The Book Group and James Rebanks’ Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life ( 2016)

shepherd.jpegBefore the meeting: A number of the chaps in the group (me included) had been charmed by James Rebanks when they heard him on Australian radio earlier this year. Plus his book is short, always desirable for the Book Group and especially so at this time of year. So this is what we read.

The book is part memoir, part family history, part advocacy for a way of life and a community of people. The early pages frame the conversation neatly: Rebanks tells of teachers who urged him and his fellow students to study hard if they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives on their family’s tiny farms in the inhospitable fells of England’s Lake District, of a teacher who waxed lyrical about the beauty of that same region from the point of view of Romantic poets and those who followed after them, but seemed to regard her students as incapable of understanding such elevated thoughts:

I wanted to tell that teacher that she had it all wrong – tell her that she didn’t really know this place or its people at all. These thoughts took years to become clear, but in a rough childish form I think they were there from the start. I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, but that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed. She finished and left the stage fuming.

James Rebanks is no longer dumb and thirteen, and though this book rises from the same impulse as that farting noise, I’d be surprised if, when that teacher reads it, she fumes even the tiniest bit. Millions of people visit the Lake District each year for its beauty and simply don’t see that it is a workplace, or have any sense of the accumulated knowledge and connection to country of the people who work there. To them, in a very real sense, Rebanks and his community are invisible. The book doesn’t reprimand or reproach the visitors for their narrow vision. It sets out to show them – I should say us, even though I haven’t been there –  what we have failed to see, and it succeeds brilliantly.

There’s a lot about sheep, about sheep dogs, about grandfathers, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, about lambing and tupping and death, about fine ewes and tups (a word I’ve previously only known in the rhyme ‘Thomas a Tattamus took two tees / to tie two tups to two tall trees’), about the qualities of different breeds and the way the seasons run the life of the farms. There’s Wordsworth (not as unaware of the farmers as young Rebanks thought) and Beatrix Potter (not as the cranky child-hater I’d read about elsewhere). And there’s a lot about a way of life that is perhaps more than a thousand years old and has survived the depredations of capitalism more or less intact.

In some editions the book is subtitled ‘Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape’. I think that’s a mistake, because its whole purpose is to claim the land back from the idea of it as ‘landscape’, as something to be looked at. It moves in the direction of what I (dimly) understand of the Aboriginal idea of Country – and it’s no surprise that one section is introduced with a quote from Oodgeroo Noonuccal: ‘Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all around us and within.’

I’ve sometimes thought that I should start a blog post about a book by mentioning how it connects with other recent reading. This would have been a good one to start with: the scene described in this book when the radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl disaster appears is not as intense as those in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, but it’s definitely in the same peasant universe. The account of the obsessive value that some shepherds place on particular breeds of sheep and the agony caused by government slaughter to prevent the spread of disease is gripping in its own right, but also makes an excellent footnote to Grímur Hákonarson’s great movie, Rams.

I expect the book will resonate with anyone who spent their childhood on a farm, whether they dealt with sheep or not. I’m a thoroughly citified seventy-year-old, but the boy who helped decapitate a stillborn calf and pull it out of its mother, while his father held the mother’s head and crooned reassurance to her – that boy came alive again as I read this book.

After the meeting: It was our end of  year meeting in a restaurant, so conversation was fragmented and only about the book for a comparatively brief time. A show of hands indicated we were unanimous in liking the book. One chap felt it was too long (I don’t agree) and repetitive (yes, but I didn’t mind), poorly edited (hmm, I did notice one or two things), but he didn’t want to put it down: it turned out that like me he was brought up on a farm and had no attraction to the work or the way of life, and his father ran sheep, so in a way the book spoke very directly to him.

There was of course some controversy, but it was about the New South Wales government’s intention of pulling down a sports facility that’s less than 20 years old, and about the media treatment of the latest wave of sexual harassment scandals. There was good news from the group member who has been dealing with aggressive prostate cancer, we had a Kris Kringle or used books, and parted wishing each other good things for the end of the year.

November verse 14

November verse 14: Diary poem
We smear the dog with steroid ointment –
soothe her angry tummy rash.
Then off to Glebe for my appointment
after weeks of steroid flush
to tackle nasty nasal polyps
(fleshy, veiny, solid dollops
I’d seen gigantic on a screen
like solid snot, but pink not green).
The doctor’s waiting room is crowded
but soon: ‘Jonathan, welcome back!’
The flushing worked, I’m off the hook,
his mirror shows my nose unclouded.
Sing the praise of Andy Wills
E N T wizard, who bulk bills.

Jennifer Maiden has written a number of what she ironically calls Diary Poems. There’s no such irony in the title of this verse. I’m uploading it just after 9.30 on 30 November: I’ve met my goal of 14 14-line verses in the month. Normal blogging will resume shortly.

