tue 20/10/2020

James Rebanks: English Pastoral, An Inheritance review - a manifesto for a radical agricultural rethink | reviews, news & interviews

James Rebanks: English Pastoral, An Inheritance review - a manifesto for a radical agricultural rethink

James Rebanks: English Pastoral, An Inheritance review - a manifesto for a radical agricultural rethink

A well-argued call for change through the lives of one family and their land

James Rebanks is based in the Lake District, where his family have farmed the land for more than six hundred yearsAndrew Heading

Coming from a family of farmers, with periods of time spent working on a farm in the past ten years, I found James Rebanks’ English Pastoral: An Inheritance to be a highly urgent, important book. It is a perfect encapsulation and explanation of how and why farming in Britain has changed over the past century, and what a devastating effect this has had on the land.

Coming from a family of farmers, with periods of time spent working on a farm in the past ten years, I found James Rebanks’ English Pastoral: An Inheritance to be a highly urgent, important book. It is a perfect encapsulation and explanation of how and why farming in Britain has changed over the past century, and what a devastating effect this has had on the land. It’s not only the story of one farming family, but also a clear and well-argued proposal for a new attitude towards an essential resource, which has been cheapened and exploited, with ultimately harmful environmental consequences.

English Pastoral follows a loose structure of three parts: ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Progress’, and ‘Utopia’. While fairly porous, these sections track Rebanks’ inheritance from his grandfather to his father, to him and his children. As the book progresses, Rebanks’ theories about farming also gather pace, culminating in ‘Utopia’, in which he discusses how the negative farming practices documented in ‘Progress’ can be abandoned or adapted.

Rebanks’ gift is his ability to be firm in his views, but also accept shades of grey. He describes a spectrum of attitudes, something which seems important in a world where debate is so often polarised. One of the quietly great scenes in the book is a seventieth birthday party, where the elderly (small c) conservative farmers talk about how farming has changed for the worse, beginning to sound “a bit like the environmentalists we once all hated”. Rebanks shows how his own views, and those of his father, have changed so much within his lifetime. His arguments are highly persuasive, partly because they are a living, working demonstration of positive change, but also because he shows how a debate can evolve and take the best parts from a bad practice. They are also, sadly, particularly relevant in a year that has seen multiple uncontrollable fires, and a disease caused by human incursions into wild places. The only negative to this book is its basic dogmatism – Rebanks has strongly held theories and in parts, English Pastoral can feel like the mere vehicle for these. 

Rebanks certainly has an axe to grind, but English Pastoral is written in such a way that his book never loses its ability to engage with his audience, and encourage compulsive, emotionally invested reading. He draws his family well, with all their nuances and foibles, and his descriptions of nature are a vibrant inducement to care. He writes beautifully. 

The front cover is an illustration of a curlew: birds, once so common on pre-industrial farmland, and now so rare, which hold a special place in the book. The sadness with which he writes about their decline is just one of the losses within his own lifetime that he documents. What reader, who grew up in the countryside, wouldn’t think about the quietening dawn chorus, the ponds empty of frogspawn, when reminded of these depredations?

English Pastoral ends with a dawn quad bike journey through Redbanks' fell farm, the barn owl swooping in front of both him and his daughter, followed by a long quote from a fellow farmer. It could feel a bit pat, a blatant tug at the heartstrings. You will, perhaps, have to suspend a little of your cynicism. But once you have done so, the message is clear, and needs to be heard.

Rebanks’ gift is his ability to be firm in his views, but also accept shades of grey

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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