1. The Heart of the Matter – 8 May 2011

I have two passions in life that are mutually exclusive: I love cities and I love pigs.

From the second I was born in Charing Cross Hospital, I absorbed the London pollution deep into my being.  I am unashamedly London-centric:  I come out in a rash if I leave Zone 2 and brief forays beyond the M25 Orbital Motorway leave me screaming to return to the noise, the crowds and the energy of the city.

But somewhere along the way, I developed a great fondness for and delight in pigs.  Of course, pigs live on farms in rural idylls, snuffling around in grassy fields and rooting through mud.  The idea of having them in a city environment is preposterous and heavens, what would one’s neighbours think?  But I have never been unduly troubled by convention and who is to say that my neighbours will not share in my porcine admiration?  However, I do firmly believe, that if you are going to care for and look after an animal, be it a dog, cat, weasel or pig, it must have a good living environment and be properly cared for at all times.

At the age of seventeen, I found that my school timetable left me with every Wednesday to myself.  I cannot recall what prompted me to contact Mr. Organ at his pig farm on the outskirts of Cheltenham but whilst my friends spent the middle of every week, poring over books in the library and staring vacantly at blackboards, I donned a pair of nasty, denim drainpipes, stuck on a pair of Wellington boots and strode forth through the farm gates into the midst of 1500 pigs.  I was posh, naive, had never worked on a farm before and found myself as happy as a proverbial pig in shit from the first day I started.

My co-workers were less than impressed.  The foreman’s eyes bulged when well-modulated vowels came pouring out of my mouth and the farm boys declared that I spoke “like the lady who reads the news on the telly”.  I, on the other hand, strained to understand their thick Joe Grundy accents and found myself smiling and nodding without understanding half what was said to me.  Having said that, I do remember with frightening clarity, the foreman’s instructions to all his lads that there was to be “no hanky-panky in the haystacks”.   Incredulous at the thought that I might be of any use in a farm environment, the foreman handed me a pig board and told me to herd two dozen gilts into a barn.  It wasn’t rocket science:  I grasped the plastic handle, blocked the pigs as they veered from left to right, cut them off, herded them forwards, shouted encouragement and they were in.  I was rewarded with a “well, lass, you’re not too bad”, handed a shovel and pointed at a heap of dung.

And from that point on, I became a dedicated pigophile.

Jump forward twenty years and I cannot believe that I have willingly forced myself out of my comfort zone by 7.15am on a Sunday morning.  But by my own volition, early on Sunday 15 May, I am well beyond the M25 and heading South on the M3 in the direction of Chitterne in Wiltshire.  The metropolis is far behind me and I leave the motorway at Junction 8 to swoop along the A303 in the direction of Stonehenge.  It is a perfect morning for riding a bike:  blue sky, golden sun, no traffic and long, straight roads for mile upon mile.  However I haven’t worn enough clothes under my leathers and am beginning to get a bit chilly.  I try to ward off the cold by steering deliberately into the sunny lane of the dual carriageway and turning my thoughts to the joys of the day ahead.

I am going into the deepest darkest countryside to spend the day at Pig Paradise Farm.  Run by Tony York and Carron McCann, this is the perfect place for learning everything there is to know about keeping pigs.  Tony and Carron’s business embraces rare pigs, which they sell for meat, breeding and as pets.  There are a fantastic variety of animals to see:  Mangalitzas, a breed that resembles a pig crossed with a sheep; Large Black Lop Eared pigs who do have eyes but you’re hard pressed to find them as their ears provide the most perfect blindfolds; Tamworths, lean and handsome with short ginger hair and commanding snouts and the breed that I am interested in, Kune Kunes.

 

Kune Kune pigs are indigenous to New Zealand but were first imported into Britain nearly twenty years ago.  Kune means “fat and round” and Kune Kune means “very fat and round”.  They have bristly hair, a piri piri under their chins, which is a sort of goatee beard of fat that hangs down and squashed snouts.  A Kune is a perfect pet:  docile, friendly and relatively small.

Victoria Beckham has a lot to answer for on many levels but particularly for promoting the idea of “micro” pigs.  The suggestion that a pig can be small enough to fit in your handbag (and let’s face it, why would you want a pig in your handbag?  I struggle to find my keys and Oyster card as it is without the added complication of trotters in the way), is absurd.  Of course when piglets are first born, they are tiny.  So too are human babies.  And yes, at the age of a few weeks you could fit a piglet in with your purse, tissues, travel pass, make-up, loose change, biros and cigarettes if you were so inclined.  As you could with human babies.  After all, my mother carried me around in a brown wicker basket with our family Pekinese for the first few months of my life but she would be hard pressed to do so now.  I have grown.  And so do pigs.   Kunes are the “micro” pig of the porcine world but I have watched my huge bear of a husband felled by a Kune who just sidled up to him and leant on him for a gentle scratch.   They may be small compared to a British Saddleback but they are not going to be gliding down Piccadilly with you in your Gucci handbag.

The course is run in the Village Hall of Chitterne, which stands right beside the church.  By the time I arrive, my lips are blue with cold and I down coffee in a slightly demented way, sitting huddled in my thermals and leathers until my body temperature rises.   The other people on the course mill around and Tony and Carron introduce us all.

Robert and Sarah are back doing the course for the second time as they are on the brink of opening their own venture, keeping pigs for meat.  Anne has driven down from the North to learn about keeping pigs for breeding and has persuaded her sister, Helen, to keep her company.  Andy and Sue have bought a smallholding and are there to learn all the ins and outs of pig keeping and Graham has bought Sue the Pig Paradise Experience as a birthday present.  Sue is a serious pigophile, having over forty ceramic pigs at home and sporting a piggy t-shirt and pink wellington boots to match.

The day is to be divided up into talking about pigs, looking at pigs and eating pigs.  We quickly learn that the number 3 is key to pig keeping:  one pig will lose you money, two pigs will make you break even but three will turn you a profit.  When a sow is pregnant, her gestation is three months, three weeks, three days, three hours and three glasses of wine and hey presto, piglets on cue!

I feel enormously happy, sitting in the Village Hall, surrounded by friendly pig people and photos of all the different rare breeds.  In fact, the countryside doesn’t seem such a bad place after all.  Until that is, that Tony explains that Chitterne Village Hall is actually used by the military as a strategic base when it is training new recruits in the art of warfare before deploying them to Afghanistan.  Nearby on Salisbury Plain, the army has recreated Basra and Tony says that we shouldn’t be surprised to see “Afghans” pointing AK47s at the windows of the village hall or worry if heat-seeking missiles course through the skies.  My ears prick up in anticipation of nearby tracer fire but in fact the church bells begin to chime with gusto and the idyll of the peaceful English village, nestling in the heart of the countryside, is restored.

Tony is talking about the difference between supermarket-bought meat and independently sourced produce.   As a member of the smug middle class, I like my food to be organic.  The word “organic” on the label always gives me that warm cuddly feeling that the lambs, piglets and calves that I am sticking in my oven, have at least spent a good life, gamboling in fields of buttercups and eating delicious green grass under the eyes of a benevolent farmer.  But in fact the word “organic” does not mean that.  It just means that the beasts have been fed with “organic” feed and are still raised and slaughtered in distressing industrial conditions and you, as a townie, are being conned, both mentally and financially.  Furthermore, when you peer at your packet of bacon that says that it is “British”, if you read down to the next line, you will see that it has actually come from Denmark but that because it was packaged in Britain, we claim it as our own.  By now, Townie Toni is really upset:  my taste buds have been deceived, I’m out of pocket and I’ve failed to support British farming to boot.

Carron has been a pig farmer for many years and her knowledge of the trade is second to none.  She is all too well aware of the type of meat that supermarkets sell and I shall be looking closely at my meat from now on to see if I can see the bruises sustained by animals on their way to the abbatoir or the bite marks that they inflict on one another when they are forced into overcrowded pens.  Sausages, hitherto my favourite food, come in for a real pasting.  Sausages that you buy in a supermarket, be they cheap chipolatas or the finest that money can buy, are made up of the bits of the pig that are left over after everything else has been harvested.  That sausage that you’ve got in your morning sandwich is reconstituted meat from a pig’s ears, lips, cheeks and anus.  Its anus?  Its anus.   Graham had a sausage baguette early this morning.  He is looking a bit green about the gills.  I think about all the supermarket sausages that I have eaten in my life.  I think about the fact that I have left two sausages in the fridge for my daughter to eat at lunchtime.  Not only have I abandoned my baby all day in favour of a pig-keeping course but I am feeding her reconstituted anus.  I am a terrible mother.

Fortunately at this point, Carron morphs from a wonderfully glamourous hostess into a pig farmer dressed in one of Tony’s lumberjack shirts and plastic waterproof trousers.  And we too don boots, protective trousers and coats and sally forth with buckets of nuts across a green field in the direction of the piggies.

