I accidentally read ‘The Shepherd’s Life‘ by James Rebanks. The accident was caused by the display in a bookshop where it was lying between stories about landscapes and people, and something artificially bright emerald-green in the cover photo caught my eye. Next I took in the title and cover info: a book written by a Lake District shepherd?! After I had just been spending weeks of knitting & re-knitting a jumper-turned skirt made from my own home-spun Herdwick yarn I knew perfectly well that a Lake District shepherd was very likely to be shepherding Herdwicks. And I was fascinated if not humbled by Herdwicks: the toughest of British breeds who live in the toughest of British climates without any sign of grumpy-ness. The idea that someone who’s dedicated his life to them has written about this was exciting and so I ended up buying the book. Little did I know at that point about the author’s now over 60,000 twitter followers nor that this book had been reviewed in most national newspapers, was heading bestseller lists and the chosen ‘Book of the Week’ on BBC Radio 4. I actually have strong reason to believe that had I known any of it I might not have bought it quite as readily because my rebellious side would not have wanted to read anything just because everyone else was hyper about it.
Instead, I started reading it in perfect ignorance aside from the little bit of knowledge I had already gathered about Herdwicks from Rachel at Prick Your Finger: it was Rachel who got me into Herdwick when I first started spinning; and who who told about Beatrice Potter who eventually settled in the Lake District (as Mrs Heelis) and dedicated her non-book life to the conservation of some traditional Lake District farms including their flocks of Herdwick sheep. It was Rachel who encouraged me to not give up on spinning Herdwick even though it was tough at first: their lanolin-rich grey-silvery wirily-determined fleece is beautiful but not at all compromising and as independent as I imagine their owners to be. I later saw in my beginner’s guide to spinning that they strongly advised against Herdwick for beginners but by then I had mastered it and quite forgiven the sheep.
Thanks to James Rebanks I learned loads of new things about sheep in general and Herdwicks in particular and have an ever deeper appreciation for them. One of the most amazing discoveries for me is that Herdwick sheep are ‘hefted’: they have a clear sense of home and belonging. My idea of shepherds until that point had always been that of quiet-mannered bearded men in big floor-length cloaks leaning on a knobbly wooden stick unless they’re moving slowly across the countryside with their flock of sheep; while their dogs, totally out of synch with man and sheep, bounce about with abundant, determined energy. That’s the shepherds I very occasionally see it in my sisters’ village where they are called ‘Wanderschäfer‘: nomadic shepherd or, literally translated ‘wandering shepherd’.
But that’s not how it is in the Lake District: here the shepherds are firmly settled on their farms – in most cases for generations with nothing even vaguely nomadic about them beyond the annual trips to the local sheep shows – and their Herdwick sheep either overwinter in the valley or roam freely up on the fell where they know exactly where they belong and which fells are theres.
I’ve been quite a nomadic sheep for the first 30 odd years of my life. I believe until I came to London 10 years ago I’ve lived at 20 different addresses spanning 3 states, 3 countries and 2 continents. When I grew up my family was almost obsessed with moving. Even if we weren’t moving homes (which we did a few times) we were constantly moving: moving rooms, moving furniture, moving upstairs to downstairs and very occasionally moving into a tent into the garden. I moved on with that habit and only hit a wall – quite literally – when I moved into a student hall in Manchester where my room was so tiny and the minimalistic furniture solidly fixed to the walls that there was nothing left to move in that spare rectangle of 1m x 1.5m. The only change I managed to force upon that cell was to cover the mould-green plasma-screen-sized notice board with a beautiful fabric from one of my travels. My friend Crystal and I managed to fit the content of both our cells plus my bike into a Vauxhall Zafira when we moved to London together. As if to treat a violent attack of cabin fever after Manchester, I took on a job that involved frequent travelling to two different continents. And it came as a quite shock when I realised that I hated it: not only did travelling for work spoil the joy of travelling for me. But I had also simply run out of capacity for culture shock, out-of-place-ness, making mistake-ness, starting-afresh-ness. I needed to stay put. Not move. So much so that after getting out of that job I didn’t see my family for over 18 months because I couldn’t face the idea of a trip to Germany. In that time I found my perfect home in a communal house in East London where I’ve lived for nearly 8 years now and where the only things I’ve moved around are some pictures and plants. To help getting more settled I threw myself into ‘localism’ through different community groups and initiatives – I volunteered as a community mediator for several years (until the mediation service closed) am now an active member in the local Green Party and like live best when I accidentally bump into people in the streets that I know from some of my local circles: it gives me a sense of belonging and settledness which is very grounding after years of packing and unpacking.
Yet now my sense of home is under threat. There have always been some painful cracks: my mum getting very ill some years ago; a series of work redundancies and the fact that despite paying all my taxes in this country and spending most of my time & money here I’m not given a vote in the General Elections.
But while it’s difficult enough watching elections like a second-class citizen, what I find almost excruciating is having to watch how a narrative of fear and anti-Europe sentiments is blown up by the mainstream media and fed be politicians from the conservative and right spectrum and poisoning the hearts of people around me. It seems like within months I’ve moved from being classified as ‘White – other’ to ‘EU Migrant’ (which is strangely funny after I’ve given up migrating altogether!). Over the past 10 days I’ve been going through my streets with different eyes; I look at people and wonder: would you hate me if you knew I’m not British?
The irony of it all is that I actually come from a country that has a better health system, a better welfare system, an almost free education system and at this point in time probably more job opportunities for me. All the while the associations with ‘EU Migrants‘ are for many people that of ‘health tourist’ and possibly ‘benefit thieve’. And fair enough, in my 11 years living here I’ve probably had three free smear tests, was given free treatment for shingles and tick-fever, had a couple of free ultra-sounds done, a free breast-cancer scan, one free ECG and a free lung-test. I wonder: does that make me a health tourist?
I also admit to recently having mentally considered whether I should accept the possibility of claiming benefits if my work situation doesn’t improve – that’s after three job redundancies and setting up a social enterprise which over the past 7 years has given short-term work to at least five British citizens by creating local community projects that benefited probably some 1000 people by now, just doesn’t generate enough paid work for me at the moment. I wonder: does that thought already make me a benefit thieve?
I’ve recently applied for several temporary and part-time positions without success and we’ve just been unsuccessful with a grant application; things won’t get easier in my sector under the newly elected conservative government. And with the EU-Referendum looming it might be a matter of time until I receive my eviction note.
So yesterday I thought in all seriousness: well, if the British people don’t want me here and if I’d have an easier life in Germany – why don’t I start looking for work in Germany and think about moving back? Honestly: I could feel a sense of ease spreading out in me, a not-having-to-face-adversity sense of release, a deep exhale. And then it hit me: I can’t do this because I’m like a Herdwick now: I’m hefted here.
Germany – that’s over 15 years ago. I don’t even know that I’d find my way back there. It might have greener, more juicy grass and a milder climate but I’m at home now on this wet and rough little Island. Here’s my fell. Here’s where I’m part of a herd.
This is my painful reality: while participation has given me a deep sense of belonging it doesn’t give me any right to stay. Nor does contribution give me any right to have a say. At the end of the day it’s the lottery of birth and I’ve never been a very lucky player. In the meantime I’m not sure whether to start counting my losses or grow a thick wiry fleece that doesn’t get affected by bad times?