Akenfield: A foreign take on the rural ideal
By Richard Haugh
Craig Taylor grew up in the west coast of Canada but came to Suffolk to write a follow up to Ronald Blythe's 1969 novel Akenfield. The fictional village based on Charsfield, the surrounding area and its people had become cherished around the world.
Charsfield - partly inspired Akenfield
Craig, author of 2006's Return to Akenfield, visited BBC Suffolk in May 2009 to speak about Eastern Angles' stage interpretation of his collection of interviews with residents of 'Akenfield'. He wore an old brown UPS shirt (minus the logo), spoke in a soft Canadian accent and declined our offer of a cup of coffee - opting instead for a still water.
"A friend of mine, who's my editor, had read the original, and I'd read some of it years ago, and we were talking about it one day and tried to figure out what had happened to the village.
"The original is so wonderful and for people who don't live in Suffolk it conjures up such a beautiful view of the place. It was a fascination for both of us and he encouraged me to go spend some time there, and to find out what had changed - to let people speak about their lives.
"The original was a result of Ronald Blythe intimately looking at the details of the place where he had lived for a long, long time. I couldn't replicate that experience so my project took the opposite approach. I was a newcomer intent on learning about the place.
"I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions, and the idea was for me to let other people talk about their lives without passing judgment.
"I had some great times there. I loved hearing these people talk about their relationship with this bit of land."
Getting to know the locals
"The original book was released in 1969 and I was there in 2004, so it had been a while.
"I tried not to think of the residents as characters. I tried to think of them as people who had something to say.
"I think what is nice about spending time in a place is that you don't have to immediately go into a place, ask all your questions and then leave the next day. I was there for a while and people knew who I was.
"The countryside and villages are always changing. I was able to speak to some people who were in their 90s and have since died, and a lot of their knowledge and a lot of life stories would have gone with them if we hadn't sat down and chatted a few times. That was really special to me - to get that window into what life was like a while ago.
"We are in history, and although it seems like it's not that far away, in 20 or 30 years' time, someone who can remember being a gamekeeper is going to be fascinating. I'm glad I was able to take down some of his words before he died.
"I think there were differences in all facets of life, in everything from church to education to the way agriculture has changed - the intensity and that not a lot of people are needed anymore.
"I think village structure has changed because people have lives outside of the village in a way that previous generations never did. I also saw that there are people in villages who are really determined to bring about a caring village spirit - to have connection with their neighbours.
"But you could see it was very much on their own terms, which was different to what Ronald wrote about.
Peggy Cole starred in Akenfield the film
"People want the good things about being in a village, but they don't necessarily want what we've left behind. In the words of some of the older people they can be very constricting places, some of the younger people who have moved in are trying to build up a sense of community and maybe maintain their freedom as well.
"There's a tendency to always look at the past as being better, but people can't live in the past - especially the younger people who are there now.
"I think a lot of people were trying to make it a great little place to be, which is true with a lot of villages. There are struggles and a lack of public space in a lot of these places, including Charsfield, where's there's no longer a shop.
"There are always struggles but if people care about a community they can always fashion their own."
Village life in the 21st Century
"Some of the older people were certainly aware of how things had changed, and the comforts that they'd gained.
"Some of the people who had memories of tied cottages couldn't help but think that things were better, because they owned their place and they didn't have to worry about being booted out in the middle of the night.
"But for those who had a very positive experience in that sort of community that was there 30 or 40 years ago there was a bit of wistful remembering. But certainly the old farmhands I spoke to didn't look back on some of their jobs fondly - they were envious of the farm workers now with their big tractors.
"You get a sense in the original book just how tightly circumscribed people's lives were and how a trip to a neighbouring town was a huge deal. Now, as Ronald mentioned in my book, people go wherever they want and that's the same for people in villages as it is in cities.
"Ronald mentions that there was this trade off - that you have less of a unique local identity.
"We watch the same TV programmes, there's an upside and downside to the new prosperity.
"It would be hard to begrudge people wanting prosperity and I've read things where the writer wants to hark back to a time where everyone had bad teeth and was bent over, but you can't wish for that kind of life to be back here now.
"I think it's good when people can all move a bit forward, but as Ronald says that comes with a price."
Return to Akenfield tours Suffolk
"I didn't think there was that many villages - I sent the list to some friends in Canada and they thought I was making up some of the names.
Akenfield's legacy remains in Charsfield
"I was at the opening night in Lowestoft and it was great, the director did an amazing job taking these various strands of testimony and working them together.
"The best moment happened in the interval when people got up and began discussing what they had just witnessed. There were issues that were relevant to their own lives.
"If you go see Die Hard 4 it's not like you're going to stand up and think 'these issues are part of my life'.
"For me it's wonderful to be involved with entertainment that says 'this is the place where you live, let's celebrate it, let's question it'."
last updated: 21/05/2009 at 12:07
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