First up are the Mangalitza pig-sheep who share space with a Tamworth.  They snuffle happily in the mud and the Tamworth makes a big deal of draping herself in her wallow so that her underbelly turns from orange to chocolate brown.  Pigs are unable to sweat and so in order to keep cool in the heat, it is essential for them to have a watery wallow so that they can cake themselves in mud to protect themselves from over-heating.  There can never be too much muddy water for a pig to lie in and they routinely tip their water buckets into the mud to increase the squelchiness.  However their pig ark, which is a triangular Wendy House in the middle of their paddock, is spotless and smells of sweet hay.  Despite their reputation for being smelly, pigs are in fact very clean creatures and will never dung or pee in their bedding area.  I crawl into their ark and lie in the straw, thinking how comfortable it is and how a quick kip would be just the thing.

Each pig gets fed 3 pounds of nuts twice a day (another example of the number 3 being important for pigs) and Carron explains that it is important to have a call to let the animals know that it is feeding time.  Her call is “Trough! Trough! Trough!” and we are to make this call as we go from pig to pig with the food.  I fill up a blue tin bucket with nuts and carrying it in one hand and the bucket with the rest of the nuts in the other, slide through the gate to the Mangalitzas and Danni Minogue, the Tamworth.  Trilling “Trough! Trough! Trough!” in a voice that closely resembles Joyce Grenfell, I make for their feeding place but as I lean over to deposit my tin of nuts, the Tamworth sticks its snout into the bucket and shoves it violently, attempting to empty the entire contents into just that first paddock.  I manage to extricate myself and most of my bucket of nuts and on I go to the two pigs next door.

At the top of the field, a Large Black sow is nursing her week old piglets.  Each piglet has its own teat and remains faithful to that teat for as long as it feeds from its mother.  The feeding rule for a sow with piglets is more complicated than 3 pounds per pig as the quantity of nuts has to be vastly increased to cater for the work the mother is doing in producing and caring for her babies.   I think it is something like 3 pounds plus an extra pound for each piglet but as I know that I shall keep my pigs as pets and not breed from them, I don’t pay proper attention to the feed formula.

Holding out a hand towards a piglet and hoping it will come and say hello is pointless.  Pigs are not like dogs.  They do not come over when humans are ready to say hello.  They come over when they are ready to say hello.  It was Winston Churchill who said, “a dog looks up at you, a cat looks down on you but a pig looks you straight in the eye”.  Foolishly hopeful, I hold out a hand to the tiny black piglets and sure enough, they skitter in every direction except towards me.  So I sit down on the mud and smile at them and slowly, slowly they edge towards me.  Before long, I have eight piglets snuffling at my Peter Storm mac, licking my waterproof trousers and tugging at the toggles on both.  They pile onto my lap and feel like a moving hot water bottle.  Their mother comes over to inspect, but reassured that they are happy with me, snuffles off again, pleased no doubt, that her offspring are giving her a moment’s peace.

We then have a lecture about artificial insemination from Tony, who is waving two long straws at us, one with an alarming corkscrew at the end of it and the other with a squeezy bottle attached.  Far better, if you’re aiming to breed, to get your pig pregnant by AI than hire a boar, which is much more costly and not nearly so reliable.  I learn that if I should so desire, I can buy three lots of pig sperm for £25.00 and it will be posted to me with maximum discretion.  I then take the corkscrew straw, which is so designed because a boar’s penis is corkscrew-shaped and having covered it in KY Jelly, insert it into my sow, who will be extremely happy that this is happening, apparently.  With the first straw inserted, the second one is clipped on the end, the squeezy bottle is squeezed and my sow has been serviced.  As I say, I shall be having my pigs as pets and not breeding from them so KY Jelly, ersatz corkscrew penises and squeezy bottles will not be on my shopping list.

By this point, I am in dire need of food and am hugely relieved when we are led back to the village hall for a pig feast:  delicious pork with the best crackling ever, masses of vegetables and jugs of proper gravy.  A quiet descends over the group as we eat happily.  Conversation resumes after a bit and just when we are feeling really quite full, Carron produces two magnificent banoffi pies.  While we spoon toffee, bananas and cream into our mouths, Tony starts to explain how to avoid vet’s bills and look after your pigs yourself.

I have a lovely vet who looks after my dog for me.  She is a genial, knowledgeable, kind woman and I enjoy her company.  But with no NHS for pets, the bills are daunting.  As she shakes me by the hand, I know that that one handshake has already cost me £25.00, the following sympathetic remarks and analysis of my dog’s ills, another £50.00, the drugs at least £65.00 and the smile and cheery wave goodbye bring the total to at least £200.00 if I’m lucky.  I am all for learning how to look after my piggies on my own as much as possible.

The cardinal rule is to vet your pigs twice a day and feed them at the same time, rather than simply chucking food at them and then being appalled when one day, you realize that they are very unwell and a vet must be called.  Lunch over, Carron takes us back up to all her pigs and we visit an enormous Black Lop-Eared sow called Cilla Black.  We are in the next-door paddock to Cilla, admiring another pig and not yet concentrating on her.  Exasperated by the lack of attention in her direction, she stands up on her hind legs, places her trotters firmly on the fence and throws her snout up into the air.  In this stance, she is considerably bigger than my husband and even more of a force to be reckoned with than him.  Collectively we all swarm towards her.  More fool Cilla for seeking our attention.  It is Carron’s intention to let each of us practice inserting a needle into Cilla, pretending to inject her, removing the needle and rubbing the puncture wound.  We are shown the best place to put the needle in, a soft area near the neck and in fact, Cilla, having been given some nuts to take her mind of things, is completely impervious to our slightly nervous attempts to stick needles into her.

Carron’s next lesson is to teach us how to establish that a boar is a good bet in the mating game.  It is essential, Carron informs us that the boar’s testicles are round and bouncy rather than limp and a bit floppy.  I can see this: round and bouncy is surely always better than limp and floppy.  We approach a sizeable Middle White, called David Beckham.  Middle White pigs are not the most beautiful members of the species.  They have rather squashed faces and look like a cross between a pug and a vampire bat.  But we are not really concerned with the front end.  It’s the back end that we’re looking at.  Carron suggests to Graham that he invades David Beckham’s personal space and has a feel of his testicles.  Graham doesn’t really like pigs.  He’s here out of love for his girlfriend.  He’s spent a lot of money on the course as a present for her.  And now he’s being invited to feel a pig’s testicles?  But man that he is, he crouches down behind the Middle White and tentatively edges his hands under his backside, a slight grimace on his face.  The testicles are most satisfactory:  round, bouncy and moist as well.  Good.

Graham’s revenge on Sue comes soon.  She has opted to take a pig’s temperature and they don’t hold the thermometers in their mouths.  The camera is focused closely on Sue as she gingerly lifts the tail of a young gilt and stares underneath.  Is the top hole the anus and the bottom hole the vagina or the top hole the vagina and the bottom hole the anus?  All very confusing and yet rather important to be clear on what is what.  The correct hole located, the thermometer is inserted and then hastily removed.  Too hastily.  It has not beeped to indicate that the requisite time has passed to give an accurate reading.  Sue must repeat the exercise.  So tail up, hole located, thermometer in and then a two-minute wait until the bleep sounds and dignity is restored to both females.

I come off quite lightly on this afternoon of pig husbandry, escaping the more intimate areas and electing instead to learn how to weigh a pig using a piece of orange twine.  Apparently if you run the twine from between the pig’s eyes, down its spine to the top of its tail and tie a knot and then measure from one shoulder to the other shoulder, running the twine underneath the piggy and tie another knot, you then add these two figures together and divide by ten and this gives you the pig’s weight to the nearest fifteen pounds.  Or you divide the two figures into each other and multiply by ten?  Or was it three?  Surely it was three?  After all, three is the magic number.  I attempt to measure the pig on my own after Carron has explained and demonstrated.  I am not convinced that I have done it right.  Carron has moved on but Robert helps me have another go.  I try again.  But my knots seem terribly far apart compared to Carron’s.  I unknot my twine to try for a third time but the pig is having none of it and dances off to the other end of its paddock.  When Snout and Crackling (they may not have been born yet, but my pigs already have names) come to live with me, I shall read up on how to weigh them with a piece of twine, but for now I decide that I would prefer to go and play with the Kune Kune piglets.

The day draws to a close with Victoria Sponge, Fruitcake and tea.  I have eaten so much fantastic food that I am unable to do up my leather motorbike trousers and have to ride back to London in my tracksuit and waterproof trousers.  But not before, receiving a stern lecture from Tony about money and costings and the expense involved in keeping pigs, a very salutary and important finish to a most excellent day.

I jump on my bike and head off back to the safety of the metropolis.  As I ride down the M3, I think about all the things I have learnt.  What shall I have as my food call, I wonder?  I try calling “Piggy! Piggy! Piggy!” into the dense cotton of my balaclava and then try a series of snorts instead.  I sound quite, quite mad.

The house is peaceful when I return home.  Theresa is sound asleep and she and Melinda, the babysitter, have had a really good day.  She has eaten well, Melinda informs me, although she refused to eat her sausages at lunchtime.  Yesterday I would have thought her fussy.  Today I think of her as discerning.

