Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

the-shepherds-life“I wake to the sound of wind and rain scolding at the window. I can see from my bed a dirty brown rug of heather, mud and skeletal oak trees. The beck roars away in the ghyll tumbling over the stone. The fields stand capped in a dirty smudge of cloud. That tiny moment of looking out tells me what my day will be like: whether I am to have an easier time in walking boots, or whether I will be fighting through in layers of warm and water-proof clothing.”

It is not hard to see now why this surprise bestseller has been such a success. It touches on the epic romantic in us all – takes us away from the computer, from technology – back into the mud and filth, the total physicality of working in a landscape like the Lake District. The critics have lapped it up with Jonathan Bates from the Times Literary Supplement calling Rebanks a “modern equivalent of John Clare”.

I lapped it up too. I hungrily devoured this slim volume and found it a strangely compulsive page-turner.

Rebanks’ childhood was very different to mine. But, as a child, I spent 9 years in a small village of largely ex-farm workers and profoundly loved that place. My best friend was a woman in her eighties. Her husband – hands crippled by arthritis at the grand old age of 92 – was an ex-ploughman who had worked the beautiful Clydesdale horses I was obsessed with as a ten-year-old – and had ran against Scottish Olympics legend, Eric Liddle. My attachment to these two elderly people who were, in a way, relics from another way of life that had already disappeared found me even more drawn to Rebanks’ writing and his love and respect for the over-looked working traditions and those who carried them through in generations gone by. And I was simply blown away by the writing in this book.

For Rebanks is simply a great writer.

His descriptions of nature, of the landscape, of the sensations of the weather and the seasons has a lyricism, an eye for the perfect detail, yet spare and pared down, condensed like poetry.

I was also fascinated by the ideas outlined at the start and his central thesis that the landscape of the Lake District has been largely shaped by man and the farming and traditions that have been alive there over many generations. His mission is to give a voice to some of those who leave nothing behind in words – but everything in terms of the impact they have on place. People like his father and his grandfather before him.  He does this through a mixture of stories about his family, snippets of historical context, all held together by the structure of the shepherding year, dictated by the seasons and the weather.

Rarely has country writing been so dramatic or riveting as when Rebanks describes the event of gathering the wild-living Herdwick sheep from where they are summering on the mountains. The Lake District is a tough place to farm. And only the toughest of sheep can survive the mountainous terrain. The Herdwick might not be the fattest sheep around, but it can survive where softer lowland sheep fail. It is a sheep of the mountains – “hefted” to its area, its fell. Rebanks loves Herwicks above all other sheep and its not hard to see the instant analogy with the kind of people and values he admires – tough survivors who bond closely to their area and their flock, hard-workers who eschew the comforts of a softer existence and who value hard graft and being out on the land above all else.

It requires all the shepherds to work together to bring all the flocks down, requiring well-trained dogs, organisation and the learnt experience of the oldest and wisest of the shepherds. Not to mention a lot of hiking! This epic task contains much of what Rebanks wants to maintain. Independence, yet cooperation. Experience and wisdom in conjunction with physical ability of the younger generation. Survival, pride, independence – but bound together with mutual respect.

Much of these qualities can be found in the character of his great hero who dominates the early part of the book – the grandfather who cheeky young James clearly adored:

“He had a rough whiskery face when you kissed him goodnight. He smelt of sheep and cattle, and only had one yellow tooth, but he could clean the meat of a lamp-chop with it like a jackel…From my first memories until his dying day I thought the sun shone out of his backside…he was the king of his own world, like a biblical patriarch. He doffed his cap to no man. No man told him what to do. He…was proud and free and independent…”

Rebanks paints a compelling portrait that carries us through the first half of the book.  Rebanks’ grandfather is a both a likeably roguish character and embodies a lot of the values that Rebanks admires. Rebanks wants us to know about people like him. People who work proudly and independently who are largely uncelebrated by our modern urban-obsessed world. His grandfather also offers up a lot of the more humourous episodes. A clearly intelligent man, we see someone independent-minded and proud. Qualities clearly inherited by his grandson. A grandson who wanted to do nothing else but work on the farm.

“ I realised we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987. I was sitting in an assembly in the 1960s–style shoddily built concrete comprehensive in our local town. I was thirteen or so years old, sitting surrounded by a mass of other academic non-achievers listening to a battle-weary teacher lecturing us on how we should aim to be more than just farm workers, joiners, brickies, electricians and hairdressers. ..It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and our grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were, and had always been.”

This pride in physical – and the corresponding sense of identity – is something we don’t hear voiced enough these days in our topsy-turvy society where many of the most necessary and important tasks are the worst paid and many of the least necessary are the highest. Our society has long been obsessed with “aspiration” rather than real perspiration, in the idea of being “upwardly mobile” – with all that that implies about moving, leaving, disconnecting from place and community. Rebanks obviously resents this, with good reason.

A farming lad with little interest in school or education, he describes a childhood spent playing out, helping the men and hiding in haystacks when the women came calling. You get the impression that his beloved grandfather – a wiry, tough Cumbrian man who build himself up by acquiring tough land and working two farms – was almost too big an influence – leading to the point where clever James almost turned his back on that other world of books and education forever.

For me, this whole book is a study of maleness and of a particular kind of male pride. A pride in hard graft, in back-breaking physicality, in manual labour being a good of itself. A pride in being a king of your own world. As Rebanks, perhaps tellingly, says later on in the book:

 “My whole world is now on that farm. My family.  My sheep.  My home.”

