James Rebanks

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James Rebanks

Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

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James Rebanks is a shepherd who lives and works in the eastern Lake District, in the same valleys and fells that his family has farmed for over 600 years.  As @herdyshepherd1 he tweets about his farm and his flock’s daily life, and has over 60,000 followers.

He is the author of THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE, a Sunday Times #1 bestseller, described in the Independent as “an unforgettable book, one that raises important questions.  It is also one of the most truthful depictions of contemporary rural life that I have read".

Sunday Times #1 Bestseller, 5 Weeks Running, 11 weeks in Top 3

5 months in Top 10

Sunday Times Memoir of the Year

Latest publication:

THE ILLUSTRATED HERDWICK SHEPHERD - PENGUIN (UK)

Praise for THE ILLUSTRATED HERDWICK SHEPHERD:

“After his first success with THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE, published earlier this year, [Rebanks] has followed it with THE ILLUSTRATED HERDWICK SHEPHERD, a distillation of thoughts and reflections on what it means to him to be a traditional shepherd. The glory of the new book lies in the large number of wonderfully composed coloured photographs which reflect the author’s understated interest in the work of the great painters of rural scenes. Between the illustrations, Rebanks speaks to his readers with gobbets of Cumbrian directness interspersed here and there with some rather lovely short poems; then we encounter the poetic contrasts which echo the photographic illustrations and together lay bare the author’s love for his Herdwick sheep, the people of the Fells and Lakeland itself.” Times Literary Supplement

 

Praise for THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE

 

"An absorbing memoir… one of the only pleasant Twitter feeds in existence.” New Yorker

“A powerful first book … Rebanks weaves autobiography, family history and occasional polemic … features some fantastically dystopian descriptions set against sublime descriptions of the Cumbrian fells … there is no disputing the authenticity of his voice.  The Shepherd’s Life is an unforgettable book, that raises important questions … It is also one of the most truthful depictions of contemporary rural life that I have read.” Richard Benson, Independent (Book of the Week)

“Two pages into The Shepherd's Life, I was gripped. Twenty pages in, I was amazed. By its end, I knew I'd read an extraordinary book, at once political and beautiful – a major addition to the modern British literature of landscape, that can stand alongside Ronald Blythe's classic Akenfield as a portrait of a place and its people as seen from within.” Robert Macfarlane

 “James Rebanks’s captivating new book is at once, a memoir, a portrait of his family’s world and an evocative depiction of his vocation as a shepherd … Expertise – and explanations of the craft and clockwork behind the ticktock of a profession – is hugely compelling when described with ardour and elan … Rebanks has an easy ability to shift gears between the personal and this historical, as well as between gritty descriptions of life and death on the farm and more lyrical descriptions of the land he knows like his backyard … What shines throughout the book is Mr Rebanks’s love of his work.” Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

 “A passionate account … At the heart of this book is the myth-varnished truth of an unbroken chain between land, ancestor and descendant, paralleled in the pedigree of Rebanks’s beloved Herdwick sheep ... Fealty to people and place, and the ruthless and loving ways in which farmers survive and sustain their landscape, combine to make this more than a tribute to a rare and doughty tribe.  If hills could speak, this is surely the tale the fells would tell.” Horatio Clare, Sunday Telegraph

“Pitch-perfect and profound … it is not easy to imagine an account of a life more observant and precisely detailed ... What it all amounts to is the closest possible look into a way of life that most of us only glimpse as we whisk through the countryside or perhaps as we climb and walk there. Such glimpses are unforgettable.” David Craig, Guardian

 “This year The Shepherd’s Life stood out as a rare and honest book about the realities of working life in the 21st-century countryside” Independent, Books of the Year

 “The Shepherd’s Life is a superbly written ode to an ancient way of life.” Nicholas Hytner, Observer, Books of the Year

 “Evocative and Perceptive” Patrick Barkham, Guardian, Books of the Year

 "This book makes you feel glad to be alive: James Rebanks is our modern equivalent of John Clare, Britain’s greatest writer of the hard labour and radiant grace of the shepherd’s life" Jonathan Bate, TLS

