Working and Writing the Landscape: The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

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The world of farming has come under the spotlight recently.

Currently, ITV are airing Flockstars – a series in which celebrities compete against each other in sheepdog trials. Although the light-entertainment, celebrity aspect is not to everyone’s taste, its current prime time slot is evidence of the rising interest in all things agricultural.  More seriously, the media has been reporting on the current scrutiny on supermarkets to provide dairy farmers with a fairer price for milk.  Positively, online polls show that there is a strong public backing for dairy farmers and that shoppers are willing to pay extra for their milk in order to support them.

And now, with the prevalence of social media such as Twitter, public figures from the farming world are giving us a glimpse into their working year, day-by-day. Two prominent figures are Amanda Owen, ‘The Yorkshire Shepherdess’, and James Rebanks, ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’, both of whom have amassed a large Twitter following and who have had recent book success. The last year in tweets from Rebanks, who lives in Matterdale, has seen an eclectic combination of herding, stunning shots of Cumbrian scenery, live sheepdog births, opinions (see above) and pony photobombs. His memoir, The Shepherd’s Life, has achieved commercial and critical success and was recently serialised on Radio 4.

So what is it about The Shepherd’s Life that has captivated readers?

The answer is in the writing. Rebanks’ prose is so engaging that, regardless of whether you are interested in the subject of farming, you want to read on and learn about his way of life and that of those before him. The descriptions are beautifully lyrical, yet don’t fall into the trap of over-sentimentality, and Rebanks expresses a sense of affection towards his fellow land workers, their work, and the traditions that surround them. The book is arranged by seasons, from Summer (sheep-clipping) and ending with Spring (lambing). We learn about the day-to-day running of the farm, such as the gathering of sheep on the fells, a scene in which Rebanks draws comparisons to the film Zulu, except instead of native warriors there are ‘willing mongrels’ and ‘farmers in sun hats that won’t win any fashion prizes.’ These insightful and often humorous accounts are interwoven with folklore, local history and the author’s own past experiences. For instance, the vivid childhood memory of helping his father with the clipping (‘cruel work for men’), and the harrowing account of the foot-and-mouth outbreak (he describes the fields around his village as looking like ‘something out of a war movie’). Not forgetting the sheep themselves; it’s no mean feat to make this notoriously docile woolly animal compelling. But it is difficult not to be endeared by the descriptions of the Herdwick lambs, ‘Dark-brown fleeced, with sturdy white legs, a touch of the teddy bear about them.’

An interesting point in the book comes when James earns a place at Oxford University. He later acknowledges that his decision to study there was to ‘prove a point’, not only to himself, but perhaps also to other people. One of these people, a teacher, appears at the beginning of the book in a childhood recollection. Her embodiment of the snobbish attitude farm workers faced sets the precedent for what follows. Rebanks’ tale consistently proves that his way of life is neither ‘lowly’ nor for ‘idiots’, as he alludes to the type of intelligence that can only be picked up from years of working the land, such as his father’s ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of landscape’.

James returns to farming after university, and never really looks back. It goes to prove that he does the work not because he has to, but because he wants to. His feelings are clear as he returns from Oxford: ‘As the Lake District fells rose up in front of us, I felt that I was home. I could feel those fells encircling me like friends, and I punched my fist and shouted “I AM HOME.”’

James Rebanks will be speaking at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle on Saturday September 5th. Tickets available here: www.borderlinescarlisle.co.uk

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