The Shepherd’s Life: A Challenge to Travel Writers

shepherdNature writing is the new travel writing. In the UK the last decade has seen those with itchy feet and literary ambitions turning away from foreign shores, and instead folding inwards towards fens and fields and fells. The books they have produced are often dubbed “New Nature Writing”. This is not simply some vacuous marketing phrase, for they really do differ from the works that went before. The “Old Nature Writing”, before the genre became fashionable, was generally done by real experts. Their books were more likely to be filed as “popular science” than as “literature”.

But many of the best-known – and indeed the best – of the New Nature Writers are amateurs, in the old and by no means disreputable sense: at large with a roving eye that skitters from science to literature, from geology to philosophy in the space of a few pages. Its’s a modus operandi which can, if done well, create an impression of formidable polymathy, and along with the dominant first-person narratives it reveals New Nature Writing for what it is: travel writing, by any other name. It’s as if Patrick Leigh Fermor had walked, not from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, but from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

Travel writing is my literary first love, so I have relished this newest incarnation of the genre. As the “Travel” shelves of bookshops have contracted to a slender yard of guidebooks, classics and comedy quests, there’s been solace in the concurrent swelling of the “Nature” (or sometimes “British Travel”) section. Some of my favourite nonfiction reads in recent years have come from these shelves: Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Patrick Barkham’s sprightly, nature-themed domestic travelogues; Tim Robinson’s magisterial multi-book engagement with Connemara (Ireland, admittedly, but on the cusp of the domestic when it comes to travel writing, apparently) ; and, of course, the works of Robert Macfarlane.

But at times the pleasure has been tempered by a sense of unease, for close reading reveals that New Nature Writing frequently suffers from many of the same issues which make travel writing the most ethically troublesome of literary genres. A reader with a sharp eye can spot the same contrived encounters, the same casual cutting and pasting of chronology – and perhaps even the same glib disregard for the actualité, a series of Songlines transposed onto a landscape of oak woods and hayfields. Travel writing’s preponderance of a white male gaze is there too (just look at the names I mentioned above!), and the same problems endure with that polymathic pose – often a particularly ersatz pose in this age of Wikipedia. But the biggest problem of all, and the main cause of my unease with New Nature Writing, is its relationship with what scholars sometimes call “the Travellee”: the inhabitants of the place that the travel writer passes through (or inhabits as an expat) – in short, what were once known as “the natives”…

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There are many reasons for the apparent decline in the popularity of traditional travel writing. The rise of the internet; the easy availability of cheap air travel; the transient whims of the book-buying public and the commissioning editors who minister to them: these all have something to do with it. But perhaps a more fundamental cause is simply a lack of confidence. In a truly postcolonial age where old power dynamics have largely given way, it would take a certain supreme confidence – arrogance even – to go boldly in search of “the heart” of some foreign country, the language of which you speak imperfectly at best and the history and culture of which you come at only with the enthusiasm of an amateur. In the twenty-first century the image of an Oxbridge-educated Englishman at large in Central Asia with a book contract and a vintage copy of the Travels of Marco Polo can seem like the most appalling anachronism. Go back to the myriad travel books published during the 1990s; in even the best of them you’ll often find moments to make you cringe – moments which almost always involve encounters with or depictions of “the Travellee”, the natives…

New Nature Writing’s shift of focus towards the domestic, then, could be seen as the result of a crisis of confidence, travel writing cringing away from postcolonial complexities, going in search of badgers, hawks and otters because they seem so much safer for an ethically-aware author than nomadic tribesmen in some developing nation. If you stick to home ground, then you’re surely less likely to run unwittingly into the ghost of Edward Said, ready to batter you around the head with a copy of Orientalism. Stray no further east than Lowestoft and you should be fine…

Except that the foreign does not definitively begin and end on the beach at Lowestoft.

Robert Macfarlane’s second (and as far as I’m concerned best) book was called The Wild Places; more recently he has written about what he sees as an “eeriness” in the British countryside. But a place can only really be “wild” or “eerie” when seen with outsider eyes – just as a place can only be “exotic” when held in direct contrast to your own notions of normal. New Nature Writing, again and again, positions the British countryside as an exotic, othered, foreign territory – for both writer and reader. And its approach to “the natives” of that foreign land is often peculiar, to say the least.

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By ostensibly focussing on “nature”, the genre often manages to ignore “the natives” altogether, denuding the countryside of inhabitants entirely, or encountering only a handful of atypical representatives (who often turn out to be “expats” – organic downsizers, well-heeled literary types, elective refugees from some other, metropolitan existence). Ignoring people is a very potent way of representing them: a tacit acknowledgement of their existence remains, but they are firmly put in their place; they are made singularly insignificant. It’s also a prime example of a writer awarding himself tremendous authority: that to entirely unpeople a landscape. A travel writer ignoring the inhabitants of, say, the Hindu Kush to glory exclusively in the grandeur of its natural features is the sort of thing scholars have been vigorously critiquing for decades. And yet New Nature Writers often do exactly this in smaller mountain ranges, closer to home.

