Truth in our dark and bitter stories

IAN COLLINS In the late 1960s an East Anglian landowner bought a copy of Akenfield, the book everyone was talking about, to read on the train home from Liverpool Street.


In the late 1960s an East Anglian landowner bought a copy of Akenfield, the book everyone was talking about, to read on the train home from Liverpool Street. When barely into Suffolk he could bear it no longer.

The volume was tossed out of the window and into the countryside it had depicted with such a dark and bitter truth.

The gent then wrote a furious letter, complaining that Ronald Blythe's documentary portrait of a rural community down the decades bore no resemblance to the happy place he had always known. Well, perspective may depend on position. And, at any time, any one of us may see what we wish to see.

Doubtless that angry ex-reader would not have troubled to see the ensuing screen version, by a budding Bury St Edmunds-raised director named Peter Hall.

That harrowing film - lately released on DVD - was to have had a Benjamin Britten score, only the composer had to abandon the project when diagnosed with cancer. We could have had a major work of art, but can still celebrate a far from minor masterpiece - whose actors are real Suffolk folk playing themselves or their recent ancestors.

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Had those farm-labouring forebears - worked into early graves or the workhouse - hailed from south-west Norfolk rather than mid-Suffolk they could have inspired the stories of Mary Mann.

A Norwich merchant's daughter, Mary settled in Shropham, near Attleborough, after marriage in 1871. Her arrival coincided with an agricultural recession caused chiefly by cheap grain imports from the New World, with added local difficulties (foot and mouth was treated and taken for granted, but anthrax was a formidable foe).

That decline would continue remorselessly in peace time, to be reversed only by the worse trauma of war. Initially, East Anglian lads mown down on the Somme 90 years ago had cheered their luck in escaping the hardness of home.

Like Ronald Blythe, Mary Mann looked unflinchingly - although, from her base of Shropham Manor, she could have lived in elegant seclusion.

She set down the harsh, poignant, resilient lives of Shropham folk in numerous novels, starting with The Parish of Hilby in 1883, and also in four stupendous volumes of short stories - notably The Fields of Dulditch from 1902. Readers were left to judge on matters of morality for themselves.

A household name in Edwardian England, Mary Mann moved to Sheringham after her husband's death. But her burial, in Shropham, in 1929, packed the churchyard with the characters of her stories.

Five years ago, researching a feature for the EDP, I found Mary's gravestone - carved in the form of an open book - split and crumbling. I could barely read the legend: "We bring our years to an end as it were a tale that is told."

Now - bravo to Shropham, and to Mann fans further afield - the memorial is restored and due for a service of rededication.

One key supporter has been Patience Tomlinson, whose one-woman show on the author, A Tale That Is Told, has lately toured our region - with a special call at Shropham.

As a vicar's daughter from Brancaster, this very accomplished actress (just seen as Charley's Aunt in a sell-out run in Southwold, reprising in Aldeburgh next week) manages what most cannot. She gets the Norfolk accents right.

It may be unfair to mention this, since many East Anglians can't tune in to the delights of digital radio, but . . . if and when you can . . . the oneword story-telling channel is unbroken bliss.

Having so enjoyed Judi Dench's reading of the Flora Thompson classic Lark Rise to Candleford on the radio, I've now turned to the Tomlinson CD of four Mann tales from The Fields of Dulditch with similarly rapt attention. To my patriotic East Anglian ear, these are better still.

We listen to the unfolding crisis between a gamekeeper and his wife after 10 years of marriage, eight children, too many drinks and not enough money. We hear of the young labourer paid eight shillings a week and bent on a better return from ratting. We follow the haunting of a lonely widower and find out what happens to the body of a baby with 12 toyless siblings.

It all sounds so bleak, and yet the human spirit makes it so uplifting - and again and again we sense the aching beauty of rural Norfolk a century and more ago.

To order the CD (£11.50 including postage) or book the one-woman show call 07887 643592 (