Where did all the farmers go?

24th February 2006 at 00:00

A 1960s classic highlighted the continuing insularity of rural life. The follow-up is less enlightening, writes David Newnham

It was a phone call from the publishers that prompted the writer and critic Ronald Blythe to get his bike out - an old Raleigh that he has kept to this day. Village life was changing everywhere, they said, and nowhere more so than in 1960s Britain. So how did he feel about talking to some rural folk and working the thing up into a book?

Blythe's first impulse was to head for Wales. Despite living on the edge of a Suffolk village - somewhere he had known all his life - it seems he couldn't see the riches under his nose. But a chat with the local nurse changed all that. So astonished was he by the history of her life that he got on his bike and began what he called a "natural conversation" with three generations of his neighbours. Thus was Akenfield born.

When the book appeared in 1969, it was hailed as a classic. Peter Hall had some of the villagers act out their stories on film and, overnight, Debach and Charsfield, the two real-life villages which Blythe had conflated for literary purposes, became back-road diversions on the tourist trail.

But, after a while, Blythe turned his attention to other books, Hall took charge of the National Theatre and the excursion coach swung back on to the A12, leaving "Akenfield" to make its own peace with the changing world. And peace is what the journalist Craig Taylor finds when, 35 years later, he rents a room in Blythe's former house (the author, by this time 83, has moved closer to the Essex border) and begins his own cycling tour of the locality.

In theory, there ought to be more people around, incomers having taken the population from 298 in 1961 to 358 in 2001. But with two shops and a post office now converted to houses, fewer children playing outdoors than Blythe recalls, and an increasing number of villagers ordering their groceries online (today's Akenfield has broadband), the lanes seem less than bustling.

By the 1960s, machines were replacing the agricultural labourers who, in living memory, had thronged the fields and orchards, and, for all but a hardcore of farmers, a job was something that one did in a town. Taylor now finds that process complete, having been accelerated by BSE and foot-and-mouth. Today, even the pigs are in sheds, their presence betrayed only by the occasional whiff on the wind.

If labour is less in evidence, so too is leisure, according to 74-year-old Bernard Catchpole. Whatever happened to all the socials? The former orchard worker has fond memories of church fetes and the like, but the female vicar now has five parishes to tend. "The most people get together is when we have a flower show," he says.

Which might explain why Julie Taplin, a 36-year-old former teacher with two young children, was disappointed when she moved up from Kent. She had expected to walk around Akenfield and be constantly bumping into acquaintances. She had expected open spaces where people would meet. In short, she had expected a community. "But we don't actually have that here," she tells Taylor.

She chairs an under-fives group of mostly "working mums who are having a break at the moment", but something is missing from her car-dependent life.

In the background of her discontent, there lurks an awareness that she does not belong. She hints at a divide between incomers and locals; two "different classes", she calls them. This division was already apparent in Blythe's survey, and was best described by Hugh Hambling, an "outsider"

from Norfolk who at that time was teaching at the local school. While the locals were pleasant enough, he and his wife never felt accepted, he told Blythe. And this greatly saddened them. "We both know that however long we stay we shall never be as near to them as they are near to each other."

It was another teacher, Daphne Ellington, who opened up to Blythe in the 1960s on what she considered the strangeness of the place, and particularly "the power which the children have to resist everybody and everything outside the village". Among both parents and pupils, she said, this translated into a shocking lack of aspiration. "They resist any pressure to make them inquisitive about things which lie beyond the scope of the village. There is something treasonable about a child who does well."

By contrast, Jacqui Lomas, who at the time of Craig Taylor's visit was head of Charsfield primary school, talks proudly of her pupils' emotional maturity, a happy by-product, she reckons, of being in a small rural school where children are forced closer together and must therefore develop social skills. "The downsides are the opportunities," she says. "We're a very small staff. I've tried to develop my touch-rugby skills but, you know..."

Does she share any of her predecessors' misgivings? Probably not, given that "there aren't the farm workers' children because there aren't the farm workers any more", and most parents work for BT or the health service, if they are not lawyers.

But it would have been interesting to have heard the head's take on those matters, given that it was teachers who pinpointed excessive insularity as the least attractive aspect of village life in the 1960s.

In fact, time and again, Taylor leaves the reader wondering whether his subjects could not have been steered into more fertile pastures. Maybe because Blythe was himself a local (Taylor was brought up in Canada), he excelled at getting ordinary people to say extraordinary things. Taylor did well to speak with a couple of migrant workers, and few will ever feel the same about grass once they meet the man with a PhD in turf studies. But his book could have done with more input from those shadowy BT workers and their children, and fewer reminiscences from the old fellas who once cut the hay. Blythe, after all, has been there and done that.

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