If the natives do chance to appear, it may be as an abstract presence, without voice or name, somewhere off the page, and in all likelihood doing something nasty – baiting a badger or grubbing up a hedgerow, probably. Where New Nature Writing lapses into the consciously political this hostility often becomes overt, but even when it doesn’t there is almost always a latent assumption that the old ways were better; that the natives of earlier generations were somehow operating on a higher plane (rather than also simply trying to extract the greatest return from a working landscape with all the means available to them); and that their descendants are somehow debased. Here, then, is the modern equivalent of Wilfred Thesiger proclaiming that “his” Bedouin had been “spoilt” by the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

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Travellee and Traveller: Salim bin Ghabaisha and Wilfred Thesiger, not actually in the Lake District…

It’s all here, all that has made traditional travel literature so troublesome, and this is why I read James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life with such excitement.

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I’ve come to this book a little late. I’d seen reviews last year – a warmly received memoir by a Lakeland sheep farmer and sometime Twitter celebrity. But none of the notices that I read had made it clear just how political a book this was. So I was surprised and delighted to discover within a few pages that this was not simply some prettily written country diary. It was a fierce riposte to all that is problematic in the mainstream of New Nature Writing. As I read I kept disturbing my companion from her own reading: “Listen to this! This is what I’m always going on about!”

Very early in the book Rebanks remembers a moment during his schooling when a teacher addressed an assembly:

I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realized that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought about it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a ‘wild’ landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers… Occasionally she would utter a name in a reverential tone and look in vain for us to respond with interest. One of the names was ‘Alfred Wainwright’, another was ‘Chris Bonington’; and she kept going on and on about someone called ‘Wordsworth’.

 I’d never heard of any of them. I don’t think anyone in the hall, who wasn’t a teacher, had.

If “Thesiger’s” Bedouin had had the space to speak maybe this is how they too would have responded: “Wilfred who? Lawrence of what???

The political intent is underscored with the quotations at some of the chapter openings, egregious examples of the way admiring outsiders have viewed the Lake District and its people, and from the outset Rebanks wields the word “we” with deliberate intent. “We” is, of course, a powerful word, the converse to “they”. In most travel writing when the author speaks of “we” he is identifying with his readers (and in the process often placing the Travellee firmly amidst the ranks of “they”). But not here. “We live”, Rebanks says; “Our landscape”; and in doing so he is being deliberately assertive, provocative, even aggressive. There is a certain provocativeness elsewhere too. He jabs sheep with antibiotics, kills crows, watches the hounds cross his land on the line of a fox almost as if he’s trying to get a rise out of double-barrelled hobby-farmers and crusading journalists who would sweep aside six millennia of agricultural engagement with the British landscape. But if they should swing for him he’s ready, with passionate passages where he makes his own reverent – and rooted – responses to the landscape around him obvious.

Wilfully provocative books are, obviously, meant to provoke. Perhaps he uses that insistent “we” like a jabbing finger once too often, and it’s natural that some might react unfavourably (see the book’s smattering of one-star reviews on Amazon and the nature of their complaints). But for those familiar with and troubled by the tropes and traits he’s kicking against, then The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderfully energising book.

The book is not without its own problems, of course. Though the prose is crisp and considered there are occasional slips. It has the fragmentary nature of many modern nonfiction books with their roots in social media. And there seem to be some peculiar lapses of editorial supervision in the middle sections. There’s also room for criticism in Rebanks telling of his own tale. That insistent “we” gets a new context when it is revealed that he left the farm in his twenties to study at Oxford. Maybe this is an author with a need to insist to his peers that he’s still one of “us”, despite the details of his curriculum vitae (something I can sympathise with). And he is perhaps a little disingenuous when he insists that he went to university simply to prove some kind of point before returning to farming. As well as being a shepherd, he reveals, a little too hurriedly, that he also works as a consultant to UNESCO, which begs the question: can you be an authentic Subaltern voice if you have a degree from Oxford and a career in international consultancy? (For what it’s worth, I’d say that yes, of course you can. Rebanks notes that his own grandfather was “quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who lived, worked, loved and died without leaving much written trace that they were ever there”. Identity is never a monolithic thing, and if the Subaltern is to speak, he needs to have the means to do so. But perhaps an insecurity over this point is behind what those one-star Amazon reviewers misidentify as “a chip on the shoulder”.)

Also, though the hard and sometimes squalid realities of work in the landscape are closely described, there’s a certain lack of context due to the fact that Rebanks avoids much proper discussion of the financial realities of farming – beyond a passing mention of the fact that many small farmers have to do “two jobs” to support themselves (more likely to be contracting work than world heritage consultancy, perhaps). The contentious but hugely important role of agricultural subsidies, not least in places like the Lake District (and West Cornwall, for that matter), gets no mention either.

Ultimately, though, these are only passing complaints, for The Shepherd’s Life is a robust and invigorating piece of work, a challenge to all travel writers, wherever they choose to travel. It reminds them that they cannot sidestep the genre’s thorny ethical challenges simply by staying at home. Do travel here, it says; write about this place if you want to, represent it, revel in it, love it, but remember that those are not empty fields. And remember too that when it comes to travel writing’s ethical issues, the Lake District might actually turn out to be more dangerous than the Hindu Kush. After all, there could be an erudite and angry shepherd with an Oxford degree and a Twitter account, at home somewhere out there in those wild and eerie places.

As Rebanks notes, “If we want to understand the people in the foothills of Afghanistan, we may need to try and understand the people in the foothills of England first…”

© Tim Hannigan 2016

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