Piggery Pokery

A winter’s tale that won’t put you off your dinner. Much.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th December 2014.

You don’t want me to spoil your Christmas dinner with articles about injustice and exploitation. So during the festive season I tell winter’s tales instead, strange, true but without political intent.

I had a gap year after school. I wanted to travel, but I had no money, so I found a job on the local pig farm. There were 1400 pigs, and there was much about the business that dismayed me. Pushing shit with a squeegee all day long, knowing that as soon as I left a pen it would start to fill up again, is not a formula for job satisfaction. I felt like a jailer. I hated the concrete pens, the pigs’ repetitive behaviour, the tail biting, the listless aggression. But the farm manager helped to make it bearable.

Malcolm (I have changed the names) was, in a way, brilliant. He instilled a sense of loyalty to the enterprise that I would not have imagined possible. And he understood the need to keep his three labourers entertained.

When we arrived for work he would instruct us to spend the morning composing a song or a poem, or inventing a joke or a charade. Our efforts were dire, but it didn’t matter. Instead of dwelling on the drudgery, I concentrated on that day’s assignment. I would find myself at the end of a row of pens as if by magic. But what really kept us on our toes, and made me almost look forward to the day, were his practical jokes. He had great authority and an uncannily straight face, so we could never be sure whether we were following a legitimate instruction or being spectacularly gulled.

There was a cruel edge to his humour, but we were young and coarse and didn’t mind at all. He told one of the labourers, Dave, that his brother was coming to visit the farm. “He’s deaf and dumb but there’s nothing to worry about. When you meet him, just smile and wave, and you’ll put him at ease.” Malcolm then phoned his brother to warn him that one of the farmhands, Dave, was deaf and dumb. “But don’t worry. When you meet him, just smile and wave.” When his brother arrived, Dave was sitting by himself eating his lunch. With extravagant mimes, Malcolm introduced them. “Right, I’ll let you get on with it.” He came back half an hour later: they were still waving and smiling at each other.

A couple of weeks into the job, disaster struck. This was the winter of 1981/82, the hardest for almost 20 years. One night, the local weather station recorded -19C. I was tobogganing with friends in the village, and we saw something astonishing in the sky: great columns of white light, shifting and shimmering, breaking and floating away, rising from behind the hills to the zenith. We were mystified. Searchlights? Aliens? An optical illusion? Fifteen years later, researching an unrelated subject, I read that the Northern Lights had been seen that night in Oxfordshire.

The following morning I arrived at work to discover that the automatic feeding system had frozen. The pigs had to be fed by hand. Each required one bucket of solids and two of liquids. For the next fortnight, we started at seven in the morning and finished at seven at night, running with buckets all day. Twice I fell asleep in the shower when I got home. At last the freeze ended, and the feeding system began to work. We surveyed the wreckage. In some places the shit was knee deep, and studded with dead pigs.

Clearing up was nasty but straightforward, until we came to the huge sows that had frozen to death in the farrowing sheds. They had swollen like barrage balloons, almost filling their houses, blocking the doorways. We stood outside the first shed, scratching our chins. One hind leg, vast and greenish, protruded through the door. “Right,” said Malcolm, “volunteers? Ah, George. Thank you.”

“Er, no thanks”, I said. “But I distinctly heard you state ‘I put myself forward for Queen and country’. Dave? Tracey?” The others nodded. “Witnessed and proved.” Malcolm turned to me. “It is a fine thing you have done, and your selfless action will not be forgotten.” “All right”, I said. “I need a stick, a knife and some string. I’ll make a spear.”

If there was a glint in Malcolm’s eye, I didn’t see it. “No, you can’t do it like that. This is a precise job. There’s only one place in which you can deflate a pig. Wait there.”

He returned with a scalpel blade an inch long. He explained that there was a sweet spot in the body cavity behind the pig’s armpit. I merely had to work the blade down until I found it, whereupon the gas would be released, and we could pull the pig out.

There was a gap of about a foot between the inflated pig and the roof of the shed. I eased myself into it, lying on the pig’s flank. It wobbled beneath me like a waterbed. The smell was more than a smell. It was an assault on the brain, that colonised my emotions and filled me with an overwhelming urge to flee.

But I was a macho little git and I would not back down. I began to cut into the skin. The flesh rolled away like blancmange, soft and gassy with putrefaction. I kept cutting until half my forearm was buried. The clammy wound clung to me. It felt as if it were sucking me down. As I dug deeper, my face edged closer to the opening. I could no longer smell anything. Suddenly I twigged. He’d had me. My name would resound through the pubs of the county for years to come. Just at that moment, I hit the cavity.

A geyser of liquefied innards exploded from the pig. As the sow deflated, I had to press my hand against the back of the shed to prevent myself from slumping into the body cavity. I backed out and stood up, entirely plastered with green and yellow slime. “Good job,” said Malcolm. The other two were doubled over, grunting like pigs. “You bastards.” But Malcolm didn’t even smile. “Right,” I said, “who wants a hug?”

Malcolm backed the tractor up and we attached a chain to the protruding leg. The tractor took off slowly and the pig began to shift. There was a long, lavish slurp, as the hindquarter tore from the rest of the corpse. “Hmm,” said Malcolm. “Looks like a digging job. Volunteers? Ah, George, good man.”

There you see. I haven’t put you off your dinner at all.