though from my address you'd think there was one. Ireland doesn't do villages; there's another style, another culture, longer, meandering over miles, unadmitted. It has taken forty years for me to muster a sense of community — if very far-flung, diffuse, occasional, and nothing to do with my address.

I like the JP/Samaritan who concludes disbelievingly that some people just aren't joiners. I like the district nurse, the orchard men, the orchard timetable; I'm amazed by the school log in the 1930s (half-day off for blackberrying!), entranced by the craftsmen, the shepherds, the hands of the forge, the open-ended community Ronald Blythe created and laid out: here, consider this if you will, here is a village in the late sixties in England.

I read it twice this time. I wanted to know what a village was, wanted to be reminded of what people in their lives will say if you give them the space, the ease of mind.

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