The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.
Today we posed questions to James Rebanks, the Cumbrian sheep farmer and author of 'English Pastoral', a book which asks some radical questions about our relationship to our food and to the land. It is also a memoir of his family, moving between from the 1930s to a possible future, and across four generations. Our judges called it "an impassioned plea for a return to more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of farming, that allow livestock, the land and all its wildlife to thrive even as they support us.”
Your book is both intensely personal and also about large cultural and political shifts. Did you approach the book with both in mind equally, or was one more important to you from the start?
I wanted to write a punchy political book people would actually read. And one that dealt with some big chunky subjects that are essential to understanding our current problems, but which are barely understood by most people. Hardly anyone reads big political non-fiction books, and I’m not the best person to write those books anyway. I have no academic credentials to call myself an expert.
Writing about those big changes to the countryside through the prism of my family and personal experiences seemed the best way to do it.
My first book The Shepherd’s Life was political in a different way, and people bought into the family story, so I used a similar trick to tell the story of three generations of our family and our changing relationship with our land.
Is it economically feasible to farm well, without damaging the land, without farmers having to supplement their income by other means?
The things I produce sit on the shelf in a supermarket alongside products from the American mid-west, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, and the price I get is set by competing with their farming, even when it is ecologically disastrous and producing things way beneath the cost of sustainable production.
Worse, much of the food we eat now is processed, so you can’t even tell they have replaced British products with dubious foodstuffs from somewhere else.
The system is deliberately vague, they don’t want you to be able to opt out, and they don’t want me as a farmer to resist or frustrate their power. The current trade deal proposals are things of infamy, and will make the British countryside worse.
It’s widely understood that consumers need to pay more for food that is sustainably produced and does not deplete the environment. Yet can society be persuaded to change its outlook, and accept higher groceries bills, at a time when so many are turning to food banks just to get by?
This is a false choice. Cheap food isn’t for poor people, that is a lie that the neoliberals want you to believe. The process of cheapening food is actually an engine of poverty and inequality.
Look at the US, the poorest people are reduced to working for minimum wage for Walmart or in the factories and warehouses of large corporations. They get zero hour contracts, no career progress, and no security. Cheap food is also killing them through obesity. The control of food and farming systems has been about destroying a whole swathe of jobs and lives that used to exist in rural and urban settings. It has stripped people of wealth, security, secure work and power.
Look instead to places like Norway that have supposedly expensive food, but proper welfare and redistribution systems for wealth so everyone can afford to eat properly.
You don’t cure poverty with cheapening food: if you did there would be no poverty in America, where food is now 7% of household budgets (down from 35% two generations ago). The post war golden age of economic growth was alongside subsidised food a way to redistribute wealth - a rich man doesn’t eat any more food than a poor one, but ought to pay a lot more tax.
What does “nature writing” or environmental writing signify to you? Do you see yourself in that category?
No, with respect, I don’t really identify as being in that tradition. Sometimes I love that writing, and use elements of it to describe the beauty of my world, and I have friends who are fine nature writers. But personally I’m more interested in people, and how they see the world and understand their place in it.
I’m probably best described as an ‘agrarian radical’ like my friend Wendell Berry.
My writing heroes are radicals that also respect ordinary people - classic writers like Tolstoy and Camus, twentieth century radical writers like Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson, and contemporary writers like Rebecca Solnit and Svetlana Alexievich. I love writers who turn political writing into an art form: the thing Orwell believed in.
Is there a particular piece of writing by Orwell you would recommend young writers read?
The best thing I ever did as a young writer was to read his Collected Works.
I was working on our farm and it took me ages to finish it, but seeing how he invented himself a little bit more with each novel is amazing. He was a crumby writer for the first few books (as he admitted in his final years), but by the time you get to Homage to Catalonia and Coming Up for Air something magical is happening, he has worked out a new form and style. And as you read those books, you think ‘Oh wow, he’s stopped doing the naff derivative stuff, and now he’s George Orwell’.
Also I think I believe something very similar about human nature and the essential goodness of most ordinary people.
Orwell was an extremely ordinary human, but his talents by the end of his life were extraordinary. I’m very proud to be associated with this prize simply because it carries his name.
Image credit: Andrew Heading