Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

Famous Seamus is no more

This late August saw the last days of Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and playwright who has died aged 74.

The first poem by Heaney I ever read was ‘Blackberry Picking’. In a chaotic classroom with the shame of our former teacher’s breakdown still hanging unspoken in the air, a nervous supply teacher gulped into his beard and read this poem to us:

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

I can’t say that, at thirteen, I loved it. But it did seem hugely real to me – how could he recall something I had done myself, without having been standing there beside me? My best friend and I thrilled and laughed at the ‘rat-grey fungus’, whilst the pathos in the last couplet encapsulates the feeling I love most about autumn: the hope that the last warmth sun will stay forever and the soft sigh of inevitability that it will not.

DeathOfANaturalist

Studying English at university, I came across Heaney again. This time, he threw me a life raft as I thrashed about in the turbulent seas of Old English Literature, trying to find the whale’s way through the waves of eths and thorns. His beautiful translation of Beowulf allowed me to enjoy the poem, rather than struggling through line after line of painful translation which threatened to rob it of any beauty or descriptive power intended by its initial, unknown, authors.

As I listened to Christopher Ricks’ ‘Many Voices: From the Regional’ lecture, Heaney poked me again. This time he used a proggling stick in The Redress of Poetry, hailing the vernacular poet John Clare as his poetic precursor, linked to him through language.  Having grown up in Suffolk, with a paternal family that spoke Suffolk dialect at home, connecting the vernacular with supposed ‘literary’ language was an eye-opener – or perhaps more correctly, an ear-opener.

This, to me, is Seamus Heaney’s greatest legacy: to open ears to the possibilities of language, not shutting doors to literature and history and people.