 

November verse 13

A lot of my reading recently has seemed to be about ways of being in a place: Journey to Horseshoe Bend is deeply place-specific;  peasants chose to return to their land near Chernobyl even though it had been poisoned by the nuclear accident; Adam Aitken’s Archipelago is largely about his connection to parts of France; James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life (I’m still reading it) is, among other things, about belonging to the Lake District in England. Somewhere I read that Wendell Berry, poet–farmer from Kentucky, told Naomi Klein:

Stop somewhere and begin the thousand-year process of knowing that place.

Seems as good a place as any to start a 14 line rhyme:

November verse 13: In reply to Wendell Berry
A thousand years? Time’s wingèd chariot
hurrying near calls that one’s bluff.
To find a place and marry it
might last a lifetime, not enough.
So here’s the work of generations,
fifty by my calculations.
My grandfather managed three
in sugar country. Two for me
in the Inner West.
___________________But that’s assuming
we’re the starters. All around
are people who’ve lived on this ground
for sixty thousand years. A human
humbly learns from others’ stories,
humbly shines with others’ glories.

 

Adam Aitken’s Archipelago

Adam Aitken, Archipelago (Vagabond Press 2017)

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Adam Aitken is a Sydney poet whose work often deals with aspects of living, working or travelling overseas. He has written about time spent in Asia, particularly his mother’s birth country, Thailand, in England and Hawaii. Most of the poems in Archipelago have to do with Paris or tiny villages in the south of France.

Aitken has written about his own work (in ‘A poetics of (un)becoming hybridity’, an article in Southerly Nº 73, 2013):

I would say that like many Australian poets who live and work overseas, I write as a temporary sojourner who is acutely aware of the limits of a touristic perspective.

In most of the poems in Archipelago, the voice is that of a temporary sojourner who may at times be a tourist (and part of the pleasure of the book for me is that evokes my own time in the south of France a couple of years ago), but is generally more engaged.  Possibly the closest thing to a simple tourist poem is ‘What (not) to do in St Victor-des-Oules’, in which the (non-)attractions of a tiny village are enumerated with wry humour:

Out of reception we stroll to the recycling depot
through a pall of burning autumn leaves.
A shooter lets off his blunderbuss
in a village with no twin – no cafes, no post office,
no fountain in the square.

Other ‘touristic’ poems are less ironic. In ‘At Maruéjols’, for example, the speaker’s stroll through the town is also a stroll through the centuries, beginning in the 5th Century, and arriving in 2012 with ‘two men on extended leave /around a fire / growing beards in a silk worm attic’.

Mostly, though, the poems engage with their places more intimately, as from the perspective of someone visiting family. Pam Brown told us at the launch of this book that Aitken has visited the south of France regularly because his partner’s parents lived there, but even without that information, that kind of connection is palpable in the poems themselves. ‘Postcard’, for example, which made me laugh out loud, could only be addressed to someone of whose affection you were confident. It starts out ‘Chère Margaret, / Thank you for letting us stay so long’, and goes on to a litany of complaints – not about the hospitality, but about the winter weather:

I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.

‘Maruéjols’ (a different poem from ‘At Maruéjols’) captures the eerie process of going through the possessions of someone who has recently died:

Later, coming to empty your house, we felt
the dark matter of your brain
and what came through it.

The poems move beyond touristic engagement with place in other ways as well, mainly by engaging with other writers and artists associated with the place, and with its history.

The book drew me in and held me. I spent time reading around it, looking up the places, artists and poets described, addressed, mentioned or imitated, and then rereading the poems. My copy of the book is now bulked up with printed-off photos of tiny French villages – including Maruéjols-lès-Gardon (population 179 in 2007), Saint-Victor-des-Oules (pop. 254), Notre Dame de la Rouvière (pop. 410), Mareuil (pop. 1130) –  and images created by Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Rousseau, John William Ashton and Charles Méryon. I’ve read or reread work by or about Jean Jacques Rousseau, Roland Barthes, Ezra Pound, Raymond Roussel (including Adam’s blog post, which is a very useful gloss to his poem ‘Rousselesque’), Jules Renard, John Clare, Kenneth Slessor, New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt (the poem quoting her being one of the few with no French connection) and Australian Ouyang Yu, among others.

November verse 12: from Twitter

November verse 12: From my Twitter feed
Here a toxic timebomb leaking,
there the art of monstrous men.
The President’s no longer seeking
Time’s acclaim, hates CNN.
Tony tells us there’s dishonour
in the darknessMal’s a goner.
Evil Peter wields a stick
and won’t let doctors tend the sick
and injured. But there’s also blankies
worn by baby jumbos
Kelp
is not a plant
, and this may help:
change socks at lunch. Sweet granny’s hankies!
So much noise. But then there’s news
direct from people like Behrouz.

Links are there if you need an explanation or, in a couple of cases, entertainment.

 

November verse 11: Kurnell

First, my 14 lines, and later explanations in case they’re needed:

November Verse 11: At Kurnell, birthplace of modern Australia
Oh excellent foundation story!
‘We thought you welcomed us ashore
but oops! we were mistaken. Sorry!
Now let’s move on. What we’re here for
is water. We’re prepared to parley.
Put down those spears and don’t be surly.
Twenty minutes – far too long.
Our muskets put you in the wrong.’
Righteous Cooman faced the strangers,
shouted ‘Warra warra wai!
(Go away now!)’ Futile cry,
it seemed, but still he braved the dangers.
Wounded on Gweagal sand
he championed this ancient land.

