BigPig,Lit­tlePig — not a self-cen­tered mem­oir

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By FRANCES WIL­SON

Frances Wil­son re­views Big Pig, Lit­tle Pig by Jacque­line Yal­lop.

Twelve years ago, Jacque­line Yal­lop and her hus­band, Ed, both writers, moved from Sh­effield to a farm­house in Mas de Maury in the depart­ment of Avey­ron, south-west France.

Their new lo­ca­tion is de­scribed as a place of “iso­la­tion”, “in­cre­men­tal loss”, and “un­ro­man­tic hard­ship”. Their neigh­bours are paysans: peo­ple of the land. Af­ter much dis­cus­sion the cou­ple de­cide to pur­chase two pigs and raise them for meat.

It is a sen­si­ble, un­emo­tional de­ci­sion: there was a time when ev­ery small­hold­ing had a pig, and pigs will con­nect the English new­com­ers to the tra­di­tions of their com­mu­nity. Killing a pig, they re­alise, is “an act of be­long­ing”. It is also an in­vest­ment: Jacque­line and Ed will feed the pigs for 12 months, af­ter which the pigs will feed Jacque­line and Ed.

En­ter Big Pig and Lit­tle Pig (not be­ing pets, their names sim­ply tell them apart), 12-week-old wean­ers from an an­cient breed called gas­con noir. They are charm­ing and in­tel­li­gent with fluffy fringes, knob­bly knees and bristly black manes. Big Pig seems wise, de­pend­able and in­tro­vert- ed, while Lit­tle Pig (who is only marginally smaller) is skit­tish, a tad self­ish per­haps, and an ex­tro­vert.

Their char­ac­ters come as a sur­prise to Yal­lop, but are her ob­ser­va­tions, she won­ders, ca­sual an­thro­po­mor­phism? Yal­lop loves watch­ing Big Pig and Lit­tle Pig snuf­fling and shuf­fling about, their tails twirling and whirling; she loves the cheer of their hefty pig-pres­ence and daily busy­ness. She brings a plas­tic chair into their shel­ter so that she can spend time with the swine, watch­ing them fuss over the com­fort of their nest and in­dulge, as she puts it, “their in­ces­sant cu­rios­ity for what lies just be­low the next layer of sticky soil”.

The bulk of this qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing book is taken up with pig-watch­ing. Yal­lop writes with great ten­der­ness about the hogs as house­keep­ers and gour­mands; their dis­like of cour­gettes, the warmth with which they be­friend the fam­ily dog. She thinks deeply about the life she and Ed share with the pigs and the life they share with the paysans, who would be baf­fled by an­i­mal sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

Dur­ing a long, dry sum­mer, the pigs “laugh with glee” in the hosepipe shower, and bound af­ter the pears that Yal­lop rolls down the hill. They are putting on sev­eral ki­los a week — Big Pig reaches 375lb — and fast out­grow­ing their shel­ter, so they move to a larger ex­panse of wooded land, a deluxe en­clo­sure built on acorns and truf­fles. Be­ing too heavy to heave into a truck, Big Pig and Lit­tle Pig walk to their new home, led by Jacque­line and Ed. It’s an ambling, ro­man­tic stroll, the pigs sashay­ing down the lane, snack­ing on hawthorn and black­thorn. Their pig-walk, Yal­lop re­calls, was the “strangest” and “most beau­ti­ful thing” that she and Ed had done in their mar­ried life.

In­ter­spersed with Yal­lop’s de­scrip­tions of Big Pig and Lit­tle Pig are her re­sponses to the pigs she is read­ing about. She re­turns to the slaugh­ter scenes in Lark Rise to Can­dle­ford (“the killing was … as sav­age as any­thing to be seen”), and Jude the Ob­scure (“the dy­ing an­i­mal’s cry as­sumed its third and fi­nal tone, the shriek of agony”). And she reads about the ad­ven­tures of an 18th-cen­tury celebrity show-hog known as the Learned Pig, who was owned first by an Ir­ish im­pre­sario called Sa­muel Bis­set and then by John Ni­chol­son. Sport­ing a red waist­coat, the Learned Pig was able to tell the time, guess the age of mem­bers of the au­di­ence, and, us­ing a pack of al­pha­bet cards, cor­rectly spell out their names. The sen­sa­tion of the age, the Learned Pig gripped the imag­i­na­tions of Sa­muel John­son, William Blake, and Robert Southey. He even gets a men­tion in Wordsworth’s long poem The Pre­lude.

Yal­lop asks sim­ple ques­tions which have com­plex an­swers. What do pigs mean to us? Why do we en­dow them with hu­man qual­i­ties, and also present them as the low­est of the low: filthy, smelly, sloth­ful beasts? And, most im­por­tantly, how many peo­ple th­ese days know what it means to kill a pig?

The nar­ra­tive’s roller-coaster ride presses for­ward its own ques­tions. Will Jacque­line and Ed change their minds? Will the pigs, af­ter all, be­come pets? The blurb calls it a “life-af­firm­ing mem­oir” and so we wait for a last-minute re­prieve.

But Big Pig, Lit­tle Pig is not lifeaf­firm­ing, it’s death-af­firm­ing. For life-af­firm­ing, watch Babe. Yal­lop’s tale is a love story, a thriller, a med­i­ta­tion on meat eat­ing, on farm­ing an­i­mals, on the re­la­tions be­tween man and beast. Most im­por­tantly, it puts a stun-gun to the genre of self-lov­ing, soft-cen­tred mem­oirs in which an English­man de­scribes his idyl­lic year in the South of France.

Big Pig, Lit­tle Pig by Jacque­line Yal­lop is pub­lished by Pen­guin.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Killing a pig, Jacque­line Yal­lop and her hus­band Ed re­alise, is “an act of be­long­ing”.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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