 

26. Meet the locals

“There’s a man on the ‘phone”, my assistant Katie said as she walked into the workroom, “who wants to know if Antonia Pugh-Thomas is also Toni the lady with the pigs.   What should I tell him?”

“I will tell him “yes”‘, I replied and picked up the receiver to talk to Jo Reynolds, writer and editor of  “Brackenbury Village”, a magazine that embraces all things local to W6 and the surrounding areas.

It had taken Jo a while to track me down but now he had me at the end of the ‘phone, he wondered if I might agree to be interviewed about living with two Kune Kune pigs in West London.  Over the last three years of being a pig owner, I have been approached occasionally by journalists and for the most part have shied away from interviews.  But Jo sounded a good combination of interesting and slightly mad and I thought that an hour in Wendell Park on a Sunday morning being at liberty to talk endlessly about my favourite subject would be no bad thing.

I actually live a hop and skip from Wendell Park but at this time of year it takes Snout and Crackling a good ten minutes to walk there from our house because the weeds that congregate around the bottom of the trees are so lush and delicious.  We stop at each trunk while the pigs harvest vigorously.  If I try to tow them forwards in a moment of impatience they scream loudly and so I back off and let them mow down all things green.  A lady passing by remarks that the weeds must be horrible as all the local dogs wee on them.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this only adds to the deliciousness of them for Snout and Crackling.  When I tell her this, she looks horrified and rushes away.  Just imagine if I’d gone on to tell her that the pigs like to drink each other’s urine as well:  it might have finished her off!  But anyway we provide a good service to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and the weeds between our house and Wendell Park are kept at bay.

In a bid to get to the park slightly faster, I guide Snout and Crackle off the pavement and down the middle of Wendell Road.  Early on a Sunday there is rarely any traffic and so we are able to meander safely.  However halfway along I notice that Crackling has deposited a large amount of pig poo in the middle of the road and so I drop their leads to let them go slowly onwards and run back to scoop up the dung.  When I look up from bending down to collect poo, I can see Snout ambling down the pavement scouting for weeds.  Crackling, on the other hand, has broken into a brisk trot and is racing down the middle of the road towards an old dear who has stalled her aged Fiat, so appalled is she by the sight of an unattended racing pig.  I catch up with Crackling and grab his lead sharply, waving an apologetic hand at the driver, who flaps her own hand weakly and makes no attempt to re-start her car.  Crackling, furious at having been stopped in his tracks, screams as I attempt to wheel back to collect Snout from the pavement behind us.  An angry pig’s screams are in the same decibel range as a harrier jump jet.  To my embarrassment the quiet of Wendell Road is shattered by a porcine harrier jump jet, which does not abate until we pass through the park gates.

Peace resumes once we are in the park and I sit on a bench in the sun as Snout and Crackling work their way from the gate to the far left hand corner where the grass is long enough to come up to their shoulders.  And it is there that Jo and his colleague, Nigel the photographer, catch up with us as they enter this bucolic scene that is only slightly marred by the municipal bin planted nearby.

A while back a professional animal photographer came to photograph Snout and Crackling for a project he was doing on pig welfare.  He became impatient that the pigs wouldn’t get themselves into the sun and pulled Snout hard by his lead.  Snout bit him.  And the photographer went to hospital.  It’s not generally a good idea to pull a pig.  They don’t like it.

I tell Nigel that he mustn’t pull the pigs by their leads.  He understands instantly and suggests that I control all manoeuvres and please could I get Snout out from the bushes by the fence and Crackling into a dappled patch of sunlight underneath a tree and then crouch down and smile and turn Crackling around so that his face is photographed rather than his bottom and just turn my head slightly towards the lens and could Snout come forward by one pace and the two of them just lean in a little and could I shift backwards and look up and if Snout could just stop foaming at the mouth and Crackling could come to the left a little and I could crouch down lower and look forward, no left, no right, no just straight down the lens, then that would be a most perfect shot.  A good twenty minutes later, Nigel thinks that he may have got his picture.  By this point, he is lying on the ground with a carrot in one hand while he clicks the shutter and I am trying to stop Crackling charging forwards.  I know perfectly well that Crackle takes no prisoners when it comes to carrots and he will take the carrot, the camera and possibly Nigel’s hand into the bargain.

Jo then conducts possibly the most uncomfortable interview of his career, standing up and moving after the pigs as they potter at will.  He is constantly interrupted by passers-by, dog walkers and tired fathers with small children.  But ever the consummate professional he manages the interruptions easily and taps his iPad to bring up his list of questions, scrawling my answers in shorthand into his notebook.  Years ago, as a temporary PA to the head of Goldman Sachs, I remember taking page upon page of shorthand and then sitting at my desk afterwards unable to transcribe a single scribble.  It didn’t really matter and I just made it up, I mean it was only stuff pertaining to banking.  But the information that I am feeding Jo is crucial and I hope that he’ll be able to translate his notes when he reads back through them.

An hour later, I have exhausted Jo with my enthusiasm for my pigs and he heads off home while I take Snout and Crackling in the opposite direction back towards their sty.  They have clearly consumed enough grass with Crackling deciding to lie down under a tree to rest after the effort of eating constantly for nearly two hours.  On arriving home, they shuffle into their sty and Snout lies straight down in the pig paddling pool to cool down in the murky water.  He then springs up, shakes himself all over me and lies down to sleep beside his brother.  But before long, they are both up and shouting as Snowy has opened up the shed and is extracting the lawn mower.  The lawn mower produces a Pavlovian response in Snout and Crackling as they know that all the grass cuttings will be emptied over the fence into their sty.  And so once more, the peace of W12 is momentarily disrupted by shouting pigs until, as the cuttings rain down upon them, they lapse into quiet mastication and continue where they left off.

 

 

25. Rugby vs Football – 11 March 2013

Snout and Crackling are growing. Still piglets in age, they resemble giant hogs in size and visitors are incredulous when I say that they’re only 1 ½ year’s old. “They’re enormous!” people cry. “They’re small”, I reply. And indeed, for pigs, they are diminutive. When I worked on a pig farm, the two biggest boars, Hiroshima and Napoleon, came up to my shoulder and I’m a respectable 5’8”. So Snout and Crackling bobbing around at my mid thigh certainly are quite pint-sized.

Maybe it’s because pigs are normally slaughtered before they’re even six months old, that people aren’t used to seeing a fully-grown adult. I am not surprised or worried by Snout and Crackling’s size. They are both similar to their parents, Shaun and Mandy and are in good condition: shiny coats, bright eyes and insatiable appetites. The fact that their harnesses have only about a quarter of an inch left to be let out, concerns me slightly but as these are dog harnesses, I know that at some point soon, I shall have to stop being a cheapskate and invest in a couple of leather pig harnesses. Idly, I wonder about what colour leather will be available so as to push the thought of the expense to the back of my mind.

But I have more important things on my mind, where my pigs are concerned: I long for them to learn to play football. They are now adept at turning circles and sitting when asked. They walk, albeit at a slightly unpredictable pace and answer to their names. But what fun it would be, to play football with them in the park. When Woozle was a puppy, she would join in with every game of footie that we chanced upon. Woo would dribble the ball the length of the pitch, weaving round all the two-legged players and when push came to shove, she would just clamp her jaws around the ball and lift if off the grass.

A pig’s snout is perfectly formed to push a ball and both Snout and Crackling have an amazing turn of speed. With a spot of training, I can’t help feeling that they could give David Beckham a run for his money. If you throw a feed ball into their sty, they chase it with alacrity, stopping only to collect the pignuts that leak out of the holes. When football is substituted for feed ball however, my pigs’ interest wanes: no food and it’s game over.

Instead, we pursue jogging as a form of sport. This is a chaotic affair, which involves me being pulled at speed towards Ravenscourt Park when it’s time for a walk: Think “It’s My Life”, Tampax Compak advert with headstrong pigs towing harassed woman in tracksuit covered in mud through urban minefield and you’ll sort of get the idea.

Snout and Crackling trot across the pedestrian crossing and as we come into Ravenscourt Square the tempo quickens. One of Snout’s favourite moves is to circle on the spot and then buck. Crackling will then complement his brother’s manoeuvre by veering off to the right and I’m left splayed out across the road as if tied to a latter-day rack. By now the park gates are in sight and Snout’s hindquarters are rotating like Road Runner’s. At this point, with a clear road ahead of us and mindful that there is nobody trying to enter or exit the park, I unclip both leads and watch the pigs as they bolt with enthusiasm towards the grass. Once inside, Snout will often run in increasing circles with happiness while Crackling almost always slows to an instant halt and starts to eat.

