The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District – book review

By James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is just what it says on the cover, a memoir of the life of James Rebanks, the son of a shepherd, as was his father and grandfather and so on for generations. However, it’s more than that in that as well as describing how he relates to the land and the rest of the world, it says something more.

I stumbled across this book when it was the Radio 4 Book of the Week a few years ago. I was enchanted. Of course, with the Radio 4 Book of the Week being enchanting is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that they don’t select just any old nonsense. And then, even if the subject is out of your personal interest area, the right theatrical reader usually brings it alive. A listener who didn’t think they could be interested in the life of a clam fisherman or the story of the invention of tin soldiers and how their popularity radically, and unexpectedly, changed the recipe for custard, usually ends the week so enthused that they dash out to buy the book, the calendar and the promotional apple crumble.

intangible

Rebanks’ stories, read by Bryan Dick, as I lay in bed late at night, did more than make me want to buy the book. The broadcast was during the time that I was working on the manuscript for In SatNav We Trust just as I was describing my journey through the counties of Northern England, trying to find examples, or definitions, of meaning in lives that are not as ordinary as the every day. It struck me that the connection to the land, the livestock, local heritage, and tradition that Rebanks talks about was an example of just this sort of meaning in personal daily experience. To this day I don’t know why I feel this is an example, but it might just be that a sense of meaning is an intangible thing. (Perhaps wait for In SatNav We Trust to come out to discover if I ever managed to define it.) Later, as I was beginning to promote the manuscript to agents, and the publishing industry in general, I thought I’d better actually read the book. I thought that having heard a few episodes on the radio and then making reference to it in writing might look a bit thin if anyone ever tackled me on it.

I’m so glad I did.

He opens the story with a description of the task of bringing the sheep down from the fells. Just this story is enough to entrance the reader. For most of us understanding how someone can get a dog to do as it’s told is a mystery. It’s certainly a mystery to my ex-girlfriend when she couldn’t stop her dog yapping. ‘There’s not much you can do about it,’ she used to say. Well there bloody well is, I thought. A dog can be trained; but she was too lazy, or ignorant, or generally resistant to learn. (Perhaps I should have trained her?) But, to be fair to her, we can probably all see her point. Unless you study Skinner’s stimulus/response behaviorism how to make a living creature do, or not do, something can seem a bit of a mystery. (Parents of two years old kids will be nodding at this point.) Even if you have studied Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s boxes to attempt to put behaviorism into practice is another matter entirely. Getting a dog to stop yapping is difficult to conceive. Teaching a dog to obey commands and round up sheep is mindboggling. But if you are part of a family tradition that has trained sheep dogs for generations then, I suspect, it’s a different matter.

whistle

Rebanks describes dogs that will run up the mountainside and still take instructions by a whistle or a shout without being able to see the sheep they are working towards, then bring them down with little or no instruction. This is more than just a conditioned response. These dogs are intelligent and will make their own decisions based on experience. It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about a bond between a dog and its owner but that’s probably because it’s true. Still, you should read the book to really understand.

But this is more than a book about one man and his dog. Whenever I’ve been walking on high fells or the like I’ve always wondered how farmers tell which sheep belong to which flock and why they don’t wander off. Of course, it’s down to the painted smit marks that identify them when they are roaming across the high moorlands. But why don’t they wander onto another part of the mountain or even to a completely different mountain? Apparently because they are hefted to the land (to become accustomed and attached to an area of pasture) in which they live, passed down from ewe to lamb and so on in the same way that the shepherd’s traditions are passed down through the human generations.

seasons

In talking about how one flock rubs up against another it becomes a book about community. He describes his family life (the book actually starts with his school days rather than the story of the sheep on the mountain) and he weaves his family history, and the lives of the community, into the story of the seasons as he describes a year working with the flock and the people around him. He describes how the experience of generations is passed down, how livestock is bought and sold, flocks built up over generations of breeding through triumphs and tragedies.

This is a book about a sheep farmer and his life and, as such, it’s probably an instant classic. You’ll learn things about him that reveal he’s an extraordinary individual. This is a book about connections, connections to place, daily life, people and annual routine dictated by the cycle of the seasons. But because those connections are so ingrained, and often important for survival, they become significant. In describing this life he might just be describing the nature of meaning.

I’m hoping I can find time to read it again. Five out of five stars.

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