My son handed me ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ written by James Rebanks on Friday, with a quiet, “I think you’ll like this…” , and I wasn’t able to put it down until I’d completed it. That’s always the sign of a good book, but this was so much for me.
I laughed, I cried and I shook my head sagely, as the pages whizzed by.
Rebanks is a sheep farmer in the Lake District, part of a long line of farming stock. I too am from mainly sheep farming stock, based on the North Yorkshire Moors, and though for me the line has been broken, there isn’t a day when my heart doesn’t cry for that sense of place and connection that I knew and still long for. It’s something that is so touchable to me and yet so unexplainable to others that I seldom try, but in ‘The Shepherd’s Life’, Rebanks tells his own story with such beauty, clarity, honest detail and deep affinity with the land that his family have farmed for generations, that I wept with recognition.
Rebanks has Herdwick sheep, perfect for the Lakeland climate and landscape, and he tells with rich honesty both the highs and lows of caring for them through the changing seasons. He unfastens the chains from his sheepdogs in the early morning and I can hear our own Meg straining at her chains, alternatively panting and whimpering, her nose sniffing at the gap under the door of the shed as she heard us approaching; he tells of the harsh winters and the concern for the sheep and my mind remembers that my father once fell into a gully hidden by the snow whilst going out to the sheep with only the tilly lamp to guide him, lying nithered with his leg broken until help came in the morning; he tells of those metal auction pens that I too knew since I was tiny, the bowler hatted characters and the auctioneer whose patter came so fast that it seemed like a different language; he conjures up instant recall of the rows of fading rosettes pinned to the beams, the exhausting lambing days when tempers were frayed and the womenfolk shoved bacon cakes and tin jugs of tea into the hands of those who were almost asleep on their feet, the stench of livestock and livelihood burning on the pyres of foot and mouth that will never be far from the nostrils of all who experienced them, and my father preparing horns over the stove to make into carved crooks which always won prizes, and it all bounces off the page and hits me like a rock being lobbed at the pit of my stomach. Here is someone who not only understands, but who knows how to relay it all in a way that is graspable to others.
But Rebanks goes deeper than that. He knew the odious careers’ officers and the teachers who had no comprehension that farming could be a viable life choice, as all farmers’ children do, but, he is able to articulate that the vast knowledge acquired over many years of actively doing, observing and absorbing, is not inferior to the paper qualifications that are crammed for under intense pressure. Like me, he did discover a love of learning later in his life - something that I think has as much to do with personal ‘readiness’ than much else - but unlike me, who quietly home-schooled all but one of my own to avoid the issues I had with educational provision, he quantifies it, analyses and presents the argument squarely in a way that John Holt would be proud of. Moreover, he is able to convey the fact that being more self-contained, reticent with others and taciturn by virtue of traditional culture, does not equate with ‘being thick’; it is simply a different kind of knowledge. Rebanks is ever mindful of that code of honour, that equanimity of all peoples that farming families have instilled into them from birth and I hope those who read from the wider world will pick up on that; it is better to be at peace with neighbours than to fall out over money, and to work together to get through those labour intensive days so that all have a harvest and well cared for stock.
Rebanks also tackles the issues of tourism; it’s virtues and vagaries and the curious, symbiotic nature of it all. In the Lake District, it arrived with Wordsworth and Wainwright – wanderers both. It’s fascinating to read how the popularity of the Lake District developed and evolved, and how it has influenced life for those who call it home. The writer engages with the history of the area in a way that is eminently readable and makes the narrative come alive with quotes from literature. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I too will now ponder what the Japanese make of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s words.
Mr Rebanks's work has been compared to John Clare; a modern day pastoral, but it has so much more to say for both those wedded to the countryside and those for whom it is a much needed escape. He looks at far wider issues, interrogates the way that other cultures are tackling the issues that come with farming anywhere in the world. He challenges precepts, is not afraid to stir the maggots that occasionally infect and to question the future with an uncompromising lack of sentimentality.
But for me, it is the heart of love that beats through it all that I find most moving. It palpates with passion for family, for shepherding, for a lifestyle, for a history that is changing and yet overwhelmingly held in tradition, bonds and connections; linked through generation succeeding generation. It’s a love that is tangible and real, tested but overcoming, preciously honest, bloodied and renewing.
'The Shepherd's Life: A Tale Of The Lake District' by James Rebanks is published by Penguin Books.
The library in my hometown was a grand Georgian building with an archway for coaches to pass through and stabling in the yard for the horses of yesteryear to rest. It had huge wooden doors with frosted glass and brass handles, shining parquet floors, panelled walls, an elegant staircase with twisting balustrades, rooms that flowed from one to another in labyrinthine quirkiness and it was presided over by two Quaker spinsters whose kind, firm oversight blessed my childhood visits.
In the children’s section, there was one book that was not for loan. It rested on a polished, adzed oak table with a chubby Thompson’s mouse keeping guard from one plank end leg, was covered in gold tooled leather, had a printed bookplate on the frontispiece showing mermaids vainly preening seaweed hair with the aid of shell combs and a rock pool mirror, and fragile tissue inserts to protect the glossy coloured plates that intersected the gilt edged pages. There were days for curling in the window-seat that overlooked the market place and losing oneself in Milly Molly Mandy, The Chalet School girls or The House In The Big Woods, but for special, I’m-out-of-sorts days, I-need –to-re-charge days and I-hope-no-one-finds-me days, kneeling on a chair to reach the book on the big table was the only thing that satisfied. It was ‘English Fairy Tales’ by Flora Annie Steel. I adored reading of George, born with a golden garter on his left leg that marked him out for doughty deeds, Kalyb the enchantress, King Ptolemy, Caporushes and those wise men of Gotham who did the silliest things, but it was the sinuous pen lines of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations that most absorbed my senses, pulling me into forests filled with looming, dark trees with grasping roots that threatened to curl from the page, backgrounds packed with swirling nuggets of hidden images, animated woodland creatures, fairy maidens with flowing, pastel capes and trolls ugly enough to repulse, but with enough good nature not to frighten. I would gently trace a finger along the lines, following the endless intersections to muted watercolour pools, enchanted and calmed by the exquisite wonder of it all.
Each colour plate marked the end of a story. The Fee-fi-fo-fum giant who had to stoop his fur hunter hatted head to fit into the room, his necklace made of the bones of Englishmen swinging out from his body, had lost his power to scare by the time he was seen; already felled by the words on the page. Galligantua and the wicked magician’s spells had been thwarted and Cormoran no longer terrorised the tiny village dwellers who peeped nervously from locked houses. The glossed papers brought a completion and though the pictures would have me believe differently, the business of that chapter had drawn to a close.
I loved the gentle crackle of the page turning; the sturdy weight of the illustrated insert caught up with a static of delicate tissue; the ritual smoothing of the whisper thin protection so that it did not get damaged in metamorphosis. The tale left behind must be kept safe with integrity as a part of the whole beautiful work.
The back of the plate was white. No marks or words. Nothing to identify what was behind or what was still to come. I would place my left hand on the silky smoothness and stroke the pause; the unadorned moments of transition; the quiet lacuna before the next adventure began.
*First published in 2016, but still that precious pause as one year slows to a halt and another gently begins resonates.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.