March Books

Oh dear. I’m really slacking now. Just three books this month which is very poor.

In my defence Amazon went and released series 2 of the very fine, but not enormously talked about, Bosch. And Netflix went and released a new series of House of Cards, before which I had to watch last season’s. Then there was the arrival of a new season of Daredevil. OK I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of that so far.

And lest anyone think I just watch shows on the streaming services, the finest dramas are probably to be found on the BBC right now. Happy Valley and The Night Manager have now concluded, and Line of Duty is getting fully into the flow in its third series!

But what about books?

The Shepherd’s Life is James Rebanks book on life as a shepherd in the Lake District, and it seems to have been a bit of a hit. You’ll find stacks of copies in your local bookshop, and it’s heavily discounted on Amazon.

Rebanks is a very entertaining writer, telling the tale, season by season, of what it’s like to work on a sheep farm in a valley on the edge of the lakes. Interspersed between those stories, is his life story – and those of so many of those around him. Early on you read of what it was like at school, where none of the kids who were children of farmers really wanted to be there. The idea that they might “better” themselves and get out of farming was an anathema, and anyone who suggested as much was treated with disdain.

In case you didn’t really think it, the life of a shepherd is a tough one, and you need a family to help get the work done. Reading the book I’m still not sure how farmers like Rebanks make ends meet. When you read that some farmers don’t even bother selling the wool from their sheep preferring to burn it, so low are the prices, that you wonder what kind of person is willing to forgo so much to continue a life that his forefathers led.

The book is also a bit of a meditation on the ways different people see the Lake District. As a child, Rebanks didn’t really understand the pull of Wainwright or Wordsworth. That was a different world to his – gathering sheep in from the high fells and tending to lambing sheep in the snow. But even spending a little time in the city reveals perhaps city dwellers’ needs for places like the lakes. Perhaps that’s why Countryfile or Springwatch do so well on TV?

As a companion piece to this book, you could do worse than watch the documentary Addicted to Sheep. It was recently shown on BBC4 but has now slipped out of the iPlayer catch-up window. But the film is still being screened in its full-length version at screenings around the country, notably in some rural locations. But it’s also available from the makers on DVD, and I’d imagine it’s possible that it’ll turn up on a download or streaming service at some point.

The documentary tells of the life of a pair of tenant farmers in the Pennines, detailing a very similar life looking after their flock. Even though I saw the shortened version of the film, the pace was lovely, and if you’d be very much mistaken if you think life is dull! The book and the film have very definite parallels. Well worth seeking out.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a new series of crime books featuring the Canadian Inspector Domenic Jejeune. Written by Steve Burrows, this series of novels seems to have so far only been published in Canada, despite being set in Britain.

Jejeune finds himself in a different rural location – the North Norfolk coast, an area well known to me! And this is crime novel set in the world of birds, birders and birdwatching. A TV scientist and environmentalist has been found dead near his home in the fictional Saltmarsh (Wells Next the Sea perhaps?) with Jejeune and his team having to find the murderer in this high profile case.

Things move along quickly enough and for anyone familiar with that part of the world, real places like Cley and Stiffkey also feature. While there are a couple of scenes that don’t hold-up to being authentic, it’s a fun romp, and I’ll be looking out for the next books in the series. Because we’re a little behind the Canadian publication, we seem to get three books from him this year, with A Pitying of Doves next up.

East Anglia also features a little in Rain, a short book about four walks taken by Melissa Harrison. She begins in Wicken Fen, somewhere I do know a little, in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, not far from the Norfolk border. It’s an area where the low-lying land has not been completely tamed, and where reeds allow a range of wildlife to prosper in a habitat that has largely disappeared.

She continues with walks in Shropshire, the Darwent Valley in Kent, and on Dartmoor, each time, as the title implies, in the wet. That’s important because so many of us (non-sheep farming urbanites anyway) only really get into the countryside when we know it’s going to be dry, and it’s a different place in the rain. The importance of it is reiterated throughout this slim volume, with too much or too little having long-lasting and (as we know) devastating effects.