James Rebanks: The Shepherd’s Life
Words by the Water, 2016
- review by Katie Hale
As a second generation ‘offcomer’ (for non-Cumbrians, read: person whose parents moved into the county from other parts of England), I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Cumbria, and a sense that my own belonging here is not quite the same as other people’s. Being constantly surrounded by people whose families have quite literally shaped the land for countless generations can do that to you.
When I started to read The Shepherd’s Life, I’ll admit to feeling put out by the apparent disdain its author had for anyone in Cumbria who didn’t work the land. Perhaps I was also put out by his vilifying descriptions of the local school – at which my mum actually used to teach. And, yes, I was on the defensive – on both counts, which meant I was sort of expecting self-satisfied male arrogance.
But it seems that Rebanks grew out of his attitudes to offcomers and non-farmers when he grew out of his disdain for education. Instead of arrogance, I experienced the self-assurance of someone who believes passionately in the work that he does, with a deep dedication to the traditional way of life that he upholds.
Unlike the sterile wooden lectern given to most speakers at the festival, Rebanks had requested (and was obviously granted) a comfortable armchair from which to talk and read from his book. It gave the reading a laid back feel, as though we had been invited into his front room to listen to him talk – although admittedly a front room packed out with four hundred people. (It is also not the average front room that hosts a display of theatrical puppets, either – though we were treated to a performance by a sheep and sheepdog puppet and their puppeteers, which are being developed for the upcoming stage premiere of The Shepherd’s Life, being produced by Theatre by the Lake, which will open in a couple of weeks.)
It was clear that Rebanks enjoyed speaking on home turf. He made several references to places and to the names of traditional farming families, many of which were greeted by knowing nods and smiles from the audience. More than once he mentioned (and deferred to the knowledge of) his children, who were sitting in one of the theatre boxes, hearing him talk about the book for the first time. It was clear from their responses, and from the photos shown on the screen behind him, that the Rebanks farm is very much a family operation.
Sometimes at festivals, works seem fleeting: the novelist’s latest book; the fashionable academic topic; the knowledge that this time next year, we will be discussing something different.
What was refreshing about Rebanks’ talk was it longevity. His farm, and the debate surrounding farming more generally, is one that will continue not just for years, but for generations to come. Perhaps I only feel this because I am a Cumbrian, but I don’t think so.
While the majority of Rebanks’ talk focussed on his upbringing, the formative role of the farming lifestyle and his current work on the farm, the questions from the audience led him onto discussion of his work for UNESCO. Rebanks touched on sustainability of farming and food production. He talked about local living and the global impact of large-scale industrial farming. He talked about the cultural impacts of tourism, and about environmental issues of rewilding. All of this within the context of his family’s farm and his relationship with the land.
As his small son Isaac piped up: ‘You can’t just talk about sheep, Dad!’ But what Isaac may still be too young to understand is that a talk about sheep is not just a talk about sheep, but a precise and in depth examination of modern ways of life, and on how we interact with the world around us. Above all, it is a way of understanding the relationship each of us has with the land, and with the places we call home.