A Shepherd’s Life

This is one of my most random reads in the last month. It was first published in 1910 and my copy was a Penguin Classic published in 2016. I did a quick search on the author, W. H. Hudson. He was born and raised in Argentina with English and Irish origins and moved and settled in England when he was 33. There are other bits and pieces of information about him on the Wikipedia page, but most of the page is taken up by a long list of his books: He wrote a staggering total of 47 books and 11 biographies according to Wikipedia! How was it possible to write so much in a person’s lifetime, let alone writing without a keyboard?

I heard of A Shepherd’s Life from James Rebank’s book, The Shepherd’s Life. It mush have made a big impact on Rebank for him to give his own book the same title. I vaguely remember Rebank said something like ‘this book is about us!’ to his mother, as in, about the real shepherds. James Rebank’s The Shepherd’s Life is one of my all-time favourite books. I prefer the modern version I have to say (see my review here). But this 1910 version is quite nice too.

Here’s the blurb on the back cover:

This soaring account of rural life is a heartfelt celebration of the ordinary men and women who worked the land in nineteenth-century England. It is told largely through the story of Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd on the Wiltshire downs for fifty years, son of a shepherd before him, whose memories of sheep dogs, poachers, local fairs, blacksmiths, old ballads and wild birds depict a way of life that was fast vanishing, and has now disappeared.

I don’t know much about the social structure of the 1900s. Hudson was a scholar and writer living in London; Caleb was a shepherd, working for farmers in Wiltshire (roughly between Bath and Southampton). They shouldn’t have anything to do with each other in normal circumstances but it sounded like Hudson spent a lot of his time wandering around the countryside, not just passing through like modern-day hikers, but chatting with farmers, gamekeepers, shepherds, labourers, villagers, gypsies.

Why did he do that? There were volumes of stories about prominent and wealthy people of the land, “but of the humble cottagers, the true people of the vale who were rooted in the soil, and flourished and died like trees in the same place – of these no memory exists. We only know that they lived and laboured; that when they died, three or four a year, three or four hundred in a century, they were buried in the little shady churchyard, each with a green mound over him to mark the spot. But in time these ‘mouldering heaps’ subsided; the bodies turned to dust, and another and yet other generations were laid in the same place among the forgotten dead, to be themselves in turn forgotten.” And he much preferred to remember the nameless lives. Caleb was clearly one of his favourite shepherd friends. He sat in Caleb’s cottage listening to stories about his father, his siblings, the harsh life of the labourers, big birds hunted to extinction, fox cubs playing with rabbits, cats squashed by trains, and among all, my favourite topic, sheepdogs. He even visited the cottages Caleb lived in and went to see Caleb’s siblings and brought news back for him.

I liked Caleb the Shepherd in the book. He was dedicated to his shepherding job, doing it wholeheartedly all his life. He remembered people from the past with warmth and delight, even when he recollected stories of being wronged, there was no malice in it. He loved his life in his native land, living there all his life and would not want a different kind, which James Rehanks echoed in his book, “This is my life. I want no other.”

Overall, a very pleasant book and a fresh read.

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