Book Review – August 2016 – Sallie Eden

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks – Published by Penguin, 2016

shepherdslifeExactly as it ‘says on the tin’, the story of a shepherd working the family farm in Cumbria. I really wanted to love this book. And why wouldn’t I? It had some tremendous reviews; it’s about the author’s farming heritage (not dissimilar to my family’s).

But…

…some of the descriptions of his roots border on arrogance; and he seems bitter that anyone whose family hasn’t lived in the Lakes ‘for ever’ has the right to visit the area (much of the land was bequeathed to the National Trust by Beatrix Potter and is open to the public).

However, what I really disliked were his unpleasant descriptions of his childhood. His schooldays and the majority of teachers are scorned as of no account. He demonstrates little sympathy for a teacher he describes as being “destroyed” by the behaviour of the pupils and even an incident of bullying which led to a tragic outcome is treated in an offhand manner.

Overall, a little humour and self-effacement wouldn’t go amiss. Where he does, apparently, attempt to be more light-hearted, it is misjudged, for example, referring to a game at school where the aim was to identify and smash the item of highest value and pass it off as an accident, he says “I was good at that kind of thing”. Despite his own University education, he despises people who went to University, stating that they “cease to belong”.

Most irritatingly, he seems to make no link between those he appears to despise and family such as his great great grandfather who ‘made money from his dealing’ and accumulated enough money to fill two suitcases, with which he eventually bought ‘three good farms’ and a row of cottages which he later sold to tenants at a profit.

Descriptions of the skills needed to construct dry stone walls or handle hay bales (pre mechanisation) are all familiar to me, but overall something was missing. To give credit to the author, he has a masterly way with words which often flow as beautifully as his descriptions of rural life, so I’m inclined to think that some of the problem lies with me. Maybe I know too much and not enough at the same time. I can only say, make up your own mind. Lots of people seem to have loved it.

But, as he says, his grandfather taught him ‘we owned the earth’. It shows, but not in a good way and I couldn’t help comparing it to the wonderful talk on farming given by our own James Thomas as part of the Roseland festival; interesting, often amusing, full of affection for the work, the animals and the land and thoroughly engrossing. He left us all wanting more. Time to pick up a pen, James?

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