Tuesday, 7 December 2010

There's no place like home

The snow was belting in at a 45-degree angle, but nothing puts Alfie off his breakfast, so I duly obliged with a mixture of pig feed, barley, potatoes and turnips, adding an extra scoop to help keep him warm.

I've never seen snow stick on a pig before.

The Kims (the older Kim still hasn't gone for sausage and I'm kind of hoping nobody notices) harumphed and grumpfed at me and ploughed their way through the rapidly deepening snow to get their share.

Those three are the only pigs in the herd still outside and as long as their huts remain dry and warm that's where they'll stay.

I've been away in England for a while and, after disrupted flights and long hours spent in airports, it was great to be home, whatever the weather.

The weather perked up by lunchtime, allowing a short walk. . .

. . . to the Skelwick shop. . .


for cat food, pop and a natter with Wilma and Norman. Like I said, it's good to be home.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Dances with sheep

I'm no big sheep expert, but I could see something was up with the smallest one of the three who are currently on groundskeeping duty in our top field.

He was staying some distance from the other two, not moving around much and looking a bit sorry for himself. The pig rule - the one that says if a pig is keen on its rations and vocal in demanding said rations then everything is OK - doesn't exactly apply to sheep who don't seem to get enthusiastic about much at all, but it doesn't take a farming genius to work out when an animal is below par.

While dropping Sally off at the ferry, I met our neighbour Marcus who diagnosed cobalt deficiency - apparently it's common in our part of the island - and thrust a bottle of vitamin B12 into my hand with orders for an immediate injection.

Fair enough. I got home, fetched out a syringe, unwrapped a new needle and marched out to confront the sheep who was lying down, chewing half-heartedly. As I approached he got up with just enough urgency to avoid me reaching him.

The pair of us then got into the sort of elaborate routine more often seen on BBC on a Saturday evening. I've learned that being quiet and patient is the best way to deal with farm animals and, in any case, I wasn't about to started running around after a poorly sheep, least of all with a syringe and needle in my pocket.

After a couple of laps, we reached a stalemate. I tried pulling up some grass and offering it to him. It wouldn't fool a pig for a minute, but sheep joined the queue for brains rather late and he fell for it.

Injecting a pig of any size is a risky business. They get quite miffed about the whole subject of needles and it's recommended that you have at least two sturdy bodies and an old door or a gate to hold pig down/hide behind. So this operation was a doddle.

Grasping the sheep by the scruff of the neck I realised just how small he was. He put up little resistance as I quickly injected the stuff and trotted away.

Mission accomplished, I reported back to Marcus who said the next part of the treatment would be a cobalt "bullet". I don't know why I used inverted commas there because a bullet is exactly what it is with a kind of tube device to stick down laddo's throat and fire the thing in.

So the pair of us started up again across the field and back, the occasional motorist slowing down to work out what the hell I thought I was doing, and there was no way he was going to fall for the grass trick again. Eventually I had him cornered and with a move that was surprisingly quick for my size and age I got a hold of him, shoved the device into his mouth and pressed the button, holding his head up for a few moments to make sure the bullet had gone down.

I let go and he collapsed on the ground and couldn't or wouldn't get up.

"Bollocks, I've killed the sheep," I muttered, but he was very much alive, just not in the mood to go anywhere. He sat there for a while, chewing thoughtfully, and eventually got up and moved around a bit.

He perked up considerably, but this morning he was down in the dumps again, sheltering from the cold in the long grass in the far corner of the field.

I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Who said romance was dead?

Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

A couple of weeks ago it was feed-time on the what I like to think of as "the farm". The sun had sunk below the horizon, but there was another half-hour of light left as I trudged out with the bucket to feed the outdoor pigs.

Instead of going through the gate into the field, I climbed over the stile from the vegetable garden, thereby reaching Alfie's paddock first instead of Annie and Tina's. Obviously I put Alf's grub out first - why the hell not?

I'll tell you why not. Annie - a Tamworth and therefore livelier than the average pig - went spare in a way a student might on learning Countdown has been replaced by a Lib-Dem party political broadcast. She bust through the electric fence and, with Tina following in her wake, headed straight for the old fish box that doubles as Alf's trough.

Now Alf may be only seven months old, but he's a well-built lad, knows where everything goes and this was easily the most exciting thing that had happened to him all week. So, as Annie got stuck into his tea, Alf climbed aboard.

Fortunately, by the time the pig farmer had wheezed onto the scene, Alfie's first two attempts to hit the target had been just wide of the mark. There was nothing for it but to drop the shoulder and barge the lad off.