However last week, Snout took his sporting prowess to a new level when he inadvertently tackled a ten-year old boy playing rugby with his father. With the coast clear, I let both pigs off the lead and as usual they rushed into the park with enthusiasm. Snouty was so excited to be free that he galloped towards this poor lad and swept him off his feet. Surprised at meeting such an obstacle, he stopped dead, looked slightly confused and then started to eat the grass without a care in the world. As this scene played out in front of me, I accelerated from 0-60, rushing towards the erstwhile rugby player who was now lying prone on the ground. Fortunately, I know from having a nine-year old son, that boys of this age generally bounce and this poor child was just incredibly surprised at having been felled by a large, ginger pig. His father, rather than threatening me with legal action for allowing my pig to tackle his son, found the whole scene hilarious and reveled in the fact that his boy had been knocked over by a pig. “Your mother will never believe me”, he said repeatedly to his son as if almost hoping for a replay.

Mortified, I put Snouty back on his lead and towed him towards John Humphrys, who together with his son, had witnessed the whole unfortunate incident. I cannot pretend to a deep and meaningful friendship with John but we banter when I drop off bags of pig poo for his plants or bump into each other in the park. I’m sure that I am not alone in the world, when I say that I try hard not to split my infinitives when talking to John Humphrys. But today, I am so out of kilter by my pig’s antics that coherent sentences are replaced by idiotic gabbling. I look fearfully at John’s son who is nonchalantly tossing a rugby ball in the air and lead my pig in the opposite direction, my eye firmly back on the ball, so to speak.

Over supper that evening, Snowy and I consider the different options for porcine entertainment. My enthusiasm for ball sports has waned and I am now in favour of getting them an old tyre to hurl around their sty. There’s a Kwik-Fit just down the road from us and I think that tomorrow I shall see if they can spare a tyre or inner tube for Snout and Crackling to play with.

24. An entente cordiale – 9 December 2012

One of my mother’s sayings is, ”the power of self-deception is endless”.  How right she is.  In my mind’s eye, I am an elegant, under control businesswoman and mother.  In reality, I am a chaotically dressed, overly busy woman who just manages to avoid daily disasters by the skin of her teeth.  If push comes to shove, I can manage to morph into a reasonably collected version of myself but I am much happier, truth be told, to stick on yesterday’s jeans and rejoice in the muddy kisses that my pigs plant on my legs.

That is not to say that I don’t appreciate sartorial elegance.  I do.  There is nothing more glorious, to my mind, than a really elegant woman out and about.  Snout and Crackling encountered not just one such woman this morning but her two daughters as well.

The pigs’ sty currently resembles a peat bog and so their eagerness to get to the solid grass of Ravenscourt Park means that we go to the park at a brisk trot, tails swinging and snouts forward with enthusiasm.  On a Sunday mornings the park is generally empty save for the odd dog walker and a few tired looking parents with insomniac babies.  But this morning, the Garigues joined us.  Laurent and his wife Alex run a renowned fabric business, supplying exceptional materials to world famous designers.  And me.  For years, Laurent and I have talked fabric and then eventually tiring of warp, weft and weave, have chatted about other things. Like animals.  Would Laurent like to come to Ravenscourt Park one weekend with his family and meet Snout and Crackling?  Tentatively he thought he might and I, with my overwhelming enthusiasm to introduce my pigs to everybody, embraced his interest as a done deal.

So this morning I was standing near the duck pond while Snout and Crackling meandered around when, on looking up, I spied the Garigue family approaching across the wet grass.   It’s a truism that French women are born chic:  there was Alex in a beautiful black coat, with a blue-black fur around her neck, looking fabulous.   Not to worry though:  I had managed to put on clean pants and brush my hair, so was more than holding my own in a very English female type of way.   Bella and Tara, initially a little wary of Snout and Crackling (and quite right too – one’s first encounter with 70 kilos of pig should always be wary), quickly befriended them and Bella produced a bag of carrots by way of introduction.  Tara, clad in leather trousers, her flowing locks bouncing around her face, stood holding Crackling gently on his lead and looking for all the world like this was part of her daily routine.

Taking a carrot out of Bella’s bag, I made Snout sit down and once his furry bottom was lowered onto the grass, released the carrot into his mouth.  Bella had a go.  “Sit”, she said, in a sweet way.  Snout stood defiantly in front of her, bottom very definitely not lowering into position.  “Command him”, I encouraged, “rather than ask him”.  “Sit”, said Bella in a slightly more forthright tone.  Snout tilted his jaw up in a jaunty way and started to foam very slightly at the mouth.  “Speak to him like your mother speaks to you when she’s fairly fed up with you and wants you to do what she is asking you to do”, I suggested.  “Sit”, said Bella fiercely and Snout’s back legs began to fold.

Tara and Bella have unusual pets as well:  two tortoises called Torty and Tortilla.  Naturally.  As we stood in the park, Laurent explained how at this time of year, Torty and Tortilla hibernate and the safest way to allow them to hibernate successfully is to keep them in your fridge.  This avoids their waking up if the temperature increases and making their adrenalin rise.  Too much adrenalin coursing around a tortoise’s body during hibernation can be fatal.  I was glad to learn this about tortoises.  When Snowy next gazes with despair at our garden and laments the way that the pigs have taken over such a swathe of our home, I can point out that at least they’re outside and not nestled in between the sausages and milk on the second shelf down of our fridge.

By the time we were ready to leave the park, Bella and Tara were well into the swing of pig walking.  Snout and Crackling were hoisted towards the gates and Laurent helped his daughters when the pigs stalled.  Snout and Crackling don’t walk in an orderly way.  Instead they rush and then saunter and then run and then stop dead.  Just when Laurent and Tara had a good rhythm going with Crackling and Bella had coaxed Snout to keep pace, the pigs crisscrossed one another and went in different directions.  Their new handlers had to limbo under leads and whirl around one another as if doing a slightly lunatic maypole dance.  But we made it to the Goldhawk Road whereupon Crackling went into reverse.

Crackle has developed a phobia of the South side of the pedestrian crossing on the Goldhawk Road but only when crossing from South to North.  If approaching the crossing from the other direction, he trots across without a murmur.  I’ve done everything to try and help him over his phobia:  I’ve approached the crossing from different angles; taken him off the pavement; kept him on the pavement; waved apples; spoken sweetly to him; spoken severely to him.  Nothing works.  So as the pedestrian crossing went green in our favour, Snout launched himself into the road and Crackling yelled and pulled backwards.  Fortunately for me, Laurent saved the day and with a suavity that only a Frenchman could manage, conducted my ginger pig across the busy thoroughfare while I crouched down and hugged his scared brother.  As the pedestrian lights turned in our favour once more, I was able to hurry Crackling across the road and together we all jogged down our street and home to the safety of the peat bog.

I can see that Crackling and I are going to have to spend some quality time together at that particular crossing in order to try and overcome the fear factor of The Kerb but for now, they are both tucked up in their ark and my pig psychotherapy will have to wait for another day.

 

23. Old Friends – 26 November 2012

The man who “sodomised” Snout turned out to be delightful.   Snout and I had taken refuge out of the rain and we were lying on the red plastic tiles of the Dining Tent, when I spied a man dressed up as a Florentine magistrate.  Up I jumped and introduced myself as Snout’s owner, fixing this man with a beady look as I shook him by the hand. Simon immediately ignored the call from an assistant to go on set and came and rubbed Snout on the head.  “What a lovely pig”, he remarked “and she’s so pretty too”.  ”Not ‘She’ ”, I said firmly.  “He”.  “Oh dear”, Simon sighed sadly. “Bestiality. Homosexuality. It’s not turning out to be a good day”, and with flap of his magistrate’s robes he dived through a nearby doorway and into Swansea’s very own version of Renaissance Florence.

Snout and I then wandered back to the trailer where Crackling was lying fatly in the straw.  Crackles’ job was simply to accompany Snout to Swansea and joking apart, keep him calm.  As Snout and Crackling go everywhere together, I wanted to make sure that their routine was as uninterrupted as possible.  And they were such a good little band of brothers!  The minute Gerry pulled up in the dark, outside our home, with the trailer attached to his bumper, they piled in without a second’s thought, trotters clattering up the metal ramp.

We drove at a stately speed down the whole of the M4, arriving at about one in the morning at the Swansea Gate Park, a derelict car factory on the outskirts of the city.  Large vacant buildings, their glass windows smashed to pieces were strung out along pot-holed roads.  We bumped slowly along, weaving in between gloomy grey concrete walls until we emerged into a trailer park, filled with lorries, cars and all the vehicular chaos that accompanies every film set.  I was instantly struck by how similar the whole site was to fifteenth century Florence.

I allowed Snout and Crackling out of the trailer to stretch their legs and went in search of some hot water, wandering into the Production Trailer and filling up my bucket from their sink.  Film sets are hierarchical places and in daylight hours, no ordinary mortal, let alone the dirty owner of a Kune Kune, would dare enter the Production Office in search of hot water.  However in the wee small hours, there was not an Assistant Director in sight and I filled my bucket and ambled happily back to my pigs.

Having drunk and eaten, both Snout and Crackling climbed back into the trailer and Gerry and I fell back into his car and headed for the Hotel Ibis for a few hours’ sleep.

