Top positive review
passionate memoir by an unusual hill-side sheep farmer
12 April 2017
This is a passionate memoir by an unusual hill-side sheep farmer (born in 1974). Rebanks brings his motivation tellingly to life. In his Cumbrian secondary modern school 'I argued with our dumbfounded headmaster that school was really a prison and "an infringement of my human rights". He looked at me strangely, and said, "But what would you do at home?" As if this was an impossible question to answer. "I'd work on the farm," I answered equally amazed that he couldn't see how simple this was.'
This sense of the contempt which the available intellectual class had for his family's way of life was reinforced at a particular school assembly, where a female teacher implied that the pupils ‘were too dumb to want to leave ... The idea that we, our fathers and mothers, might be proud, hard-working and intelligent people doing something worthwhile, or even admirable, seemed to be beyond her.'
A few years later, Rebanks came across the highly Romanticised view of the Lakes as a place of 'nature', in which the farmers, the people who lived there, did not feature. This was galling, leading Rebanks to demand that 'The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies' who work on it. As his memoir shows, he learnt to combat his own chippiness, and can now acknowledge that 'more than half the employment in the area is reliant upon tourism' and that this ancient way of life has survived in part because of the historic poverty of the land and 'because it was protected from change by the early conservation movement.' It was the Tales of Beatrix Potter that made the biggest practical difference, as, with the money from her hugely successful books, the writer and conservationist bought swathes of the Lake District during 1905-1940, and bequeathed these to the National Trust. Her former land now constitutes much of the Lake District National Park.
The Shepherd's Life is most vivid when the author tells everyday shepherding stories, focused on his flock of sturdy Herdwick sheep. He writes relatively little about the landscape, though there are a few lyrical passages. The meat of the book is the business of shepherding, which is mentally demanding (like that of all skilled businesses) because rearing, selling and buying lambs, at the right price, is crucial to economic survival. And it is not a matter of squeezing out the highest (or lowest) price because - within a margin for canniness - the price must be seen to be fair in the close-knit farming community, or a shepherd's reputation may be lost.
We also learn something of James Rebanks's personal life: his all-important grandad, the patriarch in charge of the two small fell farms which the family worked; the painful generational conflict with his father; his wilder drinking companions from school days; his sudden conversion to the path of love when he meets his rock-like wife-to-be, Helen; and his astonishing journey in his 20s, without (initially) any A-levels, to a degree in Oxford University, which he went through largely outside college life, working feverishly at his books and earning money in Helen's catering business. It is a sign of the man - and his wife - that he is intensely proud of having made it to Oxford, but we don't learn from his memoir what his degree or subject was (he got a double first in History - and has a following of 94,000 on Twitter as "herdyshepherd1"). His intention was, and remains, to be a successful and well-regarded fell-side shepherd, no more, no less.