James Rebanks travels through the literature of farming
The author of English Pastoral on the seductions, dangers and quality of rural writing.
Welcome to Inkcap, a newsletter about nature, ecology and conservation in the UK, brought to you by me, Sophie Yeo.
This is your Wednesday feature. You can still read last Friday’s digest: Rewilding Scotland & Heathland Trees.
Today’s feature is an interview with James Rebanks, a farmer and writer from Matterdale in the Lake District. He has published two books on farming, The Shepherd’s Life and English Pastoral, both of which were bestsellers – and, I think it is fair to say, have changed how many people think about farming and nature.
I’ve republished this interview from The Pen and the Plough, a really exciting project that launched last week, focusing on the representation of farming in British nature writing since 1900. As well as offering space for discussion and debate, it is offering a new creative writing programme for farmers and land workers who have stories to tell. Basically, it all sounds fabulous and you should check it out.
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In The Shepherd’s Life you recount your feeling as a teenager that the Romantic (and in some cases romanticised) literature of “the Lake District” you encountered at school didn’t represent the relationship with the area of the people who lived and worked the land there.
You write: “I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, and that we needed books by us and about us.”
Was that what motivated and inspired you to write, and how did you find the literary voice you needed to articulate the stories of your farming life, family and community?
Yes, that’s exactly why I wanted to write my first book. I naïvely believe in the power of books to change the world. I still believe in that wholeheartedly. I think being a writer is the coolest thing imaginable.
I started writing when I was seventeen but it took me quite a long time to find my voice or the confidence to use it. I was forty when I wrote my first book. I read a few thousand books and lived all kinds of other boring lives before I began to realise that if I didn’t make my writing dreams happen they would fade away.
Like any writer I pieced together an idea of what my voice could be from other great books I read: I loved the boy and the old man in the Hemingway book about the big fish, the book Albert Camus was writing when he crashed into that tree, about the poor people he grew up among in Algiers, I loved Billy Caspar in the Ken Loach film of Kes, I loved Jim in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, I loved the immigrant kids in Junot Diaz’s Drowned, and I loved the shepherds in Jean Giono’s The Man who Planted Trees and in W. H. Hudson’s The Shepherd’s Life.
And countless others… I love the Annales school of French historians, and immigrant narratives that ‘write back’ against the flow, and I love economics, etc., etc., etc. I pieced it all together and created my own thing from it all.
I think there comes a day when you think “I can do this, and maybe it’s different to anything being done by anyone else.” But you are never quite sure whether you are on to something or just a self-obsessed weirdo.
Native belonging in a landscape can be a difficult subject to address. We’re all aware of the ways in which the idea of rootedness to the soil has historically been vulnerable to being harnessed to extreme politics.
Nevertheless, as you say in The Shepherd’s Life, it’s important to understand, in the UK just as in other nations, the lives and perspectives of “the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the past.”
How does the concept of being “hefted” (a term usually associated with upland animals) with which you preface the book help you to explore the relationship with the land of “the forgotten people” of the Lake District?
I was educated as a historian, and spent nearly twenty years of my life reading and studying the stories of people who lived through the Holocaust and the Gulag and other horrors and genocides. I am very aware how ‘soil’, ‘blood’ and ‘folk tradition’ were used in regimes like that in Nazi Germany, to create tribes of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Some English nature and farming writers like Henry Williamson supported fascism at times in the 1930s because they were seduced by talk about the mysterious qualities of their race and its connection with the soil (just as other writers excused the enslavement and murder of millions by communist regimes elsewhere for other reasons). I thought about all this long and hard when writing my first two books. I think it will be very clear to my readers that I have no truck with such nonsense.
I do write about people and sheep being ‘hefted’, and how long association with a place and its work and nature can shape people in good (and sometimes bad) ways. I think that is interesting, just as writers like Wordsworth did a couple of hundred years ago. But it doesn’t lead me to believe in some mystical folk version of us. A lot of my first book was about how I thought when I was young so it had an ‘us’ and ‘them’ tribal element, but that should be read in context of my second book and that I don’t believe those things anymore.
