‘I bet he was a sod at school.’ That was my first impression of James Rebanks, author of this aggressively honest memoir about life as a shepherd in the Lake District.
As a former educator myself, I empathised with his teacher’s frustration at his surly description of the “crappy, mean, broken-down school” which he says stole five years of his life. But between brusque insults and cynical observations (and believe me, Rebanks does a fine line in both), he articulately, persuasively, asks his reader to reconsider their idea of ‘success’.
He sneers at the teacher who insists that achievement takes the form of education, academic qualifications, going away to University - ‘away’ being the operative word. For Rebanks - the son of a Lake District Shepherd, who was the son of another Lake District shepherd - staying put in Matterdale is not a choice. This world-famous landscape is bred into him, and preserving its ancient traditions is in his blood. As he poetically puts it, “I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.”
But ‘this place’ isn’t the Lake District you’d recognise from the National Park website and its glorious Photoshopped images of sunsets and majestic peaks. It has nothing to do with the 16 million tourists who visit the Lakes each year or the “dead, rich white man’s version” of North West England’s history peddled in books. Oh no, this is a fresh, alternative view that steers well clear of postcard perfect views and chocolate box cliches. Rebanks’ fells are brutal, merciless, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Here life is always filthy, often brutal, but also sings with beauty.
Of course, there’s more to The Shepherd’s Life than an unsentimental portrayal of life in the Lakes. In his early 20s, something (niggling insecurity, perhaps?) led Rebanks to an access course for university, and he applied and was accepted at Oxford. He achieved a first class degree in History and endured a short stint in London working in publishing. He plays down this period of his life, seemingly embarrassed that he succumbed to other people’s ideas of success, albeit briefly. Of course, he found his way back to the Lakes and his flock, although one wonders if he would be the author, poet, prolific tweeter and photographer he is today (check out his Twitter and Instagram @herdyshepherd1) if it hadn’t been for this experience. He talks about his relationship with his wife (“She makes me better than I am” is possibly the most romantic sentence I’ve read in the last three years) and the future of farming in this era of industrial-scale food production. It’s a deeply personal book, but also verges on some astute social commentary.
He says he fancied himself as a bit of a Hemingway during his time in publishing, and that can certainly be seen in his writing - like the landscape he spends so much of the book describing, his style is stark and compelling. This is a book about relationships - with people, communities and landscapes - and about loyalty. It’s also about the value we place on traditions and experiences and other people’s opinions of us, and the value of knowing yourself and your roots.
In short, it’s a wonderful ode to a way of life which is under threat and is well worth reading - perhaps this Spring, as we approach lambing season, is the perfect time?