On the far side of the ring road. Village life used to revolve around farming and religion. But now churchgoing is dwindling and the harvesting is done by itinerant workers. Robert Winder on our changing countryside

Return to Akenfield

Craig Taylor

<em>Granta Books, 288pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 1862078874

The music of the English countryside drifts ever more faintly over our subsidised hedgerows, and the long tradition of English pastoral has wilted down to occasional if bitter rows about fox-hunting, rural post offices and country bus routes. In modern, supermarket Britain, the threads that tie daily life to our ancient rural heritage have loosened to the point of unravelling. The property pages still burst with spectacular scenery, and rooms with views remain the archetypal English fantasy. But modern literature rarely pauses to look. It is hard to see what is going on in the green and pleasant land on the far side of the ring road.

Hardly anything could be more welcome, in this context, than a return to Akenfield. It is more than 30 years since Ronald Blythe interviewed the inhabitants of a Suffolk farming village and turned it, under its beguiling stage name, into the most famous slice of little England in the world. His gaze was not rose-tinted: the villagers were frank about the hardships of the past, and the book was often plaintive - not just Country Life, but country strife. But it was translated into 20 languages and inspired a Peter Hall film (in which the villagers could not be scripted, for Equity reasons). Akenfield was especially beloved in North America, where it came to represent Olde England, and perhaps even Old Europe.

Blythe's Akenfield housed a bell-ringer, a wheelwright, a blacksmith and a thatcher - trades that seemed even then to belong to a bygone era. More than three decades on, Craig Taylor (a Canadian-born Londoner) has visited the village for a fresh set of interviews, somewhat in the manner of Michael Apted's Seven Up television documentaries. Here, however, the focus is not on how people have aged, but on how the village itself has developed. It is oral history at its best: direct yet full of charm; at once sentimental and austere. Taylor joins an elite club of canny interviewers (Studs Terkel, Tony Parker, Susan Richards) who are able to delineate entire worlds with a collage of individual voices.

A passing glance reveals, on the inside back cover, a list of apple varieties scribbled down by an old orchard hand who could name 40 or so off the top of his head. Many of them would have been grown in Akenfield-that-was, but these days only two apples are grown: Cox and Bramley. They are part of the huge conveyor belt that feeds Mr Kipling and Tesco, and they must conform to precise size and colour imperatives. Otherwise they are left to rot. This stark detail symbolises as well as anything the way a mixed farming village has been streamlined by the era of mass-market agribusiness. The other major local product is blackcurrants, for Ribena, of course.

The population of the village has almost doubled, but the two shops and the post office have closed down - like the tennis club. Only a handful of villagers now farm the fields. Their home is a dormitory town just off the A12 near Ipswich. And the fruit harvest is gathered in not by the villagers, turning out in force and in sweaty festival mood, but by Portuguese and east European itinerants here to learn English and be (so far as they are concerned) overpaid for a while.

The book vibrates with contemporary issues to do with the role of mechanisation and subsidy in modern farming, the significance of migrant labour, the nature and procedures of our food industry, and other country matters. There are some unsurprising revelations about "organic" farming - "people think organic stuff is not sprayed at all, but it is". And Tesco features so heavily as the off-stage villain that one wishes Taylor had found one of its employees to speak to. But the beauty of the book does not lie in these abstractions; it rests in the power of the first-person pronoun. The voices in the book ring as true as the bell in the village church. They shiver with unmediated, lived experience.

This is what they say:

"I said they'd never get a machine to do the blackcurrants. They were so soft . . . Now they've got a machine that does it better than the women."

"When I left they gave me a silver ashtray for picking up for 40 years. It's silver. Made in London. And it's mine."

"I have my son in Portugal. Of course . . . it's very difficult for him and for me. We phone every day."

"Sheep are pig-ignorant. They just make your life hard . . . Give me alpacas any day."

"I'm looking at polo as a business possibility. Polo is definitely on the rise."

"I go to all the funerals of the top church people. But mostly I'm in the churchyard, sweeping up the leaves."

The poetry of ordinary life is often hard to catch or represent. Taylor, like Blythe, seems to find it in every clod of Suffolk soil. Nowhere is this clearer than in the monologue that forms his emotional climax, based on an interview with the owner of the "farmhouse-style" bed and breakfast where Blythe wrote his book (it is now a boot-room for ramblers). We can find the house on the internet: it has an "Akenfield Suite" - "light and airy, with natural wood floors, rugs and a sofa".

It sounds cosy and unpretentious - no spa, no flat-screen TV. So it is a shock to learn of the sorrow that is still being swept off these natural wood floors. After describing the B&B and her guided-walk business ("They think because it's Suffolk it's going to be a doddle. It's not, it's real walking") the owner, Maggie Jennings, tells the sad story of her son Andrew. A paranoid schizophrenic, he borrowed a hosepipe late one night and killed himself in a quiet country lane, after a long and unequal tussle with unsteady behaviour, at the age of 25.

It is all too easy to forget that this is precisely the kind of harrowing thing that happens in a place like Akenfield - the kind of unassuming village we routinely think of as being a place where nothing happens. And the grief is braced against a solid rural pragmatism. "Bless him, he took it into his own hands and did it and saved us all the heartache," the mother says. "He's buried in the Akenfield churchyard . . . On the anniversary of his death, we went and poured a pint of beer on his grave."

Even in its less charged moments, Return to Akenfield has this same steadiness and immediacy. The emphasis, quite rightly, is on the past - on the voices of those who recall how the village has changed since Blythe's day. Farming and the church: these are the poles around which Akenfield life has revolved for hundreds of years. Now both are on the endangered list - and the church even has a woman vicar. "Sometimes there will be five or six of us at the 8.30 communion," she says, determined not to sound apologetic. "Sometimes we get as many as 12. I don't have my own parking space, but it isn't as though we've got a great crowd fighting for space."

The diversifying village includes internet entrepreneurs, golf-green analysts, retired telephone engineers and writers. In less than four decades, the echoes of Blythe's Akenfield are almost inaudible. But the book does include one remarkable scoop. It concerns the way the Queen kills shot birds, and given that it feels mean to divulge her preference I will say only that it is on page 144 . . .

Oh, all right then. She clouts them with a hammer. You read it here first.

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain (Abacus)