Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Royal Society of Literature took out a long lease on a white stucco Bayswater house, formerly the home of General Sir Ian Hamilton, leader of the Gallipoli Expedition. It was dilapidated but spacious, and a first-floor room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court became a library in which the Society’s Fellows could browse among one another’s works. All went well until, in the early Seventies, an elderly, light-fingered Fellow took to leaving the building with volumes secreted between two pairs of trousers, which he wore sewn together at the hem. The library was closed.
I began working for the Royal Society of Literature in the autumn of 1991, and it was on the shelves of this silent, abandoned room that I first discovered Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. Published in 1969, it had become an instant classic, and, since then, it has never been out of print. From the first sentence – ‘The village lies folded away in one of the shadow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain’ – it was clear that this was a book to slow down for, and to relish.
It is now nearly forty years since Ronald Blythe, equipped with a tape recorder and an old Raleigh bicycle, travelled around the Suffolk countryside he had known from boyhood, capturing the memories and reflections of three generations of a rural community, to which he gave the imaginary name ‘Akenfield’ (acen is old English for ‘oak’). These he transcribed, weaving them together with observations in his own precise, poetic prose.
That particular moment in the mid-Sixties provided an extraordinary vantage point from which to look both deep into the past and well into the future. The older villagers – ‘The Survivors’, as Blythe calls them – are steeped in a lore and a way of life that reach back hundreds of years. They talk of the ancient bond between ploughman and horse, and of how they sang
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