The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

This book was bought for me as a present. It’s always interesting to get books as gifts because it shows the sort of reader people think you are. Though I’m from the North West of England and grew up in an ‘agricultural setting’ I know little about sheep, and can honestly say I’ve never thought of being a shepherd, so why did they buy me this book?

This is an autobiography about how a man finds his vocation, real vocation. There is no doubt Rebanks is called to the land, to his fell farm in the Lake District and to the work of sheep farming. The book is told as a tale of the seasons, the first season, the summer of his childhood, growing up learning the work of his grandfather and father, the hard graft and satisfaction of a farming life. He describes how unsatisying school life is and the sense of disconnect between the Lake District of Wordsworth and Wainwright and the landscape he inhabits. The next season, Autumn, follows the death of his grandfather and the slow implosion of his childhood world view. As Rebanks realises the farm of his childhood is not the summertime landscape of his adolescence, his relationship with his father is defined by anger and he knows his life will be one of, ‘drinking, shagging, fighting’ he escapes into the bookcase of his unknown maternal grandfather and finds a different version of the world. 

Camus, Salinger, A.J.P. Taylor, Orwell. It turns out my grandfather had impeccable taste in books. And I lucked out because they ended up in front of my hungry eyes at just the moment I needed them. 

From this, Rebanks begins an unusual, unlikely, but successful journey through night school to Oxford university. Still returning to the farm, to the fell and the sheep as often as he can. Though one summer he is away and realises why National Parks matter to everyone, how places like the Lake District offer escape, a breath of fresh air, to people who live and work in an urban landscape. 

Winter then follows with the Foot and Mouth epidemic which swept Britain in 2001. Rebanks gives a vivid picture of what it is like to loose the herd, to be a shepherd without sheep. Bloodlines bred through the farm over generations are wiped out and they are left devastatingly at leisure. Rebanks is also one of the few writers, who acturately describes snow in the North West. The cold and wet that penetrates to your core and having to keep going to feed the sheep, to bring the flock down from the fell to safer ground where they won’t be entombed in the snowfall. Now when people ask me why I don’t like snow, I can just say, “read this”.

The last season of the book, Spring, tells how the farm restocked and recovered and it is in this part Rebanks really becomes a shepherd, choosing to rear Herdwick sheep, breeding prizewinning tups, raising his own family on the fell side farm, his own father now the grandfather. He also works for UNESCO, which he just drops in as if this is a job everyone does! Book number two?

This is a book about farming, about families, about how we push against our purpose until we find our way and reading it teaches you a little about sheep. I would give it a rare 10/10. There is one character I would like mention, Helen, Rebanks girlfriend, then later mother to his children. They meet when quite young (late teens?) and she is always there just out of focus. The Shepherd’s Wife, perhaps book 3?


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