 "I never imagined I’d be absorbed by a book about sheep. But James Rebanks’s unsentimental, sharply detailed memoir about his life as a shepherd in England’s Lake District gripped me from the first page" Wall Street Journal

 “Not for nothing was The Shepherd’s Life the nature publishing sensation of the year. Readers flocked (sorry) to hill farmer Rebanks’s unsentimental yet luminous account of shepherding with its highs and lows, sense of community and generations-deep connection to a working landscape. It is an antidote to our modern metropolitan cynicism and a deeply moral book.” The Times, Books of the Year

“Rebanks is a shepherd. He lives an ancient way of life in the nibbled fells of the Lake District where his family have farmed blue-grey Herdwick sheep for 600 years. This beautifully sure-footed memoir peels back the plastic packaging to reveal the attritional nature of hill farming, with its knife-edge dangers, noise, blood, guts, familial claustrophobia and glorious countryside. It is an unsentimental education that celebrates the real countryside shorn of its lyrical excesses. It is also a triumphant tale of finding one’s “alive and necessary” self. A pastoral for the 21st century.” Sunday Times, Memoir of the Year

The Shepherd’s Life is not a deceptive title. The life of a shepherd and that of his sheep — the shearing, lambing, mating, dipping, the constant year-round graft — is exactly what you get in assiduous, intimate detail over nearly 300 pages. James Rebanks is so fascinated with his Lake District flock, with their individual characters, their relationship to the land, the tendency of the better looking sheep to “show off” (I love the notion of preening sheep and choose to picture a ruminant George Galloway) that when he sells one star tup he misses the aesthetic nourishment of seeing him each day, “as if I once had a Van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone”. Rebanks’s enthusiasm and talent for poetic writing is infectious.” Carol Midgley, The Times, Pick of the Paperbacks

“Page by page, he builds what amounts to a 21st-century pastoral manifesto. This book is an unsentimental education, part history of farming in the Lake District, part personal memoir. It is about finding one’s true “alive and necessary” self. It is also about how the countryside can battle to keep its traditions alive.” Sunday Times, Pick of the Paperbacks

"Lovingly detailed" New Yorker

 “Rebanks writes with loving eloquence about a kind of deep-rooted life that is all but lost in the developed world. Herdwick sheep, the local breed, are set free to graze on unfenced commons and could head off to Scotland were they not “hefted”—tied to their home range by invisible bonds of instinct and inheritance. Mr. Rebanks is himself hefted to his land and deftly conveys the worth and beauty of such a connection.” Wall Street Journal, Books of the Year

 “Rebanks’s prose can make other nature writers seem by comparison high-falutin and sentimental […] there are flashes of poetry and an enviable sense of rooted belonging.” Intelligent Life

“An absorbing, often funny, and beautifully written evocation of the landscape that is so much a part of Rebanks’s life and who he is. It’s also a different Lake District to that of Wordsworth and Wainwright – and a testament to the importance of maintaining a connection to the land.” Observer

 “An enlightening, exquisitely written account … I was beguiled by this book, an eloquent love-letter to a cherished way of life” Daily Mail

 “This wonderful book … Rebanks’s fascinating account of a year in his sheep-herding life” Toronto Star

“A powerful – and quietly electrifying – meditation on the gruelling truth of rural life … the book is also a paean to its spectacular natural beauty. This is the real countryside, shorn of lyrical excesses … Page by page, he builds what amounts to a 21st-century pastoral manifesto. This book is an unsentimental education, part history of farming in the Lake District, part personal memoir.  And yet it still soars. Farmers, on the whole, may be men of few words, and those that they often use are gruff or unprintable, but Rebanks’s prose in The Shepherd’s Life is beautifully sure-footed.” Sunday Times

"It is a beautifully told tale suffused by a profound sense of belonging and a clear-eyed love of the land and its people." Sydney Morning Herald (Pick of the Week)

