A Tale of the Lake District
by James Rebanks
293 pages, Allen Lane
Review by Pat Black
James Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District, that place of wild fells and still waters in the north-west of England you’ll know from Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth - or better yet, Withnail & I.
Our paths must have crossed. I go to the Lakes at least twice a year, clodding around the hillsides in my Frankenstein boots, moaning about my wife’s shortcuts having led us into swamps, perspiring heavily, and dreaming of scotch eggs and foamy ales. On our travels, we see lots of Herdwick sheep - stoic, unimpressed creatures with white faces and bluey-black fleeces - and say hello to the guys and dogs looking after them. We’ve been to so many different parts of the Lakes over the years - many of which are namechecked in this book - that it seems we must have bumped into Rebanks and his flock at some point.
The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir, charting the author’s growth from a punky kid in a tough school to working on the farm alongside his father and grandfather, and finally succeeding them as the head of the ancient family business. Shepherding on the common grazing land of the fells is in Rebanks’ blood.
The book doesn’t flow chronologically, tending to leap around from past to present and back again, but it does follow the basic structure of the seasons – beginning in summer, ending in spring. Rebanks delights in the nitty gritty of looking after his flock. The split hands and dirt, the maggot ointment, being soaked to the skin as a matter of course, digging lambs out of deep snow, the sheer exhaustion. It’s hard work, but it’s all Rebanks ever wanted to do, a way of life that seems as natural as breathing.
The book is a counterpoint to the Lake District literature you know well enough – a place of sublime commune with nature, or poetic whimsy with anthropomorphic animals. Rebanks’ prose is hard-headed and unadorned, and there’s a part of him which seems to resent the romanticism and poetry. He has open contempt for the well-meaning but inexperienced middle class teachers of his youth with their heads full of the Romantic poets, who knew nothing of the real, hard life to be had working on the fells. It comes across as a bit chippy, though.
This got the old spider senses tingling. If you don’t like the poetry and the lyricism of it, then why are you writing a book? I wondered.
It takes a while for Rebanks to reveal that he had something of a sabbatical from his horny-handed toil in his early twenties, well after his formal schooling ended with no qualifications to speak of. Encouraged by his mother’s love of literature, he read as voraciously as the blowfly larvae bothering his flock’s backsides. We travel from the moment a friend takes him aside after he blows the opposition away at a pub quiz, and asks why Rebanks doesn’t use that brain of his, to starting his first term at Oxford University. It’s a jarring match-cut.
Rebanks feels guilty about having to leave his father and grandfather to get on with the job of looking after the sheep during term-time, but to his credit he feels no sense of division. University and working on the farm are both things which must be done. Rebanks gains his degree and has digs in Oxford, but returns home on any time off at all to see the woman who will become his wife, as well as mucking in at the farm.
Once it’s all over, he’s back home in the family groove. You wonder what the point of it all was.
There’s one part that I found really intriguing, where Rebanks begins work as a sub-editor on a London magazine. He’s a couple of years older than me, but going by the timescales involved he might well have been schlepping around the capital, cutting and rewriting, around about the same time I was, in the late 1990s or early noughties. So much is missing, but I am again inclined to wonder if our paths ever crossed in this anti-rural setting.
It’s incongruous to the rest of the book, and I wonder if this stint marked a period where Rebanks tried to break away from his family destiny, consciously or unconsciously. The author makes much of his sense of duty and tradition, of the pride he takes in following in his forefathers’ footsteps. He even plays up what he refers to himself as a classic drama – his grandfather as a benign patriarch, his father as the man who takes on the mantle, and Rebanks as his eventual usurper. When Rebanks has a son, the cycle begins again – although, perhaps a sign of the changing times, Rebanks’ pride is obvious when his two daughters throw themselves into the work of the farm.
There is great tension on the farm between fathers and sons – isn’t there always? – and Rebanks and his old man have to be stopped from knocking lumps out of each other on more than one occasion. Maybe he sought to escape, to find something different, even just to try it out? Perhaps it was just a passing whim. The crooked paths a young man sometimes follows before he realises his true calling in life.
I don’t really believe that stuff. But the quasi-mystical language is so easy to get into. Just rolls off the keyboard. I wonder what Rebanks will think if his own children should follow the same instinct to fly the nest, a few years from now?
There’s a fair bit of history, and Beatrix Potter, the great Lakeland benefactor, is lavished with praise. There’s also lots of detail about the sheep-farming community, the solidarity and mutual assistance, and even the friendly rivalry when it comes to showing off prize tups and ewes at the local fairs. But most impressive is the clear, precise details of the hard work involved in breeding and looking after a flock, from choosing the right sheepdog to the slime and giblets of lambing in the springtime. You’ve got to reach in, find the knuckles, and heave!
Rebanks might narrow his eyes whenever my head bobs past above a dry stone wall. He accepts that tourism brings a fortune into the Lakes, but it’s also helped to spoil the place a bit. There is a touch of we-don’t-loike-ye-strangers-round-these-‘ere-parts about this stance. Rebanks and his forefathers all wonder: why the hell would anyone want to pay to come here to climb a bloody hill? In time, Rebanks comes to recognise the importance of tourism to the area, and also understands precisely why city-lubbers like me are absolutely desperate to find some peace and open green space on the fells. But I also get the bloody-mindedness, the suspicion of outsiders and the threat some speculators might represent to a bone-deep way of life which people would defend to the death.
I also have sympathy with Rebanks’ annoyance over the houses which stand empty outside peak tourism times. I usually go to the Lakes in late February, and this is something that occasionally creeps me out. If you go to a holiday cottage or a row of terraced houses let out for this purpose out-of-season, sometimes you can be the only person there. That makes any noise outside your house in the pitch dark in the middle of the countryside well worth investigating. God knows how many thrillers/horror stories I’ve concocted in those odd middle-of-the-night moments. But in a country where thousands of people live on the streets, there’s something obscene about luxury houses simply lying empty all over the country’s beauty spots. But that’s for another time, and another place.
Rebanks’ book was a surprise success, and enjoys a prominent place as part of this century’s golden age of nature writing. We return to the question: is this explosion in the popularity of pastoral concerns down to the collapse of the certainties of capitalism, or simple boredom with urban life and its ridiculous pressures and pastimes? A quick look at recent news headlines from the UK alone might help answer this.
To a shepherd, any other way of life must seem like insanity. And no wonder. Even if the City of London should come crashing down, James Rebanks will continue to do what he’s always done, and will probably come out of it just fine.