The call time the following morning was 7am.  We went onto set at 4pm.  In the intervening nine hours, Snout and Crackling and I wandered around the grass, pottered in between the trailers and cadged apples off the catering staff. We met Snout’s understudy, a pretty pig with the long nose of a Duroc but the colouring of a very pale Tamworth.  She had come to Swansea just in case my pig was unable to perform.  By “perform”, I mean stand still in some stocks and let Simon actually do the “performing”.  I wasn’t worried that Snout would bottle it.  He’s a very sanguine pig.  The pretty pig was good on a leash but a little nervy and in the event she wasn’t needed on set.    This was a good thing because the scenes in the magistrate’s court were illuminated with phosphorescent flares and I think Pretty Pig would have jumped out of her furry skin.

By the time Snout was called into the gloom of the erstwhile Ford factory and we had carefully made our way over hundreds of cables, Simon was bereft of his magistrate’s robes and instead was wearing a cuddly dressing gown.  As the 1stAD shouted for the pig to be brought on set, Snout and I scuttled (or at least I scuttled and Snout shifted easily, his head swaying from side to side) into the “court”.  Snout mounted the stocks, lowered his head into the bucket of food at one end and ignored the now naked Simon crouching over his nether regions and a livid-looking actor playing the part of Leonardo, who was hovering above them both.

There followed a relatively long speech by “Leonardo”, who became increasingly demented, while Simon’s and Snout’s haunches became one and the same, as Simon played the part of an angry and agitated magistrate and Snout played the part of a pig eating a lot of good food out of a wooden bucket.

“Cut” and “Reset” were shouted loudly and Simon’s dignity was restored with the return of his furry dressing gown.  Snout, unaware that his dignity had been compromised in any way at all, allowed himself to be led away and we did a little turn around the monitors that were set up to one side of the set.

Then came the moment when “Leonardo” was to illuminate the whole setting with a flare.  There were to be two flares and we would start with the smaller of the two, the 1st AD suggested. Sensible man.  I had a bad feeling that my pig was going to be off at the speed of light as the spark hit the fuse.  But I led my pig on, parked him in his stocks and sped into my dark corner away from the cameras.  A member of the crew lit the flare, handed it to “Leonardo” and my spine stiffened as he waved it wildly above his head.  Snout ate contentedly.  The actor leapt around. Snout ate contentedly.   The flare expired. Snout ate contentedly.

So now for the second flare.  Same old, same old:  Snout on set; Simon, his birthday suit on, crouching over the pig; “Lights! Camera! Action!”  The large flare ignited with a bang and Snout started forward with surprise.  Simon stroked his back in a gentle way and Snout realised that food was quite the best option and that the noise was nothing to fret about.

He earned his money, did Snouty and he was brilliant.  Cast and crew congratulated him and the director was quite smitten (I am ridiculously biased, I know, but I’m prepared to bet good money that the director was quite smitten).  With the whole barmy business concluded, I said to Simon, that were he and his family to ever find themselves in West London, they would be  welcome to come and visit Snout and Crackling in more congenial surroundings.   That would be lovely, Simon thought.  As a matter of fact, they were all coming up to the Shepherd’s Bush area for a Thanksgiving lunch with friends; friends who happened to live four doors down from us.

And so yesterday afternoon, I pottered over to Kate and Richard’s house and came back with twenty or so of their friends who had been celebrating Thanksgiving. And there was Simon, resplendent in a checked, tweed suit and an orange cashmere jumper, looking so very different from the last time I had met him.  Simon and Snout didn’t actually get much of a chance to develop their friendship as Simon’s nine-year old daughter stole her father’s thunder and Snout and Crackling crowded round her, snorting happily.

22. My Animals and Other Family – 15 October 2012

I do sometimes feel awfully sorry for my husband. He knew when he asked me to marry him, that in so doing, he was also marrying my dog, Woozle. He was aware of my desire to keep pigs but I think he may have imagined that that was one of those pipedreams that we all have. I for my part married him and his two children but I’m not sure that the balance remains in my favour once you add two cats into the equation. Duchesse and Zibeline (named after the two most expensive types of silk that we use to make wedding dresses at work) came to live with us about four weeks ago. Rescued from a hostel in High Barnet and taken to the refuge of Battersea Dogs and Cats’ Home, they were to be rehomed together and well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. One dog, two pigs, three children, a full-time business and a husband; why not add in a couple of cats?

Snowy had not lived with cats before but he got the hang of co-habiting with pigs so easily that I wasn’t worried about how he would cope. I wasn’t anxious about how Snout and Crackling would manage either as very little tends to faze them. But for Woozle, who I rescued from Battersea nearly fifteen years’ ago, it was more of an issue. Woo is now in her dotage and is deaf and nearly blind. This doesn’t stop her travelling on the tank of my Triumph Street Triple 675 in a specially configured dog bag, but generally she likes the quiet life.

Much is made about dogs and cats fighting each other but Woozle is an adaptable dog and hope springs eternal. On returning from Battersea, we installed Duchesse and Zibeline in Emily’s bedroom to acclimatise. All went well for the first forty-eight hours and Snowy was to be found, lying on the floor with both cats and scratching them behind the ears. He was, he decided, most in favour of cats. But then Woozle got into Emily’s bedroom and tried to eat Zibeline’s food and there was instantaneous carnage. Zibeline launched himself at Woo with all his flick knives out and Snowy flew to Woozle’s defence. The cat landed smack onto the husband, burying his claws deep into his hands and arms and biting his thumb for good measure. Cue, howling from Woozle with fright and Snowy with pain. That bloody cat was going to go if that happened again. It was going to be minced up and fed to Snout and Crackling. My long-suffering husband sucked his wounds and glared at Zibeline who had retreated onto the top of Emily’s cupboard and was hissing at him.

Later that evening whilst lying in bed, I apologized on my cat’s behalf for the umpteenth time and wondered out loud if it would have been better for my to have taken on a tortoise. Snowy ignored me. I then said that I was feeling enormously excited in anticipation of the alpaca course I was due to attend in a couple of weeks time. Snowy said if I came back from Worcestershire with an alpaca, he would file for divorce.

So I’ve been trying to keep a low profile for a little bit, caring for my animals and doing a lot of reading. I am re-reading “My Family and Other Animals”, written by Gerald Durrell and I regale Snowy with tales of Gerry’s adopted owls, magpies, dogs and endless insects. Snowy is not happy about my choice of reading matter and grunts his disapproval at each of Gerry Durrell’s animal exploits. However the other book I have on the go is Rebecca Asher’s “Shattered: the myth of modern motherhood”, which is considered even more subversive than stories about creatures.

It’s not a name you hear often now: Gerry. And yet, just as Gerald Durrell has imposed himself onto my consciousness, a second Gerry has emerged.

Snowy and I have become terrible bores at social gatherings. In order to break up conversations on mortgage rates and the right choice of secondary school, we whip out our mobile phones and show anyone and everyone the video of Snout and Crackling circling and sitting for food. “Do you like pigs?” I enquire of every stranger I encounter and without giving them time to answer, I launch into a eulogy about pigs.

And so it happened that this video landed on the laptop of Gerry Cott, owner of A-Z Animals. Gerry’s company supplies any and every type of animal to the commercial and film industry in the UK. He trained the pigs for “A Private Function”, found the red stag that featured in “The Queen” and was responsible for the eight foot snake that was wrapped around Engelbert Humperdinck on the front cover of “The Times Magazine”. See any animal in an advert, television series or film over the last twenty years and chances are, Gerry will have supplied it. It is apt that Gerry should be the mastermind behind this company, given that he came to fame as a rat: a Boomtown Rat. So there you have it: a rock star who can lay his hands on a zebra, a water vole or a pig that has been trained to walk on a leash.

I was eating cake in Osterley Park when I took Gerry’s call. Could he come and meet my pigs? In between mouthfuls of Victoria Sponge, I arranged a date for a couple of days hence and told Snowy that Snout and Crackling were receiving a visitor.

On the Tuesday morning, the peace of our road was shattered by deep, pulsating beats emanating from a vehicle driving down it. I peered out of our front windows and knew, even before I had met Gerry Cott, that I was going to like him. There he was, parallel parking a Volvo estate that was shaking with Carlos Santana. Tinted blue glasses perched on his nose and a winning smile; Gerry was out into our garden, talking non-stop, within minutes of his arrival. Here were the pigs, what great animals pigs are, such intuitive creatures, so discerning. He bent down to greet Snout. Snout bit him.

Gerry was completely unfazed by Snout’s discourteousness and leant over him to breathe up his nose. Snout chilled out slightly and Crackling wandered over to say hello. Gerry sat on the wall beside the erstwhile flourishing flowerbed and with a nifty filming device, a sort of large steering wheel with a camera attached to it, filmed the pigs as they ambled about. I fretted silently about the fact that Gerry’s testicles were now level with Snout’s teeth but decided that he was old enough/experienced enough to look after his own scrotum.

It transpired that Gerry was on the look out for a pig to feature in a film about Leonardo Da Vinci that is currently being filmed in Swansea. Out of my two pigs, Snout was more of a contender because he’s a more handsome pig. I’d like to say that in Crackling’s defence, Crackle is a beautiful pig but is perhaps more suited to a comedy role than historical drama. Anyway, the script of “Da Vinci’s Demons” demands the appearance of a pig that will knock over a passer-by, go on to walk down road accompanied by a beautiful lady and finally be rogered from behind by a magistrate.

