James Rebanks has really landed shepherding into everyone's consciousness, not only with his brilliant @herdyshepherd1 Twitter feed which offers a daily photographic record and 140 character commentary of his working life as a shepherd in the Lake District, but also thanks to his book The Shepherd's Life which was Radio 4's Book of the Week backalong and has been top of the best seller lists for a few weeks now. Even out-performing Kim Kardashian apparently... Kim who?
I succumbed to the temptation of purchase, not only because I searched Devon Library catalogue expecting there to be a waiting list of several thousand only to find they don't have a single copy of The Shepherd's Life (yet), but also because now that the Wainwright Prize for 2015 has been decided I am all eyes for seeing what might make next year's cut, and The Shepherd's Life has to be the first one I feel sure.
James Rebanks' family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations; the life of a shepherd dominated and ordered by the seasons, year on year, same tasks, same time, same attention to detail and same amount of toil and effort. Writing of his grandfather, James Rebanks suggests his were the silent majority, the great forgotten...
'....people who lived, worked, loved and died without leaving much written trace that they were ever there....essentially nobodies as far as anyone else is concerned.'
But, as he proceeds to elaborate, it was through the efforts of 'nobodies' that the landscape was created and was survived through, and this a thought that stayed with me as I read on. I say it time and again ...how often I wander around the farmland here and wonder about all those people who have gone before; walk up the green lane and see the wall on either side that someone must have built; see the hedges once laid (now massacred) and wonder at all the manpower and effort involved to keep it that way, the narrative rapidly disappearing. Books like The Shepherd's Life matter, they help that narrative to thrive. The Cumbrian landscape of Matterdale home to a web of relationships adhering to time honoured values, the code of honour where a man's handshake is his bond and family and kinship is centred on the farmhouse.
Mention of rural kinship reminded of my working life as a rookie health visitor in one particular patch of West Devon. New babies on isolated farms in the late 1970s, and I was the muggins that rolled up in the muddy farmyard with a wall-eyed Border Collie in the car, because back in the day Ben used to come to work with me. It could be a lonesome job, solo working out in the middle of nowhere and he was wonderful company, until we met a pack of farm dogs that is and my car would be under siege and scratched to smithereens. I wasn't too worried because it was a health authority car ( in the days before we had to use our own) and in Devon they had bought us a batch of defunct Police Panda cars. But, before I digressed, I was going to say that I couldn't understand how everyone I visited seemed to know of and about me before I arrived (and not only because of the car) I had seriously underestimated the kinship and the family networks..you've just been to my sister..that was my cousin you saw last week...
Talking of the dog (wonderful, faithful and lived to seventeen) James Rebanks would probably have a fit. Border Collies are bred for work in the Lake District, not pets, and his are the mainstay of his working day, without them much of the work would be nigh on impossible, and if you have missed Floss's nine puppies on Twitter hie thee there and enjoy them before they disappear off to their new homes.
Moving through the seasons the life and the shepherding work comes alive as do the people, and in particular that handing of the baton between grandfather, father and son, bringing with it a keen sense of a timeless past, present and future and the inherent responsibilities ...
'I am the thread that goes to the future. He lives in me. His voice, His values. His stories. His farm. These things are carried forwards. I hear his voice in my head when I do work on the farm... everyone knows he was a major ingredient in the making of me and that I am the going on of him.
It was ever thus.'
It may sound sentimental but there is nothing sentimental about James Rebanks' writing and in the face of the suggestion that 'the past falters and dies by little steps' he could be forgiven had he headed that way. This is a rough, tough life and one that needs to allow the old and the traditional to sit comfortably with the new because sustaining old knowledge is vital: who can know when it may be needed again. There is something oddly comforting about knowing that 'a Viking would understand the daily routines' in Matterdale.
James Rebanks keeps a few cards close to his chest too. Why should I be surprised to discover, beyond the pages of this book, that his stint at Oxford as a student, and after an indifferent and rebellious time at school, resulted in a First Class Honours degree in History. Or that he also works for UNESCO as an advisor on the impact of tourism, though I doubt any of this, or the writing of this book, earns him any sway with his fellow shepherds. James Rebanks describes it as 'a rough Northern form of egalitarianism,' a world where all men are equal and there is no place for snobbery....in fact I bet they pull his leg something rotten.
I was plumb exhausted sitting on the sofa reading The Shepherd's Life underneath my electric comfort blanket while James slogged away on the Fells, and in following his Twitter feed it was clear he wasn't doing the rounds of the bookshops, pressing palms and signing books, because he has been far to busy lambing, but goodness me did I learn a thing or two as I read.
I had absolutely no idea that the span of a sheep's useful life on a farm is entirely governed by its teeth, unless you are a prize ram that is, in which case it seems you may well drop dead of exhaustion long before you lose your teeth. Anyway, as the sheep gets older its teeth lengthen, weaken, wobble and fall out making it possible only to gum the grass I suppose, and with condition and lamb-bearing capability compromised there is only one way to go.
And another thing... that shepherd's crook is not some quaint ancient ornament now only carried by Bishops as the shepherds of human sheep, far from it. The crook still an essential and much-treasured piece of kit, an extension of the shepherd's arm when catching sheep.
And it would seem Chris Hadfield's astronautical (made-up word) mantra of 'No problem so bad you can't make it worse,' holds true for shepherding as well. Knowing when and when not to interfere with a distressed and unsettled ewe takes as many years of experience as knowing when and when not to do a space walk it would seem.
There is a moment in the book when a younger James Rebanks is discussing the fact book people don't seem to be interested in their way of life...
Don't tell them,' says his dad, 'they'll only ruin it.'
...and I hold my breath for a moment and think about that, because it's a risk with a book like this.
We are braced for the Poldark effect down here this summer, and as always the West Country will welcome the influx with open arms and cope as it always does, we don't have a monopoly on enjoying it just because we live and work here. Likewise the Lake District also well-versed in the tourist industry, so I really hope that The Shepherd's Life won't 'ruin' anything but rather enhance.
James Rebanks quotes William Wordsworth who, in 1810, proposed that the Lake District should be...
'a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.'
And so say all of us, and many thanks to James Rebanks for sharing his world so generously, so eloquently and so realistically in this book.