SHEDNOTES 116: Notes from the back of the class

The Shed had been meaning to read The Shepherd’s Life, by Lake District farmer James Rebanks, and was convinced by an extract published at

Mr Rebanks remembered:

“I realised we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987. I was sitting in an assembly in the shoddily built concrete comprehensive in our local town. I was 13 years old, surrounded by other academic non-achievers, listening to an old battle-weary teacher lecturing us on how we should aim to be more than just farm workers, joiners, brickies, electricians and hairdressers.

“ It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were and had always been. Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it at school. It would have been dangerous.

“There was an abyss of understanding between that teacher and us. The kids who gave a damn had departed the year before to the local grammar school, leaving the ‘losers’ to fester away over the next three years in a place no one wanted to be. The result was something akin to a guerrilla war between largely disillusioned teachers and some of the most bored and aggressive kids imaginable.

“We played a ‘game’ as a class where the object was to smash the greatest value of school equipment in one lesson and pass it off as an accident. One maths lesson was improved for me by a fist fight between a pupil and the teacher, before the lad ran for it across the playing fields, only to be knocked down by the teacher before he escaped into town. We cheered as if it were a great tackle in a game of rugby. From time to time, someone would try (incompetently) to burn the school down. One boy who we bullied killed himself a few years later in his car. It was like being locked in a Ken Loach movie.

“On another occasion, I argued with our dumbfounded headmaster that school was really a prison and ‘an infringement of my human rights’. He looked at me strangely, and said, ‘But what would you do at home?’ As if this were an impossible question to answer. ‘I’d work on the farm,’ I answered.

“So in that assembly in 1987 I was daydreaming, wondering what the men on our farm were doing, when it struck me that the assembly was about the valleys of the Lake District, where my grandfather and father farmed. So I switched on. After a few minutes of listening, I realised this bloody teacher thought we were too stupid to ‘do anything with our lives’. She was taunting us to rise above ourselves. We were too dumb to want to leave this area with its dirty dead-end jobs and its narrow-minded provincial ways. There was nothing here for us: in her eyes, to want to leave school early and go and work with sheep was to be more or less an idiot.

“The idea that we might be proud, hard-working and intelligent people doing something worthwhile seemed beyond her. For a woman who saw success as being demonstrated through education, ambition and conspicuous professional achievement we must have seemed a poor sample.

“I don’t think anyone ever mentioned ‘university’ in this school; no one wanted to go anyway – people who went away ceased to belong; they changed and could never really come back. Schooling was a ‘way out’, but we didn’t want it, and we’d made our choice. Later I would understand that modern industrial communities are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something with your life’.

“I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realised that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it in terms that were completely alien to me. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers… people who had ‘really done something’.

“My grandfather was born in 1918 into a fairly anonymous and unexceptional farming family. At that time they mostly lived and farmed down in the heart of the Eden Valley. The records show that my grandfather belonged to an agricultural family struggling along from generation to generation, occasionally making it into the ranks of relatively established farmers, before sinking back into being tenants, or farm workers, or in the workhouse, or worse.

“The written story peters out into an illegible 16th-century script of births, deaths and marriages, in church records belonging to little villages close to where their descendants still live and work. My grandfather is, 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. As far as anyone else is concerned he was a nobody, as are his descendants. But that’s the point. Landscapes like ours were created by, and survive through, the efforts of nobodies, of modest, hard-working people.

“Sitting in that assembly, I realised with some shock that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as ‘the Lake District’, had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood. Later, I would read books and observe the ‘other’ Lake District, and begin to understand it better.

“I’d learn that until around 1750 no one from the outside world had paid this mountainous corner of north-west England much notice, or, when they had, they found it to be poor, unproductive, primitive, harsh, ugly and backward. I’d be annoyed to discover that no one from outside seems to have thought it was beautiful or a place to visit until then – and yet be fascinated to discover how in a few decades that had all changed.

“I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. William Wordsworth proposed in 1810 that it should be ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world. Every protected landscape on earth, every National Trust property, every National Park, and every Unesco World Heritage Site, has a little bit of those words in its DNA.

“Above all, I learnt that we are not the only ones who love this place. It is, for better or worse, a scenic playground for the rest of Britain, and for countless other people from around the world. More than half of the employment in the area is reliant on tourism – and many of the farms depend on it for their income by running B&Bs or other businesses.

“But in some valleys, 60 to 70 per cent of the houses are second homes or holiday cottages, so that many local people cannot afford to live in their own communities. The locals speak grudgingly of being ‘outnumbered’, and there are places where it doesn’t feel like it’s ours any more, as if the guests have taken over the guesthouse.

“So that teacher’s idea of the Lake District was created by an urbanised and increasingly industrialised society, over the past 200 years. It was a dream of a place for a wider society that was full of people disconnected from the land. That dream was never for us, the people who work this land. We were already here doing what we do. I wanted to tell her that she had it all wrong – 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.

But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and 13, so I just made a farting noise on my hand, and everyone laughed. “

The Shed says: Brilliant bit of writing and everyone writing prescriptions for education should read it.

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1 Response to SHEDNOTES 116: Notes from the back of the class

  1. i love books like that

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