Tag Archives: English Journeys

Voices of Akenfield – Ronald Blythe

I took this on the plane as I was on hand luggage only and it is very slim at only 125 pages.  This is an edited version of Blythe’s interviews with various residents of ‘Akenfield’ in Suffolk.  During the 1960s he travelled around interviewing residents of Suffolk villages in order to record accounts of a country life that was now disappearing.  Akenfield is a fictional village based on a composite of the villages he visited.

This is a book full of interesting oral history accounts with farmers, teachers, district nurses and the village gravedigger, amongst others.  It is easy to imagine a country idyll but this book makes it clear that country living was extremely difficult.  One man talks of his desire to sign up for the army during World War I due to the fact that it was less strenuous and you had a better diet; “village people in my day were literally worked to death.  It literally happened… I am not complaining about it.   It is what happened to me ” , (well, presumably he wasn’t literally worked to death but it makes you think).   During that time church bells tolled to announce a  death, there were a certain number for a man or woman, then their age.  Seventeen pints of beer were also available per day for those who brought the harvest in, although I think that it might have been difficult after that amount.  Lambs were castrated with aid of the shepherd’s teeth.One gardener recounted working for the Lord and Lady of the manor who would rather run them over than have to speak to them to say “get out of the way” and how their maids had to turn and face the wall when they walked past. The district nurse also has some tales of disease and malnutrition.

It may sound a bit gloomy but it is an interesting overview of life in the first part of the 20th century and this version is probably much easier that his fully book Akenfield.


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Henry James – Cathedrals and Castles

I received this as a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s brother Jez as part of a fantastic set of Penguin books on English Journeys.  As an expat in Spain I am often wistful for the English countryside and heritage, I was therefore  really looking forward to reading this and selected this as one of the first books to read.  Unfortunately it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  The subject matter interests me but I just found James’ style unengaging, as I also have experienced whilst reading his novels too.

This book is based on Henry James’ travels around England visiting, unsurprisingly, castles and cathedrals.  Amongst other places, he visits Devon, Warwickshire. Oxford, and goes to Derby Day.  It has a few funny observations,  such as “women are said to  have no  sense of humour” or his interesting comments on how photography has changed sight seeing;

Coming upon a sight or object is a “pleasure still left to the tourist even after the broad glare of a photograph has dissipated so many of the sweet mysteries of travel”.

This really struck a chord with me possibly because I have a photographer boyfriend who always has a camera stuck to his face, but also because of a comment an Aborigine made when I visited Uluru (Ayers Rock)  when he said tourists come and just take their pictures but they do not really take the time to understand the spirit of a place.  Unfortunately apart from these odd jems, I largely  found myself skimming sections and not really taking it in.

Maybe it was the American in England thing,  but there were lots of descriptions of England and the English that I just could not  relate to and I am sure it is not just the fact that it was written over a century ago.  There were opinions that I strongly disagreed with as an obsesive National Trust visitor, such as;

“I am not sure.. that he (the tourist) is not tempted to accuse his English neighbours of being impenetrable and uninspired, to affirm that they do not half discern their good fortune, and that it takes passionate pilgrims, vague aliens and other disinherited persons to appreciate the points of this admirable country”.

So overall, unfortunately, a bit of an anti-climax.

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