The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape
by James Rebanks
2015 / 304 pages
read by Bryan Dicks
rating: 9 / memoir
Why do we read memoirs? Is it because the author is a famous personality or had an interesting life like Oliver Sacks or Malala? Maybe it’s because the author lived through extraordinary times like Rahimeh Andalibian and then there’s John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor – the life of a literary man – his thoughts on literature mixed with the way that life is lived. –
The Shepherd’s Life is like none of those. It’s the memoirs of a man who was raised on a sheep farm in the rainy Lake District in northwest England. He left for awhile, but went back pretty quickly and lives there now on his father’s farm which was his grandfather’s farm before that. It’s a dying way of life. I suppose this is an “extraordinary times” type of memoir, but it feels more like a report from a very ordinary person about what is to him a fairly ordinary life in very ordinary but changing times.
The British title is “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District,” which might not be readily comprehensible to American readers – so we get “Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.” I think I like the British version better but perhaps the American version has more appeal for an impulse buyer.
I think it’s the ordinary man aspect that appealed to the thousands of followers Rebanks attracted over several months on Twitter. This was an ordinary life 40 years ago but in 2015? – It’s become rather exotic – hard and dirty work but simple and direct – not to dismiss the complexity of choosing the best sheep for breeding.
And Rebanks can write – he writes wonderfully well with clarity and an eye for the visual and a seemingly intuitive understanding of the rhythms of English. From page 212:
“I won’t like and say I love each day of winter. Because I don’t. But there is the dream of summer to carry me through, and moments of beauty that transcend the mire and the slog. Snipe bursting from the sieves as we approach, and hares watching then bursting from their well-worn forms at the last moment. The daylight wanes half-heartedly. the Flocks of fieldfares fold backwards under wings flashing silver, tumbling over the wind and away down the thorn dykes.”
Rebanks’ “dispatches” are realistic; farming is hard work with huge risks, and it’s being taken over by the big guys. This is not the life his grandparents lived, and yet, in some ways, it’s not much different.
And the author’s life is different in that some time after leaving school he ended up in college and this is completely apparent from his writing skills.
Rebanks’ Twitter feed: