Monday, 7 September 2015
Beatrix Potter - Mrs Heelis as she was known in the Lake District - and in the background, you can see her flock of Herdwick sheep.
And a book that has become an international best-seller. There's even talk of making it into a film. (I hope not. They'll ruin it.)
I often find myself drawn to books about the countryside but, truth is, I'm a city girl through and through - when you're tired of London/Paris/New York, you're tired of life - and those country books often fall into that unloved heap down the side of the bed, which is where H is for Hawk is now gathering dust. (I got off to a good start but quickly realised I was far more interested in the author's Fleet Street photographer father than I was in birds. A friend who gave up after 50 pages said exactly the same, so it isn't just me.)
So when I say that I galloped through James Rebanks' account of a shepherd's year in the Lake District, completely riveted ... that is a 5* review! (And here's another one.) It is a book that opens your eyes to a landscape, making you realise the depths of your ignorance about life behind those drystone walls when you drive through, or even ramble through, admiring the stunning views. (He's very good on the Wainwright-ification of the Lake District, and it's shaming that even those who appreciate it don't get it. It made me realise how much my response to landscape is a kneejerk emotional reaction to 19th century Romanticism, not reality.)
James Rebanks is my polar opposite. I went to university, desperate to get away from the place where I grew up. (And I was right!) He went away to Oxford, despite messing around and leaving school at 16, got a first in history, and was desperate to return to the farm, a man hefted to the landscape in the same way his sheep are. It hadn't even occurred to me that sheep have teeth (I know, I told you I'm a city girl), still less that when they wobble and fall out with age, the sheep's time is up because it can't chobble grass. It never occurred to me that a shepherd would know each individual sheep and its family tree. (I thought they came in multi-packs of 100.) And I hadn't a clue that Herdwick sheep have their slatey blue-grey fleeces coloured red for shows and sales. (One theory is that shepherds wanted to pick out their most valuable sheep on the fell sides with ease. Another that, way back in time, people worshipped their sheep and coloured them as some sort of ritual.)
I think the reason I struggle with books about rural life is that so often they get lyrical and wordy; but Rebanks is completely down to earth and unsentimental. (He does get a bit repetitive and a better editor would have ironed this out; I think it's because the book started out as a blog.) Here he is @herdyshepherd1 and here are this year's twin lambs (scroll down).