I was walking in our village with my grandson when I first spotted him. He was behind an iron gate on a scrubby plot of land attached to the local pub. A large animal, snout in the mud, intent on his own affairs. There were scraps of potatoes and cabbage littering the ground that he’d clearly disdained. Thomas was excited and fascinated. When we returned, we brought some bruised apples, which the pig ate with obvious relish. Then his owner appeared and we found out his name. That political irony was compounded by a tickle to the belly that sent Winston rolling over with delight. Or was it merely the need to please us? If so, it was a bravura performance.
Pigs are our close genetic relatives and the history of their domestication and exploitation reaches back through many cultures, from Fiji to Yorkshire. Their utility to the human diet is legendary. I remembered Ratko Mladic boasting about his soldiers feasting on pigs that had eaten slaughtered Bosnian civilians; then the mechanics of the abattoir; then the mafia’s waste disposal system. The dark side developed its own peculiar radiance. A poem comes on with its own faint but purposeful aura, foraging in the mind. The day I took Winston some pears and he came running at the sound of my voice, I knew he was going to become a poem as surely as he’d become bacon.
But anthropomorphism is almost inevitable when writing about pigs. They seem so nearly human: bumptious, comically greedy, tragically trusting. There is no shortage of pigs in literature but, weirdly, it wasn’t until the poem was published that I remembered Ted Hughes’s poem ‘View of a Pig’. I’d heard it booming from the radio in his unmistakeable Yorkshire accent when I was a teenager – bringing the epiphany that poetry and my own way of speaking could be mutually constitutive. That submerged memory must have been at work the whole time I was.
Winston disappeared halfway through the first drafts of the poem. I’m hoping Thomas will have forgotten about him the next time he visits.