THERE’S a brutal and unflinching honesty about James Rebanks’ memoirs of a shepherding life in the Lake District that takes you by surprise.
Not that you would expect a book of this type to shrink from telling tough tales of a harsh climate, a difficult lifestyle, an imposing landscape…
But what gives Rebanks’ 2015 bestseller such a resonance is the author’s lack of equivocation when it comes to discussing his own flaws and shortcomings – as well as those of the education system, politicians, bureacrats, thoughtless incomers, naive consumers, irresponsible dog walkers and all those who understand little about the practicalities of a modern farmer’s life.
The last time I read a book about shepherding it was 1983 and Iain Thomson had just published Isolation Shepherd, an extraordinary account of 1950s shepherding in the wilds of Wester Ross.
Although there are inevitable parallels in that account of an intimate and often harsh contact with the untamed world, and the shared all-consuming sense of purpose which shepherds share, Rebanks’ starting point is very different.
Indeed the opening pages are a devastating indictment of the comprehensive schooling offered to his generation of rebellious 1980s teenagers that has more in common with an Alan Sillitoe novel than a rural memoir.
Rebanks pulls no punches about the negativity and disillusionment this engendered in his 13-year-old self and he is equally open about the fractious nature of family relationships at times: “Fathers and sons in our family tend to bicker like hyenas around the remains of a zebra,” he recalls.
He is equally straightforward about the positive influence of the young woman who would become his wife: “From the moment we got together twenty years ago she made me want to buckle down and make our life a good one. She makes me better than I am.”
But there is a pattern emerging here, of a straight-talking, unsentimental portrait of a way of life that has changed little across the hundreds of years when previous generations of his family tended flocks here.
The narrative is as firmly rooted in the landscape as a Grassic Gibbon novel, and some aspects of that daily routine are every bit as harsh and unforgiving. This is the land where Rebanks trailed around in the footsteps of his grandfather as a child, argued with his father as a young man and which he still works today with his wife and three children.
This is where he tends for the beloved Herdwick sheep which are such an intrinsic feature of these fells. And while his book chronicles a year in the changing landscape, it also flashes forward and back from boyhood to manhood, chronicling not only the daily challenges but some of the momentous memories across the years, from his grandfather’s death to the horrors of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
There is irritation and anger here too, inevitably. Farmers are vulnerable to the whims of too many people far removed from their isolated farmsteads not to have strong opinions about the impact of the policymakers, bureaucrats and supermarket buyers on their precious but precarious existence.
Hence too that youthful frustration and anger with teachers who seemed to believe that anyone with the remotest hint of talent and ambition would surely want to seek a living elsewhere.
Rebanks detested school and left at 15, able to write only in block capitals. But that didn’t snuff out his desire to learn — far from it. At 21, he took his A-levels at evening classes in nearby Carlisle, where in due course he discovered that he might actually be Oxbridge material.
The dreaming spires beckoned, but if they helped to cement his literary credentials, they were to provide only a temporary change of scene from those beloved fells. The young couple spent a couple of years in Carlisle after Oxford, but moving back to the farm was always Rebanks’ longer-term dream.
Much of his autobiography chronicles the trials and tribulations of that life, the colourful local characters, the high points in the farming calender, the crises, the triumphs, the sheer blood, sweat and tears.
Rebanks could hardly have hoped for a more effusive reaction from the literary establishment for his authentic, moving and passionate book, as lean, sharp and tough in its writing style as one of his loyal sheepdogs.
But if the author is always keenly aware of that link across the generations that ties him to the land, he is also no enemy of modern technology, with more than 110,000 Twitter followers enjoying his words and pictures chronicling his family’s way of life (and perhaps half a million or more sharing the farm’s puppy videos).
That disgruntled 13-year-old has come a long way — if not geographically, then at least in his knowledge of the ways of the world.
And as he later wrote, reminiscing over those fiery family clashes: “I know my dad, and grandad, in ways that most people never do. I saw and shared in their finest moments. I was part of their world, and understood the things they did and cared about.
“I let them down at times, as they let me down to. I made them proud at times, as they, too, made me proud. We clashed sometimes. But who wouldn’t.
“Our lives were entwined around something we all cared about more than anything else in the world. The farm.”