 "A remarkable achievement ... part calendar, part memoir, part encomium for fell-farming – a deceptively powerful prose style, a depth of knowledge and a sense of moral integrity feels like a draught of pure revivifying Lakeland air … Utterly unsentimental, The Shepherd’s Life is, nevertheless, profoundly moving, because what Rebanks describes is a deep attachment to place, a pride in hard work done well and a sense of continuity from generation to generation" Financial Times

“As moving, truthful, and at times as poetic as anything you’re likely to read … satisfying on every level.” Seattle Times

“Engrossing tale of life on a Cumbrian fell farm … A passionate plea about a way of life that has existed for centuries but is often invisible to the day-trippers … Beautifully written.  Rebanks brings out the dignity in simple honest hard work which isn’t always valued in our society – smashing.” Pick of the Week, BBC Radio 4

“A very good book” Alan Bennett

“It’s bloody marvellous.” Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk

“Affectionate, evocative, illuminating. A story of survival – of a flock, a landscape and a disappearing way of life. I love this book.” Nigel Slater

“Rebanks’s enthusiasm and talent for poetic writing is infectious... [His] words create not only a gorgeous landscape painting of the Lake District and its inhabitants, human, animal, bird and fish, but also a useful social document... What is most striking about this book is its authenticity; this is the real thing.” Carol Midgley, The Times

“This exceptional book … Rebanks’s way with words is akin to that of an expert shearer with the clippers – swift, deft, skilled and the resulting prose is lean, vivid, tough and handsome.  I loved this book.  It is one to restore faith in writing and in the business of publishing – a story not like any other, told from the inside by someone whose passion for his subject lights up almost every sentence.” Tom Fort, Literary Review

“Rebanks offers a fascinating account of his life in farming that is in equal parts memoir, social commentary and procedural. Even for the most committed urbanite, it’s a brilliant read.” Observer

“Outstandingly brilliant" Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

“A glorious book, alive with the author's voice, which is strong and individual, as befits a man who makes a living in this ancient but precarious way … Unlike many of the fashionable nature books so beloved of prize lists, The Shepherd’s Life is by a countryman. Rebanks starts from the point of knowing the land so well he could walk it blindfold, understanding its moods and how to work it. To this bedrock, the intellectual layer is then added, so that the foundation of this thoughtful, spirited story is firm, not fanciful.” Rosemary Goring, Herald

“James is 40 years old. He is broad and bluff with enormous meaty hands. He tends 600 Herdwick and Swaledale sheep on 250 acres of windswept Cumbrian hillside, and his first book, The Shepherd’s Life – part memoir, part history of sheep farming in the Lake District, all told with a wonderfully blunt realism – sparked a bidding war between publishers, is due to be on Radio 4’s Book Of The Week and is tipped to be one of the most successful publications of the year.” Daily Mail

This outstanding debut follows the arduous cycle of the farming year: while tourists have affairs with the Lakes, what Rebanks describes is a long, hard marriage. His prose is earthed and conversational; it feels as if you’re leaning over a gate, listening to his ruminations. The book, a bestseller, exudes tough passion, and a sense of belonging and love that holds you rapt to the very last line: “This is my life. I want no other.” Intelligent Life

“Ostensibly an unflinching, muddy-realist memoir, but it is also a furious denunciation of ‘cultural imperialists’ who venerate the Romantic poets' depictions of peasants and shepherds, while denigrating those who actually work in the landscape today. One sees the countryside differently after reading it.” Independent, Books of the Year

The Shepherd’s Life is already winning critical plaudits.  It may well do for sheep what Helen Macdonald did for hawks” Guardian

“An instant rural classic” Mail on Sunday, Books of the Year

“In James Rebanks we hear a new voice from the fells.  The toil and the beauty in The Shepherd’s Life are utterly compelling.” Nicholas Crane

“A timely and important book, with flashes of beauty in its spare and honest prose.” Sadie Jones

“Beautifully written” Alan Cumming, actor and author of Not My Father's Son

“A gorgeous book, unsentimental but exultant, vivid and profound.” National Geographic

“Lucid, straightforward prose” New Statesman

“Rebanks’s writing is shot through with a lustrous passion.” TLS

“Brilliant, fantastic, truly compelling: the countryside, his farm and his community tumble from every page” Robin Page

