James Rebanks is something of a media darling. His combination of boy with attitude who left school early, Oxford education, businessman and sheep farmer makes for heady reading.
Now I must declare an interest. Mr Rebanks farms at Penruddock near Penrith. He attended the comprehensive school in Penrith, a town which has, through all the ups and downs of state education and the abolition of the 11-plus exam, retained a selective state Grammar School, my alma mater. A contemporary of mine at the Grammar School was another Rebanks, presumably a relation, of whom my only memory is that he was shall we say pugnacious.
James Rebanks is scathing about the way he felt belittled by schoolteachers and others because he was interested in farming, and not much else. My experience was otherwise – the opposite in a sense. As an asthmatic child, allergic to corn and hay, forced to spend a good deal of time indoors, I felt belittled by my peers for not being interested in farming. In Langwathby in the 1950s and 1960s there was absolutely nothing for a boy who was not interested in football or cricket or being knee-deep in dung.
For me, reading was a window to a new universe, education the key that unlocked the door of the cage. Then music came along to set every nerve gloriously on edge. I recall speech days at the Grammar School in which the Headmaster, recently arrived from Manchester, reflected ruefully on the lack of ambition he met in mid 1960s Penrith. I recall encouragement and interest from my teachers in all their pupils. But I can’t say I was ever aware of any belittling of farming or agriculture as a means of getting from adolescence to death.
Maybe it was different at Ullswater School. Maybe Mr Rebanks came across teachers who were taking out their own frustrations on him. This is not ‘their’ fault, or ‘my’ fault or Mr Rebanks’s ‘fault’. It’s just the way things were. And quite possibly still are, despite the tourism, the second homes, the sterility of farming villages about which I’ve fulminated elsewhere.
Recently I saw the men of the family ranging in age from 20s to 70s trooping off together to a Carlisle United match. Part of me has always longed for that kind of camaraderie, but what I find difficult to take with it—and, I wonder, do I see this in Mr Rebanks despite his degree and business acumen?—is the persistent whisper of xenophobia. Clubbiness—I saw it yesterday in a group of organists! And then I wonder if I too am guilty.
My son now 35 came with us on a recent trip and said he could see why I felt there was nothing for me there despite the analgesic air and hypnotic beauty and prosperity of the Eden Valley. The way in which it is hemmed in by the Pennines, Shap Fell, the Lakes and the Solway speaks of more than just geography.
Mr Rebanks might have cause to be grateful to those who belittled him. They fuelled the pugnacity that enabled him to push on the door labelled education at a time that suited him, not them, so that he could embark on the journey that has brought him to his fame of today.