I have tried in my books to show how narrow-minded and wrong we can be, and sometimes right, like any other people, and how we are actually situated in the heart of a multicultural society and in many ways reliant on its diversity for our survival. I think it is healthy for all kinds of people to be given voice in our culture, so we understand one another, and can respect and enjoy our diversity.
British literary culture has always been very urban and elite focused – until other groups of people broke through and demanded to be heard and understood. I think working class culture broke in from the 1960s but the rural bit of that took longer. Thankfully today a whole range of other human stories are elbowing their way into the room so we can understand more the full rainbow of human experience.
You write very movingly about your relationship with your late grandfather and father, especially about the way in which you have come to understand each of them better after their passing.
In The South Country Edward Thomas describes a farmer he meets as being “five generations thick”, by which I think he means that the man’s identity is only partly his own, the rest made up by the generations of farmers who went before him. Do you feel that?
Yes. I don’t really believe in the idea of us as self-created autonomous individuals. I quoted an aboriginal poet in The Shepherd’s Life saying “this accidental present is not the all of me” because that’s how I have always felt. Being an atomised individual seemed exciting when I was 20; now it seems totally empty and pointless. To me, meaning comes from being part of things bigger than yourself, in whatever form works for you.
In your introduction to the Little Toller edition of A.G. Street’s Farmer’s Glory you write that “there aren’t many really good books about farming” and that “farmer-writers tend to have been half-cocked farmers (Henry Williamson or Ted Hughes spring to mind)”.
Do you think the not-so-good books have damaged public perceptions of farming? And apart from Farmer’s Glory, are there any other books about farming that you rate highly?
No. I think farming damaged its own reputation in the twentieth century by becoming hard to respect and love (pushed to that, of course, by the rest of society).
If anything, the books sold the romance long after the reality was badly degraded. There is a significant market for comfy chatty tales about rural life, and there always was. It is escapism and helps people sate their desire to connect with experiences they have mostly lost in more urban or industrial societies. And if that’s what people want to write and read, then who am I to say they shouldn’t? It’s not bad; it’s just not my thing.
I care about great writing, and there isn’t much of it about farming. It is a really small pile of books – maybe ten books in all of history. You can’t name them without offending lots of people so I shall refrain – but Virgil gets on the list, and John Clare, and so does Wendell Berry for his literary essays, and his philosophical masterpiece The Unsettling of America (it has dated in its specifics and isn’t the best of reads, but as analysis it is unsurpassed). Tolstoy wasn’t exactly a farmer writer, but he wrote some awesome stuff about the land and field work, so he makes the pile.
Imagine that: a vast stage of human civilisation and it has barely made it in to great lit. Mostly because the people who did it weren’t literate or motivated to be writers in that way, and were too busy and too poor to put pen to paper. It is very similar to working class literature (written from within), which barely existed until the 19th century, and which really kicks off in the 1960s. Nature writing is such a strong genre at present that farming writing tends to be through that prism, which is OK, but I think it bends it out of shape a bit. I like trying to understand and show things on their own terms, as understood by the people in the thing itself.
Inevitably, narratives of farming often deal with the loss of old agricultural methods – the dying out of certain agrarian ways of being in the world – sometimes imbuing the writing with a nostalgic tone.
In your introduction to Street’s book you argue that in his hands “nostalgia is a radical thing”, and one of the three main sections of your new book English Pastoral is headed “Nostalgia”. Could you say a bit more about radical nostalgia?
I had an email exchange with Robert Macfarlane a few years ago in which he said something very like this – that nostalgia is a radical instinct if it is about revolutionary change to something better in the past. I think I am radically nostalgic in that way; I think modern life is rubbish in loads of ways.
I think we are going in the wrong direction in many areas of human life, and an awareness of how we have departed from more sensible ideas or more sustainable systems or values in the past seems to me to be a good thing.
I think such nostalgia needs tempering with some critical awareness of the limits and flaws of the past, and with an open-mindedness about how a mixture of the best of the old and the best of the new might combine, but I am not enamoured with ‘disruption’ or ‘innovation’ or ‘newness’ as general principles, we have spent too much time letting economists tell us what matters. I admire the Luddites, and so should you if you know what they really were, and what they were up against.