Gerry Cott is an Irishman and the Irishman’s combination of loquacity and charm is a winner. I should know. I’m married to an Irishman. But loquacity and charm come to nothing when the suggestion is made that my pig be sodomised. I told Gerry he had another thing coming, if he thought anyone was going anywhere near my pig’s anus. A frank discussion ensured. No, no, Gerry assured me, a prosthetic pig would be used for that particular close-up.

Time was of the essence for me as I had a client coming to the shop and so having walked Snout and Crackling up and down the road for the camera, we agreed to speak once Gerry had contacted the Director of the film. So back into the Volvo he jumped and music pumping, vanished off to his next meeting.

There was something I should have told him. But he’d gone. It was something really quite germane to his whole idea. The thing is I have no desire to see my pigs on celluloid. I’m only a pushy mother in terms of people admiring my pets on a fairly basic level. I certainly harbour no desire to see them walking down Florentine streets or participating in anal sex, no matter how good the money is.

Spending six years on set playing parts in many different series, adverts and films while I was training to become a stuntwoman has cured me of the notion that there is any glamour to be had in the world of filming. In a word, filming is hideous. Film sets are full of stressed out people, shouting crew, unrealistic timetables, inadequate budgets and wannabe actors. The call time is at 6am and you sit around all day on a freezing set, in the middle of Guildford, drinking disgusting coffee until 10pm, made-up as a dead person. At 9.55pm you are told that you’re not going to be dead in the next scene but are going to be a stripper and could you please get back to Make-Up and have your dead face removed and substituted for something more alluring. As I say, hideous. Why would I willingly put myself back onto a set with the added complication of being chaperone to a pig? I realise that I am not going to be an integral part of the on-screen action but I am wise enough to know that when the shit hits the fan, metaphorically and literally, I will be in the firing line.

But as I say, I haven’t voiced any of this to Gerry and now he’s gone. I tell myself to give it no further thought. Film crews and Creatives change their minds in a blink: it will probably come to nothing.

Gerry calls a couple of days later to confirm that “Da Vinci’s Demons” would like to use Snouty. He asks me to pencil in a couple of dates. Pencil is the operative word. Nothing is in ink, let alone stone, until just before the First Assistant Director (“The First AD”) shouts “Action”. I draw a line through a couple of days at the end of October and two at the beginning of November. Whilst it will only be Snout who is on set, I have explained to Gerry that as Snout and Crackling are twins, they come as a pair. Crackle will need to be near Snout to calm his pre-shoot nerves. I suggest that Gerry sorts out a trailer as I don’t think I can fit both my pets into the Landrover. I, for my part, will arrange the necessary licences.

You can’t just up and off with a pig. It has to have a movement licence that is granted by DEFRA and once the pig has arrived at its destination, if it is not for the abattoir, then there is a twenty-one day standstill until it can be moved once more. However, it transpires that there is such a thing as a performance licence, which will allow for a brief foray out and about without having to find lodgings for a three-week period. I am almost as skeptical about obtaining this as I am about the filming going ahead but I log onto the emal2.gov.org website and apply for the licence. Having negotiated all categories and filled in my County Parish Holding number, the pigs’ herd number, my Personal Identification number, my address, the film site’s address, Gerry’s car registration number, the day of departure, the hour of the day when I shall be loading my pigs into the trailer, the anticipated amount of time I believe it will take to load my pigs, the amount of time they will be on the road and the estimated time of arrival, I press “Submit”. By return email I receive a fierce letter from the Animal Health Department saying that the details that I have entered do not match their records and this may be because I am not registered to keep pigs at all. I switch off the computer and go to bed.

The following morning I make Snowy take Resa for a walk while I prepare for battle on the phone with the relevant DEFRA department. With great restraint, I ask the operative at the other end of the line to check all my details. Oh no, she says, they’ve got a different County Parish Holding number but now, it’s all corrected. I must phone a different number and talk to somebody else. And then somebody else. And another person beyond that. The Person Beyond That is a pleasant sounding man who laughs and says, “it’s a fierce letter isn’t it?” I try and smile down the phone at him and ask plaintively what I should do in order to obtain this licence. He assures me that all will now be fine and I should print out the licence in triplicate and distribute it to various people en route. I am also meant to text some government department 72 hours prior to my trip or is that 72 hours post my trip? I try to ask but the line has gone dead.

Not to worry, I know that I shall have further governmental dealings in the next few days and weeks. For a start, I haven’t managed to arrange the return licence for the first trip, as I am unsure as to whether we are returning on the Tuesday or the Wednesday. Gerry is in Wales and has no mobile signal. I decide to sit tight and wait.

Gerry rings a couple of days later to thrash out some further details. The Art Department of the film company is in the throes of making a prosthetic pig (presumably with particular attention being paid to the rear end?) Gerry needs to supply them with Snout’s dimensions and also some fur so that the prosthetic is a good colour match. Further calls are made as some hapless member of the Props Department is journeying all the way from Swansea to London to bring a mock-up of a pen that Snout is to occupy on the set. He needs to check that it is the right size for Snouty and his prosthetic partner. I juggle clients’ fittings and childcare and we carve out space in the day for Snout to be interred in the newly created pen.

I always knew that in accepting this filming, my personal life and work diary would be plunged into complete chaos. However on a positive note, Gerry has offered to pay me enough to cover the expense of taking two days off work, all the childcare that I will need to arrange in my absence and I still have £20.00 left over at the end of it all for coffee. Snowy is pleased that the remuneration is not leaving me out of pocket and hints at Snout starting to repay our joint account for the veterinary fees he incurred earlier in the year. Perhaps I shall have to stint on the coffee and pour every penny back into the Saving Snout Fund?

 

21. Food, Glorious Food – 14 October 2012

I’m often asked what pigs eat. The answer I give depends on the nature of the questioner. If it’s an aggravating, small boy who is trying to take Snout’s eye out with a stick, I answer, “You”. This normally stalls them just long enough for me to continue, “Pigs eat human flesh. Just look at how the Mafia dispose of their enemies: they bump them off and then feed the bodies to the pigs”. Result: aggravating, small boy disappears at speed. But the sensible and boring answer is grass, fruit and veg and pignuts.

Snout and Crackling have two meals a day plus foraging in the park if a walk is on the agenda. If a walk is not an option because of time constraints, we let them roam around the whole garden and it is only then that one can see the vagaries of a pig’s appetite.

In our enthusiasm to cultivate a garden full of fruits and flowers, we spent several happy hours last autumn in Chessington Garden Centre choosing bulbs, perennials and packets of seeds. I helped the children plant carrots, dahlias, gladioli and all sorts in a special flowerbed that we had designed to be pig proof. It had trellis and barbed wire around three sides and a sturdy brick wall on the fourth. The bulbs were buried, the seeds sewn and the whole flowerbed was fed with our own brilliant home brew of pig manure. And what joy it gave us as the months passed, to see the sprouting and flowering of all these different plants.

In the interim, Snowy went off to B & Q and bought a plum tree, a pear tree and several azaleas that promised to bring colour and excitement to the long bed on the right of our garden. But as soon as the azaleas were planted, Snout leapt straight over the brick wall that was guarding them and ate them all: flowers first and then the whole plant. Snippety-snippety, snap! We consoled ourselves with the fact that at least he had left the fruit trees standing. However, about a week later, when trying to herd Snout back into his pen, we discovered that the young plum tree was no more and there was just a label, poking out of my pig’s mouth, saying “B & Q. Plum Tree. £20.00”.

So instead of a heady array of azaleas and fruit trees, we now have a bit of box hedge that is ignored by both Snout and Crackling and a buddleia or two that they sniff in a desultory way before foraging in the earth for berries and other excitements. The main thing is that the children’s flowerbed is safe. The barbed wire, trellis and brick wall has done the trick. We have eaten Sam’s carrots, marveled at Resa’s pink and orange dahlias and Emily’s flowers have adorned our kitchen table in a makeshift vase. Until recently.

Snout and Crackling are now both fifteen months old and the former has good, long legs and a spring in his step that would rival a wallaby. What his brother lacks in terms of agility, he makes up for in greed, which spurs him on to perform outrageous feats. And both my wretched pigs have, in the last three weeks, hoisted their trotters up onto the brick wall of the children’s flowerbed and before I have had time to launch myself out of the kitchen to grab them by the ears, have bundled into the our last remaining floral oasis.
I was so furious the first time this happened, that I grabbed Snout by one ear and pulled hard. Nothing happened at all. So I grabbed him by both ears and swearing like a navvy, leant backwards with all my strength. As I was doing this, I suddenly remembered a self-defence class that I had attended when I was about eleven years old, in which the instructor suggested that a good way to stop someone from assaulting you was to grab his ear and yank it off his head. Apparently ears are easy to separate from the head. The skin is thin. Having hauled the ear away from the attacker’s scalp, you were then meant to throw it into a bush; the idea being that the man would be too busy foraging in the undergrowth for his ear to continue attacking you.

