Memoirs of a pig farmer's daughter

'In those days when pigs went to market, they got grades like GCSEs'

When my stepfather retired from the Bombay Burmah Trading Company in Rangoon he bought a tract of woodland in Hampshire and became a successful pig-farmer. Sometimes, listening to the ongoing problems of pig-farmers on the news (they've just lost a legal battle over BSE compensation), I feel a powerful urge to write a book called perhaps Memoirs of a Pig-Farmer's Daughter. Part Siegfried Sassoon, part Laurie Lee, it will be universally acclaimed for its elegiac charm and pronounced a modern classic. Maybe Pig Paradise Lost is a better title.

When my stepfather retired from the Bombay Burmah Trading Company in Rangoon he bought a tract of woodland in Hampshire and became a successful pig-farmer. Sometimes, listening to the ongoing problems of pig-farmers on the news (they've just lost a legal battle over BSE compensation), I feel a powerful urge to write a book called perhaps Memoirs of a Pig-Farmer's Daughter. Part Siegfried Sassoon, part Laurie Lee, it will be universally acclaimed for its elegiac charm and pronounced a modern classic. Maybe Pig Paradise Lost is a better title.

Growing up on a pig farm in the early Sixties was paradise. My stepfather knew more about elephants than pigs, having spent 25 years logging timber in the teak forests of upper Burma. He spoke fluent Burmese to the natives - the oozies, or elephant men, the bearers, the loggers, his cook and his butler, who laid out his dinner jacket in his tent every night. "David always dressed for dinner," said my mother, who I suppose you could also describe as a native, though I doubt she'd thank you for it.

It wasn't a pig farm when we bought it, and the house certainly wasn't a farmhouse. It was the Earl of Warwick's hunting lodge, with Adams fireplaces and tapestry wall hangings. It might be better, suggested my stepfather - a mild man - to buy a working farm. But my mother, whose own stepfather had been a garlic- and lacquer-broker in Taung-gyi, was dazzled by the provenance of North Lodge. We cleared the trees, put up fences and bought three saddleback sows to whom my mother immediately gave Burmese names - Ma Nya, Miss Black, Ma Shweh, Miss Gold, Ma Chi, Miss Love. Joe the pig man, who was the local taxi driver until my mother charmed him away from the rank, called them Peggy, Ivy and Pearl after his sisters.

A month before the sows furrowed, my parents went on a fact-finding mission to Denmark. They had been given the name of a producer with a pig farm the size of Gatwick. Runting piglets went in at one end, and packets of thin-sliced streaky bacon came out the other. We all toured the farm and afterwards had lunch in a farmhouse surrounded by lakes. "How many pigs do you have?" asked Mr Olsen. "Three," said my stepfather. "Three hundred? Three thousand?" said Mr Olsen. "No, just three," said my stepfather. "Do your lakes freeze in winter?" said my mother to fill the conversational hiatus. "No," said Mrs Olsen, "because always in winter we are wearing the wool stocking."

In those days, when pigs went to market they got grades like GCSEs for leanness, length, texture etc. Straight As, my stepfather would say, opening the envelope, and we would take it in turns to scratch Ma Shweh's rough black back with a twig and say how good she was for producing such clever children. The farm grew. We had hens, ducks, a few Galloway cattle and some sheep, but it was the pigs I liked. I would shake the bucket of pignuts and wait for the piglets to come racing out of their hut, poking their snouts impatiently into my boots. After watching the vet a couple of times, my mother said it would save money if she castrated them. My job was to lure Ma Nya away with a bucket of nuts while she gripped each squealing piglet between her knees and spliced their nuts with a razor. It may not have been the career for which the Baptist Mission School in Moulmein had groomed her, but she did it well.

Sometimes old Rangoon hands would visit us, jolly, red-faced men with names like Bagshaw and Thrupp, who said by God they wished they had smallholdings, too. It looked like a dashed good life. "Thruppy could probably manage," said my stepfather afterwards, "but not Bagshaw. He's never been quite the same since he got blackwater fever in Maymyo."

Pig Paradise lasted less than 10 years. The rules changed, prices fell, Joe went back to his taxi and we sold the farm. My mother wept; so did I and still do when I think about it. No time for tears - I've got a book to write.

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