You quote from Virgil’s Georgics at the beginning of English Pastoral in a passage that expresses a sense of the farmer engaged in a profound process of learning about the land. Why did you decide to call the book English Pastoral not English Georgic?
To be honest, it never occurred to me to call it English Georgics, but I don’t think I would have named it that anyway. If you are fortunate enough to be a bestselling author the titles of your books are not entirely your choice. The title and front cover have a grubby commercial job to do to make lots of people pick your books off the shelves in shops and hand over their hard earned money for them.
English Pastoral was one of about twenty potential titles I showed to my editor, and she said, “which do you like?” and I said this one, and she said she agreed. I wanted to write something fairly epic and to make it sound literary, so echoing a Philip Roth title, American Pastoral, seemed like a good idea at the time. My agent said, “Good luck with that. Reviewers will kill you if it’s crap.”
I am fascinated by the history of the ‘pastoral’ and it hopefully conveys the political and radical nature of what I was writing and how that story played out in small lives over generations – as in Roth’s book.
You write with enthusiasm and devotion about the various ways in which you are fostering greater biodiversity (and generating other environmental benefits) on the farm. Do you see yourself as now engaged in producing nature as much as producing food?
I just try to do what feels right to me, and that is to try and leave the farm and my flock of sheep as beautiful and healthy as I can. I think producing food sustainably and living a good life means doing it with nature, and surrounded by as much healthy nature as possible. I don’t see them as either/or choices. The challenge is paying the bills. The reward is to live and work in an amazing place and know we have done our best.
What does it mean for you on a day to day basis to be both a farmer and a writer? You clearly have a passion and a flair for both roles, but is there a tension between them? Is your ability to farm as you wish to (i.e. with the highest environmental standards) dependent on the additional financial contribution your work as a writer brings in?
It is almost impossible. The tension is infuriating. A farm wants all of you, and so does a book. This is why there are so few people who have combined the two with any success.
I go months without writing sometimes because I can’t spare the time or headspace. Other times I have to organise the farm to give me more time to write, but it’s a mess. I started at 4.45am today and I am still writing after a day working on the farm at 9pm. Only an insane workaholic with a horrible focus and disinterest in everything else (and with an amazing support network) could do this.
The farm is a separate business and has to make a profit, or at least not cost me money. I’m lucky to have sold a lot of books and it helped me finish our farmhouse, but we still have a chunky mortgage and I’m not wealthy. Writing books isn’t a way to earn much of a living, yet alone bail out a failing farm business, so we have to make the farm work.
Thankfully the strategy we have followed means the farm makes more profit than it did when we farmed more conventionally, because the input costs were killing us. It isn’t my book income but the government environmental schemes that have made possible a lot of our changes to the farm. The current commodity prices for food don’t cover the costs of good land management on farms, so if we want a better countryside then we have to pay for that in other ways.
What’s next for the farm? What’s next for your writing?
The farm won’t need me so much in the years to come. I can imagine one of my children taking it on and me stepping back as their assistant and mentor.
I will do field and sheep work until I can’t work anymore, because I love it, but I don’t think I’m particularly important to the farm, just a tiny link in a very long chain. It will all go on. My job is to do my best and hand it on; it is all rather modest, and I can see the end of that coming. One of my friends asked me a few years ago: “Are you a writer that farms or a farmer that writes?” The question irritated me at the time because it seemed to suggest you couldn’t be both at the same time.
But if I’d been forced to answer I’d have said, “a farmer who writes.”
Today, if you forced me I’d say a “writer who farms.” I still spend 80% of my daylight hours working on the farm, but my farming ambitions are actually quite small and achievable; my writing daydreams are wildly ambitious.
I never set out to be a farming writer, it happened more by accident; most of my writing ideas aren’t memoir-based or about farming. I don’t think I will write anything else on those subjects.
I don’t feel like I’ve achieved my writing ambitions yet, so I am really excited by having a crack at those.
This interview was conducted by Dr Pippa Marland, a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities.
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All images: Stuart Simpson and Penguin Books