Books born from internet crazes are usually disappointing but in the case of Cumbrian sheep farmer James Rebanks, Twitter’s instincts have been more than borne out. His first book, The Shepherd’s Life, is a remarkable achievement.
Known online as @herdyshepherd1, Rebanks began tweeting a few years ago, at first (as is usually the case) into something of a void. But a hard, snowy winter, and his eye for a great photo, saw his dispatches about fell farming, his Herdwick flock, and sheepdogs Floss and Tan go viral, and when the press picked up on this unlikely new star of the Twittersphere, he amassed 20,000 followers almost overnight — a figure that’s nearly tripled since. His updates were glimpses of a very different way of life from that which most of us are used to — glimpses there was clearly a public appetite for.
That on its own, though, does not make a book. But Rebanks brings to this project — part shepherd’s calendar, part memoir, part encomium for fell farming — a deceptively powerful prose style, a depth of knowledge (as well as coming from a long line of farmers he’s also an expert adviser to Unesco’s world heritage sustainable tourism programme), and a sense of moral integrity that in 2015, with an election looming, feels like a draught of pure, revivifying Lakeland air.
The introduction is called “Hefted”, a term for the way a sheep is attached to an area of upland pasture, and Rebanks begins by describing his childhood, the farming community he grew up in and his less than adequate education. From there, the book cycles through the four seasons, ending with lambing in spring, allowing him to recount the agricultural history of the Cumbrian landscape and explain the work of a fell farm in all its drudgery and brutality as well as its satisfactions: this is no sugar-coated escapist’s fantasy.
Rebanks’ style is simple and unadorned, the narrative slipping frequently between the present and the past as he recalls his father and grandfather before him and explains the standards they passed down. “It was instilled in us from the start that we were part of a family and a community and had values to uphold, and that these were more important than our own whims and fancies,” he writes. He recounts the time his grandfather’s friend bought some sheep at a good price, only to realise later that they were worth more. He sent the farmer who sold them a cheque for the difference, which he, just as honourable, wouldn’t cash: a deal was a deal. So the next year he went back and bought more sheep — this time paying over the odds to make it good. “Neither of these men cared remotely about ‘maximising profit’ in the short term in the way a modern business person in a city would,” Rebanks writes. “They both valued their good name and their reputation for integrity far more highly than making a quick buck.” There is a flash of anger here, and elsewhere in the book, for a world that may claim to love the Lakes but neither understands the lives nor shares the values of the farmers who live and work there.
Utterly unsentimental, The Shepherd’s Life is, nevertheless, profoundly moving, because what Rebanks describes is a deep attachment to place, a pride in hard work done well and a sense of continuity from generation to generation: things most of us, I think, feel unloosed from.
But while it is unsentimental, it is not without sentiment — and for Rebanks the fells are clearly not just a place of work. “Flocks of fieldfares fold backwards under wings flashing silver, tumbling over the wind and away down the thorn dykes,” he writes, his usual, terse style loosening brilliantly for a moment. Perhaps in his quiet love for this land he is like his grandfather, of whom he says: “When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow and rain to get to that point.”
“Seeing, understanding and respecting people in their own landscapes is crucial to their culture and ways of life being valued and sustained,” Rebanks writes. He’s right. When, in his twenties, he studied in the evenings for his A-levels, and then applied to Oxford (he graduated with a First in Modern History), he admits that he felt something of an outsider in his community. But outsiders are valuable because they can mediate between cultures, as he has come to do effectively — and by no means just to the advantage of the farming community he represents, but also to the great good of the rest of us too. Talk of “British values” is never anything less than deeply suspect but the human values that imbue The Shepherd’s Life are, perhaps, ones that Britain, disillusioned and scandal-weary, could do with being reminded of right now.
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 320 pages
‘At Hawthorn Time’ by Melissa Harrison will be published by Bloomsbury on April 23
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