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when, at the age of 21, Rebanks suddenly decides to go to university. And not just any university – but Oxford. Without a single GCSE to his name, Rebanks enrols in an Adult Education class, gets straight As for A levels and departs for the dreaming spires.

Going to Oxford comes across almost like a Vs up. To who or what, we’re not quite sure. But there seems to be something unresolved about the author’s attitude to this part of his life. I can imagine the alienation Rebanks felt – and certainly the establishment-steeped Oxford is ripe for criticism. In fact, I’d have liked to have seen more of that experience through Rebanks’ alienated eye. But Rebanks does not go there.

It’s as though he wishes to maintain that the outside world had no impact, as though he is as independent and wily as his grandfather, working his way through the system but never engaging with it. I’m not sure if I quite buy this.

Can that great opening section in the classroom I quoted above be taken at face value? Is it about a community turning its back on education and saying – no THIS is who we are – all of us, men and women for generations? Or is it more to do with gender expectations and male identity? Indeed, much later on, we find out that Rebanks’ sisters both were straight A students at school, that many farming communities encouraged their daughters to stay on and do well at school but not their sons, because the daughters are going to leave anyway whilst the sons take over or work on the farms. This is absolutely fascinating to me – and I’d have loved to have seen more discussion or questioning about this from the author – yet it’s never really examined, just mentioned in passing.

Just as there is the adoration and identifying with the male role model (the Grandfather) as a child, so – later on – there are Herdwick tup-style horn clashings as Rebanks tries to find his place in the world after his father Tom inherits the farm. One of the charms of the book lies in its honesty about anger and bad tempers and pride. There is much frustration and impatience as the men clash it out with each other for dominance over their way of doing things. Exhaustion leads to tensions. Mistakes cost dear. There are also wonderful descriptions of silent cooperation when needed, and poignant descriptions of the silent acknowledgement by both parties when the old ram starts being overtaken by the younger. All of this is engaging and moving.

Which brings me to the real gap I felt in this book – the women.

Whereas the Grandfather is a towering presence, and later on Rebanks’ father, Tom, takes over as the major relationship and influence; Rebanks’ Grandmother is caught only in glimpses – baking, weeding. We know her farmhouse must be spotless. But not a lot more than that. Sisters? Straight A students. But we find out little else. His wife Helen is good at school, sensible, supportive – baking cakes to support them both when he’s in Oxford. She supports his dreams to live on a farm and gives up a life where was settled to do so. But we don’t get to know what her day to day life might entail. It is only when we get to his daughter – out in the field lambing with her dad – that we start to wonder if women’s roles may be changing. I’d love to know.

It is hard with a biography like this. Perhaps the women didn’t want to be talked about and analysed – and fair enough. But most of the hard graft celebrated is predominantly male. Sections outlining the sheer physical exertion of sheering hundreds of sheep in one day – or fighting against the harsh Cumbrian winters to save sheep from snow drifts are absorbing. You can practically smell the sweat, feel those muscles burning. Feel your own eyes smarting in the lashing rain and wind as you read. Presumably descriptions of baking and moss clearing wouldn’t be so dramatic. But in a book about work, is the female contribution covered enough?

Recently I went to an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery about female farmers and shepherds in the Highlands and Borders. Tough lives in tough country. Are there more female farmers and shepherds than there used to be? How have things changed? Are gender roles changing in traditional farming communities?

We do meet the occasional woman bucking the traditional roles. One is Beatrix Potter – who as well as being a famous children’s writers was a great breeder of Herdwicks who did so much to preserve not just the landscape but the farming life of the area. The other is the proud and difficult-to-impress owner of a flock of Herdwicks Rebanks is desperate to buy. I was curious about both women and would have like to have learned more about how they they fitted in to the gender roles of the communities of their time.

For, whilst we can all admire a proud self-sufficient attitude,  no farmer of such terrain can be truly self-sufficient or independent. It takes a whole family to keep the farm going, as Rebanks acknowledges. But – more than that – most of those still working such land, whether in the Lake District or the Highlands of Scotland, usually need another job or way to supplement their income. Rebanks, who has another job as an Advisor to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, knows this better than anyone. How we balance the needs of the landscape, the communities and people living within it, nature, tourism, environment and economic considerations is an ongoing and fascinating debate.  The EU, tourism, working for UNESCO, yes, even Twitter – is all part of what it takes to survive and farm this unforgiving terrain in our modern world. The thorny issue of subsidies, for example, are hardly mentioned.

I’d like to have heard more about that relationship between tradition and the modern world.

With the best will in the world, it takes more than hard graft and living on your wits to survive in such extreme country. Just like the Herdwicks – the families of the Lake District may be tough survivors, but they still need help over the winter. None of us are truly independent, whether as men, women, communities or fiercely clever and proud individuals.

As a child I remember being stunned to learn my eighty year old friend had never once walked to the top of the hill where we lived. When younger she was no doubt too busy, which perhaps became habit. Walking up the hill for pleasure to see what was over the horizon never seemed to have occurred to her.

Similarly, Rebanks talks about his relationship with landscape as a practical one. Shepherds don’t climb the fells in the self-indulgent ways of the romantic poets, of the tourist, of the Victorian mountaineers. He describes his way of looking at the landscape in terms of work. Walls that need rebuilding, fences that need fixing.

For me, his incredible writing – observant, atmospheric, poetic in places – gives him away.

Despite its protestations otherwise, The Shepherd’s Life gives the impression of being written by someone who, despite himself, still walks up that hill and looks over that horizon. Practical, sure, but romantic as well. And its this connection to the landscape inherited from a combination of traditions – farming and literary – that makes this book such a vivid and powerful read.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2016 by in Uncategorized.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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