I have never had to employ this particular technique in defence of anything or anyone until this September, whereupon I applied it with gusto. But mid ear-yank, I suddenly thought that the vet’s bills incurred in re-attaching my pigs’ ears to their bodies would surely far outweigh the cost of re-visiting Chessington Garden Centre. Releasing their ears, I grabbed a pig board and shoved and pushed and yelled and swore until they were ousted.

As a result of this final trespass, all remaining greenery is dead or dying. Snowy has been told to buy more barbed wire and design protective fencing to rival HMP Wormwood Scrubs and the children and I shall shortly be spending another day buying plants to welcome in 2013.

We have also had to address the fencing that divides one side of the pigs’ area from the other. Snout and Crackling are rotated from side to side every six weeks or so, which allows the ground to recover and the grass to grow. But throughout September, our neighbour’s plum tree has been dropping quantities of ripe fruit onto the recovering side. The pig wire fencing that divides the two areas is too tall even for Snout to jump over but Crackling is a devious pig and he has quickly worked out how to go under the fencing rather than over. With his belly squished against the ground, Crackling hoists the pig wire up off the earth with his nose and then using all four trotters as paddles, performs a porcine military creep, dragging himself under the fence. Once on the other side, he shakes himself vigourously and then grazes on all the ripe and rotting plums.

Snowy and I gaze out of the kitchen window and despair at Crackling, who late into the evening, when it is dark and quiet, is still on the wrong side of the fence and is still eating. Snowy returns him to the right side but before he has had time to remove his wellies, Crackling is dragging his body back under the wire. Snout, unable to mimic his brother’s army manoeuvre, is furious. Whilst Crackling gorges, Snout can do nothing but stand and stare. However, order was restored last week, when our builder came and installed a much sturdier fence to divide the two sides, with the result that Crackling is no longer able to creep under and over-eat.

 

20. Premature balding and man flu – 16 August 2012

Snout and Crackling are hirsute creatures.  Their fur is long and lustrous and it gleams in the sunlight.  Judith Whiteley, the breeder who sold me Snout and Crackling remarked that they looked very well brushed, when she saw a photo of them.  I don’t manage to groom them every day but their fur is brushed a lot more than my elder daughter’s hair.

So I was anxious the other day, when I stroked Snout and as my hand drew along his spine, all his fur came with it.   I stared at my hand in disbelief and then stroked Snout’s flank.  And the same thing happened.  Large clumps of fur floated off him and drifted onto the ground.  Now, of course, most animals molt come the hot weather.  I have lived with a molting dog for fourteen years, who does not shed fur cyclically but rather constantly.  There are white furs at the bottom of my underwear drawer, white furs on the hemline of my best evening dress, white furs deep in the pockets of my bike jacket.  Friends, who met Woozle on one occasion a decade ago, find white furs lingering on the dashboard of their car or at the bottom of a shopping bag.  It gets everywhere.

However, Snout and Crackling’s fur has hitherto stayed firmly attached to their bodies.  And then suddenly in the space of a few hours, my ginger pig was developing great patches of baldness before my eyes.  He was starting to look like a monk with a tonsure.  And it’s not a good look for a handsome pig.  I grabbed the phone and dialed the vet.  He couldn’t be molting, I told the vet I spoke to at Westpoint, there was enough fur coming off him to stuff a cushion.  The poor vet I spoke to had clearly been “on call” all night, was sleep-deprived and was now dealing with a woman on the verge of hysteria about her balding pig.  She was fantastically polite and recommended that one of the Westpoint team come to visit Snout the following morning.

I was up at dawn and while the pigs ate their breakfast, I pored over Snouty, examining his hair.  Perhaps I had been a bit hasty in my belief that he was going bald?  But no!  Enough hair was coming off him to stuff two cushions now, not just one.  I nearly hugged the tall, handsome Peter, as he arrived on my front door step and having offered him a cursory glass of water, rushed him through the house to the pigs.  Poor man, he barely had time to put on a pair of rubber gloves before Snout was being thrust in front of him and I was yanking at what little fur was left on my pig.  Peter and Snout met when Snouty was at the Royal Veterinary College and seemed mutually pleased to see one another once more.  After a careful inspection, Peter said that there was really nothing to be worried about:  Snout might be changing hormonally and it could be that he was going to be bald from now on.  I was aghast.  I mean, Snout is young; he couldn’t be going bald.  But some men do become prematurely bald, said Peter, stroking his smooth scalp as it shone in the morning sun.

So, I now have an erstwhile hairy ginger pig who has very short bristles all over him.  What is more, the bottom half of Snout’s fur is turning white.  He looks as though he has lowered himself into a pool of cream:  his trotters and belly are white and then the tidemark stops and he becomes ginger.  Snout and Crackling’s father, Shaun is white, so maybe he’s becoming like his dad?  Their mother, Mandy, is black.  I wonder if at some point Crackle is going to follow suit and become black?  Anyway, I thanked Peter profusely for coming to allay my fears and went to work.

Forty-eight hours later and I was on the phone to Westpoint once more.  I had gone into the garden early in the morning with the pigs’ breakfast and Crackling had been slow to come out of the ark.   This constituted an emergency.  Crackling is the greediest pig ever.  He moves at the speed of light as soon as he hears the key turn in the back door and is always propping up the fence with his front trotters, snout lifted in the air, shouting for food.  He did eat that morning but there was a distinct lack of vigour.  And as I watched him, his stomach went into spasm and he lay down and breathed heavily.  Fearful that he had developed the same problem as Snout in February, I prayed for him to pee.   This he did, without effort and deposited a large amount of dung onto the ground for good measure.  I took his temperature.  The thermometer told me that he was dead.  I took his temperature again.  It was low.  I rang Peter.

When Peter arrived, Crackling was clearly unhappy.  His nose had gone very pale and he was distressed.  Had he eaten anything different, Peter asked?  No, I said, although I had given him a peach stone, which he had cracked with gusto.  This was a bad idea, as perhaps it had hurt his stomach.  Or perhaps, Crackling had a small bleed internally?  The thought of this horrified me but I took a deep breath and asked sensible questions in a level voice.  An internal bleed means the animal is put down, no quarter given.  However it was agreed that we would give Crackle a painkiller and some antibiotics and that if he had not improved within twenty-four hours, I would take him to the Royal Veterinary College.

I took the rest of the day off work and remained with my pigs.  That evening, having put the baby to bed, I stayed up all night, checking on Crackling every two hours.  He was still breathing in a staggered fashion but was happy to be stroked.  Come the morning, he came out of his ark to eat, albeit slowly.  Text messages flew backwards and forwards between Peter and me.  I spoke to Ami as well and she agreed that she would speak to the RVC and arrange for Crackling to be admitted.  I had to go into work and so left Crackling’s welfare in Snowy’s capable hands.  As soon as I arrived at work, Snowy rang me to say that he felt there was a slight improvement.  I was skeptical and thought that my kind husband was just trying to buoy me up.  But no:  he emailed me through a quick video clip, which showed Crackling crunching on an apple and moving around in a much more lively fashion.

From that point on, Crackling made a speedy recovery and I was glad to be able to ring Ami and tell her that he did not need to be admitted to the RVC after all.  He was perky when I returned home and the following morning, all memory of his lying on the ground, waving his trotters in a feeble way, was banished.  Crackling was back on form:  up on his hind legs and shouting for food.

We still don’t know what got him.  Perhaps he did eat something that didn’t agree with him?  Perhaps it was a case of man flu?

This morning when I went out to see both pigs, I noticed Crackling’s fur was coming off him in droves.  Perhaps he too, is experiencing premature baldness?  No matter, he is still a most handsome pig.

19. All Creatures Great and Small – 15 August 2012

So finally I’ve had a week off work.  Rather than spending half my holiday in airport queues, I’ve decided to stay put and enjoy wandering around in the sun with my pigs.  Going out in the middle of the day with Snout and Crackling we meet all sorts of new people and pets.

Yesterday I had a chance encounter with Robert in Wendell Park.  Robert is the owner of Bruce, a seven-month old scorpion who, perhaps slightly alarmingly, is set to grow to 19 inches once he reaches maturity.  I wasn’t sure if Robert had chosen his pet’s name as a comical conjoint to his or not.  However I was interested that while Robert is happy for his scorpion to lark about on his hand, he is terrified of the smallest of spiders.  This particular breed of scorpion is not poisonous, Robert assured me, unless you suffer from anaphylactic shock when stung by a bee.  If you do, then Bruce the Scorpion will finish you off as well.  If you don’t then should Bruce prang you with his pincers you will feel dizzy for about five minutes and then recover.

I then met a delightful journalist called Kate Morris, who was out walking with her two children.  Kate writes for The Times and is also a published author but better still is the name of her blog: “Writing and Moaning”.  What a great name for a blog!   We fell to chatting about animals and I outlined my hopes for setting up and running a working farm in West London.