The Shepherd’s Life, a remarkable nonfiction debut by James Rebanks, is now essential Lake District literature … you will never see the lakes in quite the same way again.” The Times

“Autobiography, family history and community life are woven into a raw, authentic and exhilarating narrative … Rebanks delights in the life of a fell farmer.  He liberally sprinkles the narrative with sentences of stunning beauty … a captivating look into a way of life.” Irish Independent

“Truly extraordinary… written with a mastery of vivid, concrete detail that makes you gasp… I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a book more wholeheartedly.” W. I. Life

“This work has done what publishers hope for with non-fiction but rarely achieve: arrive at precisely the pinnacle of the public’s interest in a particular trend, somehow imbued with that elusive “must-read” quality that sends books to the top of bestseller lists and keeps them there.” themillions.com

“A wonderful book which will surely become a Lake District classic.  Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, it provides a vivid insight into the realities of hill-farming life.” Professor Angus Winchester, University of Lancaster

“A vivid, honest, unforgettably written account not just of one shepherd's year, but of an ancient way of life.” Lucy Dillon, author of A Hundred Pieces of Me

“Beautifully written, James Rebanks’s tale is humane, generous, and completely addictive … His somewhat irascible, vivid, and utterly disarming prose carries the reader from season to season … His irreverent style will antagonize some but endear him to many more. There is no denying the authenticity of his voice … The Shepherd’s Life hits all the right notes. It’s about family, hard work, and a culture which requires sacrifice.” Washington Independent Review of Books

The Shepherd's Life is a reader's delight. No tourist wandering the iconic Lake District is Rebanks; coming from centuries of farmers he is as 'hefted' to the fells as the Herdwick sheep he keeps. He lives, breathes and works his landscape – which gives him an inside edge as sharp as shears over most of the flock of current countryside-writers. Rebanks has written a marvellous autobiography – of himself, his family, and the hills themselves. For they are indivisible.” John Lewis-Stempel, author of Meadowland

“What came through was the stolid humility, gentle stubbornness and genuine care you need to live this life. Many books are written about a thing but this book is of a thing and is valuable for it.” Cynan Jones, author of The Dig

The Shepherd’s Life is that rare thing, a well-written book about the life of the land by a man who gets his living from the land. It's a paean for a peopled landscape, and a powerful counterblast to the doleful environmentalism that would empty our land of its people.’ Philip Walling, author of Counting Sheep

“Detailed, funny, scholarly, historically informed and in every way a joy to read … a truly magnificent book” Taipei Times

“Gentle and pertinent … bit-by-bit the author describes how the abrupt demands of modern development rub against traditional farming ways. Rebanks’ family has farmed the area for more than six hundred years, and integral to his story is the picture he draws of his family circle, the unique connection he had with his grandfather and how he grows into the landscape.” Readings

"What’s most moving about The Shepherd’s Life is the admiration you feel for his self-knowledge, his reverence for the animals and his heritage, his absolute surety of his place in the world and his generosity in sharing it."  Minnesota Star Tribune

“James Rebanks is an exception.  Writing about the Lake District has long been dominated by the poet Wordsworth – but now there are two of them … The author writes with an unsentimental brutality about everything in the shepherding culture, and with love.  A very remarkable debut.” Fredrik Sjöberg, Svenska Dagbladet

“A truthful, real, authentic, memoir” Die Welt

 

 

Non-Fiction

Publication DetailsNotes
2015

Penguin

Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.

These modern dispatches from an ancient landscape tell the story of a deep-rooted attachment to place, describing a way of life that is little noticed and yet has profoundly shaped this landscape. In evocative and lucid prose, James Rebanks takes us through a shepherd's year, offering a unique account of rural life and a fundamental connection with the land that most of us have lost. It is a story of working lives, the people around him, his childhood, his parents and grandparents, a people who exist and endure even as the world changes around them. Many stories are of people working desperately hard to leave a place. This is the story of someone trying desperately hard to stay.