Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Pig or a Punch in Sight

Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Pig or a Punch in Sight

Article excerpt

RETURN TO AKENFIELD by Craig Taylor Granta, £14.99, pp. 228, ISBN 1862078874 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

When Ronald Blyth's Akenfield was published in 1969, it became, slightly to everyone's surprise, a bestseller. It was quite a gritty book, recording the lives of country people at a time of change. They were hard lives, and the village folk loved the escape provided by their motorcars, just as much as the farmers liked the profit that could be had from ripping out hedges.

But there was a public that wanted to read about it. Farming was an important industry then; children growing up in industrial towns were still taught about wild flowers.

Everyone recognised that rural England occupied a special place in the national soul.

Craig Taylor's Return to Akenfield is exactly what it says. He has gone back to the Suffolk villages which Blyth lightly fictionalised into Akenfield, and recorded the thoughts of today's residents. It is beautifully told, mostly in direct speech. In the short introductions to each interview, Taylor shows a keen eye, noticing the single page of the Daily Mail covering the chairs in a 91year-old gamekeeper's front room to keep them clean. I hope this book will do as well as Blyth's classic, but I have my doubts. Its theme is the demise of farming. One reason that British farming is in its present state is that the public doesn't care.

An appendix contains a note made by one old boy of all the different types of plums and apples he can remember tending -- dozens of them. Now only a couple of apple varieties are grown, Bramleys and Coxes. Such are the demands of supermarkets for apples of the right size, blemish-free and, in the case of Coxes, showing 25 per cent of red blush, that half of them are never picked. The fallers are not gathered up for cider, or even scoffed by pigs.

Trees are still being cut down and sawn up for the cottage fire. Blackcurrants will soon be the only fruit left; what used to be the horrible, staining job of picking them is now done by machine.

Old men tip off youngsters before they stumble into the dead end that farming has become. It is not just the money. The camaraderie that made the old, harsh times bearable has gone too. Tractor drivers now drill the fields in upholstered comfort, but cannot talk to one another on CB radio any more; in their enormous machines they are so far apart that they are beyond range.

They are different people from Blyth's Akenfielders. Look at their smooth hands.

These aren't the great hams of yore, horny, matured by clutching hay rakes and throwing bales of straw. …

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