Yesterday some friends and I went walking around Kurnell. There’s an unpromising roadside sign, ‘Welcome to Kurnell, the Birthplace of Modern Australia,’ but from then on, the marking of this as Cook’s first landing point on this continent is remarkably complex – which probably goes some way to explaining why it’s not a big tourist attraction. There’s a memorial that was raised in the late 19th century at a cost of £100, with two plaques added over the decades; a flagpole which yesterday sported three remarkably tattered flags – of Australia and New South Wales, and the Aboriginal flag; and a plethora of plaques telling stories of the place from many perspectives, including quotes from elders from La Perouse on the other side of Botany Bay.

My favourites are the quotes from the journals of Cook, Banks and Sydney Parkinson, brilliant reminders of the dubious beginnings of British dealings with the east coast of Australia. and encouraging signs that despite Tony Abbott’s pessimism ‘our’ British history is being remembered and memorialised.

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In case you can’t read the images, here’s the text. First plaque:

‘WARRA WARRA WAI [go away now]’
Aboriginal meeting party, [29] April 1770, as recorded
in the journal of Endeavour artist Sydney Parkinson.

… THEY CALLED TO US very loud in a harsh sounding
Language of which neither us nor Tupia understood a word,
shaking their lanvces and menacing, in all appearance
resolvd to dispute our landing to the utmost tho they were
but two and we 30 or 40 at least. In this manner we
parleyd with them for about a quarter of an hour, they
waving to us to be gone, we again signing that we wanted
water and that we meant them no harm. They remaind
resolute so a musquet was fired over them …
Journal of Endeavour botanist Joseph Banks [29 April 1770]

Second plaque:

… AS WE APPROACHED THE SHORE they all made off except
two Men who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing… I
thout that they beckon’d to us to come a shore but in this we
were mistaken for as soon as we put the boat in they again
came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the
two … one of them took up a stone and threw at us which
caused my fireing a second Musquet load with small shott
and altho’ some of the shott struck the man yet it had no
other effect than to make him lay hold of a Shield or target …
emmediatly after this we landed which we had no sooner
done than they throw’d two darts at us this obliged me to
fire a third shott soon after which they both made off …
Journal of Lt James Cook, 29 April 1770

November verse 10: Dear Tony

On Sky News this week Tony Abbott said (and you can scroll to the bottom of the post to listen for yourself):

If you ask yourself what is the pinnacle of human achievement thus far, countries with democratic elections, with liberal institutions, with freedom and prosperity and a measure of fairness for all – in other words, western countries, particularly English speaking countries – this is the greatest human creation yet. We should cherish it, we should celebrate it. Unfortunately, too many of us are ignorant of that which has shaped us. We’re ignorant of the great books; we’re ignorant of Shakespeare, ah, the New Testament. We’ve forgotten so much of our history, particularly British history.

Different parts of that utterance will stick more strongly in different people’s craws. Here’s what I can manage in fourteen lines (I had to leave the tokenising of Shakespeare for another day):

November verse 10: Dear Tony
Come on, Tone, this great creation
was fought for, didn’t grow on trees
and it’s unfinished. Celebration?
Sure, but also honour, please,
the millions worldwide who’ve been murdered,
starved, betrayed, displaced or herded
cattle-like, by Empire Brits.
I know this thought gives you the shits
but how high on your fairness measure
are Don Dale, Manus, PNG,
or Nauru, CentreLink, or Bre?
Yes, history is rich with treasure.
Jesus? History fact for you:
brown, Aramaic-speaking  Jew.

November verse 9 / A birthday poem

November verse 9: Happy Birthday
(For my sister Mary Ann)
‘Sweet Leilani, heavenly flower,’
our father sang when you were born
and kept on singing. That’s girl power
after three boys. Time has worn
the sharp joy from your nickname Lani
but not destroyed it. Scratch the blarney,
underneath you’ll find the stone
of honest feeling, blood and bone.
Leonard and before him Harry
put your real name into song:
a mournful, agonised so-long,
a Caribbean won’t-you-marry.
Now I, as you turn sixty-nine,
invoke their rhymes with one of mine

Bing:

Harry:

Leonard:

And one Leonard made earlier:

November verse 8

Verse 8: At 35 weeks
You used to call each other Stinky
when first in love – as pet names go,
a little odd. But you were dinky-
di. We watched you thrive and grow
together, get jobs, win promotions,
make a home, fly over oceans
more than once. The sweet stink stayed
for fourteen years. The nest was made.
On Saturday a baby shower
marked the end of DINKish days,
and she-who’s-now-a-lump will raise
the stinky level, like a flower
that opens in the radiant dawn.
It’s just five weeks until she’s born

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’