Call it a mid-life crisis, but I’ve been thinking very seriously about a change of job.  I have run my business as a designer and maker of haute couture womenswear for the best part of two decades and whilst I’m not about to give it up completely, I do hanker for something a bit different.  I had my “Eureka” moment in early June.  I enjoy running a business and I feel very peaceful and fulfilled when I’m around animals, of practically any description.  This knowledge coupled with an interest in animal welfare and food made me suddenly think of opening and running an urban farm in West London.

There are about fifteen urban farms in the capital but most of them are situated to the East.  Apart from Battersea Park Zoo, which is a zoo, not a farm and is also unique because it is privately owned and managed, there is a farm in Merton, one in Feltham and a farm for the disabled near Heathrow.  So for all those inhabitants of the areas between Feltham to the West, Merton to the South, Kentish Town to the North and Vauxhall to the East (that would be approximately 170,000 in Hammersmith and Fulham and 317,000 in Ealing before we look at the 170,00 in Kensington and Chelsea or the 287,000 in Wandsworth) there is no immediate access to a farm.

The reactions to my idea to set up and run a West London Farm have been mixed, a bit like the reactions to my pigs.  Some are hugely positive; others a bit confused.  And then there are those who just ask “why?”  Well, the answer is this:

Animals are a great source of comfort to man.  Not only do they provide us with food but they also offer companionship and support.  Studies conducted by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens have shown what a positive effect working on a farm can have for children and adults from all backgrounds, particularly those who find it hard to become assimilated into mainstream society.   In terms of the comfort animals can offer, you only need to look at Japanese companies bringing dogs into offices to calm the frayed nerves of their employees to see how beneficial the presence of an animal is to human beings.

I also think that if we are going to eat animals, then it is important to recognise where our food comes from.  I was struck by a conversation that I had with an eight-year old boy in Wendell Park who assured me with some asperity that “pigs lay eggs”.  Try as I might, I could not convince him otherwise.  And he is not alone.  The number of children that I have spoken to who don’t realise where their food comes from or who have never thought about it at all, is extraordinary.  This has made me a bit unhinged and I now make my two-year old recite, “pigs make ham, chickens lay eggs, cows give milk” as a slightly demented mantra whenever we’re preparing meals together.

The aim of the farm is to make it as interactive as possible so that children and adults can touch and feed animals as well as spend time quietly observing them.  I rather hope that I shall be able to organize for children to learn how to remove an egg from under a hen and take their prize to the kitchen, watch it being cooked and eat it then and there.  I have been looking at Dexter cattle, which are a small breed of cow and studying different types of sheep and goats.  Of course there will be pigs and the hope will be to breed them and send some for slaughter so that we can sell our own meat.  My business plan is underway and emails fly backwards and forwards between me and the Hammersmith and Fulham Councillors responsible for community projects.

But in the meantime, I am preparing myself to combine my two loves, designing and animals, by answering a plea from Horseworld in Bristol.  Yesterday morning, whilst listening to the news, I heard that Gracie May, a seven-foot horse who weighs in at just over one ton is in need of a pair of bespoke pyjamas.  Gracie May suffers from an acute skin condition and is unable to wear a normal horse blanket and the manager of the yard at Horseworld is desperately in need of some help to alleviate this horse’s discomfort.  I last made a pair of pyjamas for a lady in Chelsea.  She seemed quite pleased and said they had improved her sleeping hours no end.  I can’t see why I can’t apply all the rules I have for making flat patterns for female humans to a female horse?  True, there are more legs than I am used to, but I’m sure I’ll manage.  Having arranged a visit to Gracie May, I rang my Head of Production at work and told her to schedule this project into the following weekly timetable.  My announcement was greeted with commendable sang-froid by my team and next week, Gracie May’s measurements will be listed alongside all the rest of our Current Clients.

 

18. The Hippopotamus Song – 5 August 2012

When I was little, I went to a preparatory school, which as well as preparing its pupils for the intellectual rigours ahead of them, also encouraged a love of singing.  From the ages of 4-7, every pupil in our class learnt a song with a good boisterous chorus that everybody could join in with.  Every now and then, our exhausted form teacher would turn from teaching us to read and write and choose somebody to sing “their” song for a moment’s respite.

Even now, thirty years on, I still identify certain songs with my classmates of that era:  Charlotte Turquet sang “I’ll take the high road, if you take the low road”,  Rosalind Cullis “My old man said follow the van” and Rowena Bruce, “I’m ‘Enry the Eighth, I am, I am”.  My song was “The Hippopotamus Song” by Flanders and Swann and for anyone who is unfamiliar with the chorus, it goes:

“Mud, mud, glorious mud

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow

And there let us wallow in glorious mud”

I sang it then as a four year old and I sing it constantly as the adult owner of two pigs.  The summer of 2012 has not been kind and mud has been a constant feature in my life and that of Snout and Crackling.  The green grass has been churned into a muddy quagmire as it has rained for days on end.  The paving stones at the bottom end of the sty are caked in filth and the pigs’ trotters are so black it looks as though they are wearing boots at all time. And hard as I try to stop it, the maxim is true:  mud sticks.  Whatever I wear when I go into the garden always comes back with large black splodges all over it.  My wellington boots are frequently left in the mud, sucked off my feet by the ooze.  Our back door mat is filthy and vigorously brushed feet still manage to tread mud into the stair carpet.  There are outlines of muddy feet in the bath and even though I apply Mr Muscle bathroom cleaner in a slightly feverish way, streaks of muck are a constant on all tiled surfaces.

At least I can have a shower first thing in the morning after I have fed Snout and Crackling and appear at work without a trace of mud.  But it’s in the evening, when I reappear in the garden and feed my piggies that my clothes get caught up in the muddy web that encases our house.  Of course, I could change out of my workwear the instant I step through the front door, but with their keen sense of hearing the pigs hear my return and start to shout.  My neighbours are so generous in their acceptance of my pigs that I don’t want to upset the quiet of our road with exuberant snorting and so I rush outside, supper in hand, as soon as I get in.  There they are, dancing at the front of their area, back legs deep in the swamp, front legs up on the wooden rails.  And into a sort of No-Man’s Land bog I go, wearing my little French Sole slip-on shoes and my pretty Whistles dress.  Mud seeps into the fabric of my shoes and black noses rub against my erstwhile clean dress.  I put food down, scratch Snout and Crackling behind the ears and watch as my nails become filthy.  I hug them round their hairy necks and in so doing, get mud all across my chest.  I carry their water into their pen in a bucket, slopping it down my front as I wobble on the jelly-like surface and as I wipe a stray strand of hair out of my eyes, the mud streaks down my face.  By the time I’ve finished feeding and loving Snout and Crackle, I look like a contestant in “Total Wipeout”.

Back indoors, I strip off in the kitchen and hurl my clothes into the washing machine, propping my shoes up against the wall to try to dry them.  But despite these precautions, evidence of my life as a pig farmer encroaches onto my life as an haute couture dress designer.  At work, I will suddenly spy a muddy stain on the hem of my trousers that has not come out in the wash.  I stand, desperately trying to clean my nails for the umpteenth time, while my clients are in the changing room putting on a half made garment.  There are wisps of straw that travel with me from home to the shop and then appear on the sofa or by the kettle.

Snout and Crackling meanwhile, manage to keep themselves remarkably clean, given the hideous conditions in which they are living.  When we go to the park (in the pouring rain), only their trotters are dirty.   People remark on what a good job I do keeping them clean.  As if!  I can’t even keep myself clean.  I tell them that my pigs self-clean and they look at me dubiously, but it’s true.

But now finally, the rain has abated, Snout and Crackling have been moved into a different area of the garden, which is stuffed full of thick, lush grass (the only benefit of it raining every day for about six weeks) and the mud is turning to dust and being trodden deep into the carpet fibres all over the house.

As it grows hotter, I am forced to actively make a muddy wallow for the pigs, in order for them to cool off in the heat.  Whilst pigs don’t embrace mud like most people think, they use it as sunscreen when it gets hot.  Unable to sweat, pigs have to coat themselves in mud so as to avoid getting sunburnt.  So buckets of water are poured into a large hole to create a black hollow so that they can wallow like the excellent hippopotamus.  This is Snout’s favourite resting place in the heat and he lies with his nostrils just above the water but with his stomach and feet submerged.  I rub Soltan, factor 30, into his back and ears and my pig is now developing a deep St Tropez tan as he sunbathes in W12.  Crackling prefers lying full-length in the imported pig paddling pool, resting his furry head on the inflatable edges and tolerating the numerous frogs, which jump in and out of his watery space.

I shall finish off now, but just before signing off, I am attaching a quick video clip, which shows you a couple of tricks that I have been teaching my piggies.  Ami, Snout’s vet at the RVC was impressed when I sent her this clip.  She only pigs she had ever seen perform circles were neurologically disturbed ones.  Snout and Crackle are learning to whirl like dervishes and have become adept at sitting.  My next trick is to teach them leap over small jumps.  Perhaps I shall be able to enter them for Porcine Eventing in the 2016 Olympics?

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