The death was announced at the weekend of Ronald Blythe, chronicler of rural Suffolk in his much loved book Akenfield. In this tribute to Blythe, our very own Peter Thurlow shares his personal memories of the place and the people involved.
Akenfield was published in 1969, and everything has changed. Not all for the worse, but what I think of as my recent past has become our history, a different world. Suffolk was still remote and London a far-off place. It could have been the moon. London didn’t come to its weekend cottage in those days, and celebrities were people on the telly, not at the pub. Now, almost every village has its famous author or actor or journalist. Ed Sheeran drinks at the Station Hotel, and at the other end of the bar is the cast and crew of The Detectorists. In Suffolk, nobody makes a fuss.
The book was based on Charsfield. I never met Ronald Blythe, though the postman in the Clopton Crown recounted how he was fearful delivering mail to him because he always came to the door quite unnecessarily, and in an indecently short nightshirt. I was surprised how many people knew of the book, and not the usual literary crowd. The old boys in the pub knew of it, and even though they hadn’t read it, every one had a tale about it. Hector the blacksmith was featured in both the book and the film, and anyway he always had a tale about everything.
Disappearing one by one
The film featured that dull fellow from the Bell too, one of the Cretingham Set, a member of the church congregation singing ‘The day Thou gavest Lord is ended’, his one moment of glory in a rather sad life. Gareth who played the young man in the film, used to drink in the Queen, and everywhere else. People did. Gradually I realised I knew probably most of them, though as their Suffolk disappeared so did they, one by one. But one at least remains, the teacher from the book, who said something profound about how in Suffolk it’s the hands that are passed down through the generations. He’s 90 now, and we still occasionally have lunch together.
The film’s cast were chosen from locals, so there was no chance to criticise the accent, which was the usual line. Peggy was the queen bee in Charsfield and she was another to appear in both book and film. (Later she wrote a column in the local paper under the heading ‘Country Matters’, which I warned the editor was unwise, but he didn’t know his Hamlet.)
Invited to the world film premiere, at Ipswich Gaumont
Somehow my mate Digger and I were invited to the film’s world premiere, on a dull November afternoon at the Ipswich Gaumont. Peter Hall was there with a bevy of bright young things. As a break in Hollywood tradition, as the lights came up after the performance Peggy – the film’s star – stood up in the front row, turned to the audience and demanded: “Roight, now who’s for coffee and who’s for tea?”
There is more traffic than there was though the roads are worse. The houses are much better looked after and there are far more of them. Farming has changed. Fewer livestock and fewer farmers, more stretching fields of cereals managed by contractors employed by them up at the newly renovated ‘big house’. Lots of gravel these days, featuring at least one ‘Disco’ (Land Rover Discovery).
Also, strangely, as Suffolk has become more joined up to the rest of the country, and less rural, there are more horses because there is more money… With the wealthy arrivistes there also came the ambition to be part of the country set, hunt balls and riding to hounds in jodhpurs, and that very chic green that Farrow and Ball would call ‘calke’.
Monty used to fly Spits: “I’d shoot chaps like you”
Because when Akenfield was written, simply everyone my dear followed the hunt. And everyone voted Tory, or at least hid the fact if they didn’t. The farmworkers sat on the settle in the corner with a small dark and kept their own counsel. Politics wasn’t discussed, though most villages had their own Conservative Association. It was known that wasn’t my thing. “Do come, it’s just a social really.” I put up a Labour poster in the garden, to the horror of the neighbours, and it was torn down to the outrage of the farmer next door. To apologise for others’ bad manners he stood me drinks all night at the Queen. There were others, good drinking friends with whom I had nothing in common. Monty, the wing commander who used to fly Spits: “Shit scared, old boy,” he’d declare. Then: “’Course, I’d shoot chaps like you. What’ll you have?” Long gone.
Nobody plays shove ha’penny in the Queen any more. It’s closed, as is the Crown. The Charsfield Three Horseshoes is still there, reputedly open though that seems to be a matter of opinion. But the Shoes was the place for a card school on a Sunday evening. (That was when pubs were open on Sunday evenings, of course.) Some of the old people are left, but not many. They gather at the weekly coffee morning and gossip, but rarely about the old days. None would have read Akenfield, and don’t remember the fuss at the time, or the time itself. It seems as far away to them as it does to me. Another world.