What is your image of the shepherd? Of the Lake District? I suspect that many of our responses to the Lake District have been primed by our readings of Wordsworth, Alf Wainwright, and or of Beatrix Potter. How do we respond to rural life in general? Do we romanticize it or fear it as something alien? James Rebanks’ book reminds us that the Lake District is more than a backdrop to poetry, more than a place to walk and wonder at the glories of the picturesque and natural grandeur: it is a place where for centuries people have lived and laboured. It’s a place with a strong, well-defined culture, the place where Rebanks grew up and where he still lives and raises Herdwick sheep on the fells.
His book is a sometimes lyrical defence of this way of life taking us through the shepherd’s year while also explaining how he himself developed from a disaffected “Drinking. Fighting. Shagging” (129) hooligan who had left a “crappy, mean, broken-down school” (96) with no GCSEs into an Oxford graduate. As he writes of his present, he recalls the past, his own, his family’s, and the land’s. His shifts in tense are echoed by shifts in idiom between the well-modulated tones of the graduate and the more robust language of his childhood and the local dialect with its roots in old Norse.
While Rebanks’ work is focussed on the Lake District, his concerns about what is happening to the place where shepherds have worked for centuries calls to mind a more general concern about the situation of rural economies everywhere. The influx of outsiders whose view of what a place is like and should be threatens patterns of existence that have existed for centuries and which are valued by the original inhabitants but misunderstood by newcomers. Rebanks watched as “Two worlds that didn’t understand each other were colliding” (123), and even as he regrets the passing of the old and struggles to maintain the practices and traditions of his forebears, he realises that he, too, is part of the change. In many ways, the Lake District’s colonisation by tourists reflects the greater changes wrought by colonisation on the wider global scale, and its effects on the local inhabitants are just as challenging as those faced by indigenous populations of countries once deemed “empty” by outsiders. He is very concerned as we should all be that “when local traditional farming systems disappear, communities become more and more reliant upon industrial commodity food products being transported long distances to them, with all the environmental cost (and cultural disconnection from the land) that entails” (212).
As I read this book, I couldn’t help remembering John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed a novel and television series that he wrote contemporaneously, that in satirizing post war, late mid-twentieth century British politics and society, drew the audience’s attention, among other issues, to the way that village life in England was being erased, as villages became more and more the weekend retreats for city people with no interest in the inherent and traditional culture they were displacing.
Rebanks, despite everything, however, is optimistic believing that “the heart of it [his way of life] will remain” (229). Never saccharine, but redolent of Rebanks’ love and respect for his land and traditions, his book is a testament to this belief.