You'd have thought a 15-stone pig farmer thumping into the side of you just as you were about to do the honours would be off-putting. Not to our Alf, it seems. He rallied remarkably well and was lining up another go as, with the help of a plastic fence post prodding her backside and the incentive of the feed bucket in front of her nose, Annie was persuaded back into her paddock.

At that point Alfie turned his sights on the previously unnoticed Tina and learned an important life lesson. As he hoisted himself onto her back, she complained loudly, snapped at him and set off briskly for the other side of the paddock.

Pretty much the reaction you'd expect if you tried it on before the coffee and mints had been served.

Alfie hurried off in pursuit. Tina started running, Alfie following with the pig farmer - doing his best to put dodgy knees, heart and blood pressure issues out of his mind - trailing in the bronze medal position.

With a little diagonal running, I hoped to head off Tina and divert her back into the paddock where Annie was still scoffing away and then hold Amorous Alf at bay while reinstating the electric fence - how hard could that be?

Ten minutes later all that was missing was the Benny Hill music as I gasped for air, Tina kept up an impressive pace and Alfie showed signs of flagging. Making one last desperate attempt, I cut across the paddock, got down as low as is possible for a 49-year-old crock and shoved Tina back in with Annie, hurriedly reconnecting the fence, turning round and tripping over a panting and slobbering Alf to land in what I hoped on descent was mud.

It wasn't.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Dig this

A year or so ago one of the teams of archaeologists who swarm around Orkney during the summer uncovered something pretty special at the dig near Westray's golf course*.

A small - and I mean REALLY small, it's about three inches at most - figurine was found, clearly marked as a female. . . well I think those are boobs and the archaeologists seem to think so too.

There might even be a belly button.

Or something else.

Oh for heaven's sake, use your imagination.

Anyhoo - it's said by people much smarter than a pig farmer that what they call Orkney Venus and everyone in Westray calls The Westray Wife is 5,000 years old. That's several hundred years before Stonehenge.

Now this may not be important on a kind of end-world-hunger, wake-the-Lib-Dems-up, get-Wolves-out-of-relegation-trouble scale, but it's big news for archaeology buffs and has given a fair boost to the island's tourist economy with a considerable number of folk coming over to see the Wife at the Heritage Centre in Pierowall.

Wifey is now in Edinburgh being examined for heaven knows what, but fear not, a stand-in has been found.

While sorting and bagging the last of this year's potato crop, a Westray crofter made a remarkable discovery (right).

I can reveal that it is almost 5,000 hours old, the seed having been planted in mid-May.

Extensive study, peeling and chipping has confirmed it is an accurate representation of a pig farmer. . . fat, very tasty and satisfying.

The official name is Orkney Potatohead, however locally it will be known as the Peedie Tattie-man o'Westray.

I am available for lecture tours and big, fat grants.

* Westray's golf course, long-time readers may remember, is the one with a 10ft deep bunker with a cow's skeleton in it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Danger - low-flying swans

Half-a-dozen mute swans heaved their wings out of the water, smacking the surface several times as their bodies lumbered into the air above the small loch at St Mary's on Orkney's East Mainland.

The pig farmer, enjoying a brief birdwatching break before heading back to Westray, felt lukewarm winter morning sunshine on the back of his neck as he watched them recover their poise and circle gracefully over the water before heading inland just above head height. . . towards the main road between St Margaret's Hope and Kirkwall.

Having watched Wolverhampton Wanderers for many years, the pig farmer has a keen nose for an impending disaster, and he didn't like the look of this at all.

The swans swooped low over the road on the Kirkwall side of the bend by the B&B, turning to head back to the lake. Five set out over the reeds that surround the loch, but the last of the six turned with the speed and agility of an Eddie Stobart truck and was straightening up just in time to make contact with the front of a builder's van heading towards the town.

Van stopped dead and swan went plummeting into the reeds. The pig farmer/birdwatcher hurried over to see what, if anything, could be done. The swan was sitting, looking a little startled (well, wouldn't you?), but obviously still alive. The pig farmer/birdwatcher/animal lover wondered whether to approach and check the damage, but he'd heard something about swans being good at kung fu (or was it jujitsu?) and he decided to wait and see.

Sure enough, after a few trial flaps, he stumbled off towards the water, barging a group of widgeon out of the way as he did so.

"He looks all right," the pig farmer/birdwatcher/animal lover/insensitive oaf called over to the van driver who had just emerged.

"Oh that's good. . . really great," he replied, leaning on the back door of the van. He sagged visibly and went a little green around the gills. "Have a look at this," he said, taking me around the front of the van where there was a lot of dent and fresh air where the windscreen and bonnet had been.

Do swans have insurance?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Not just a pig farmer


I looked at them huddled by the fence in the top field. They stared back with a "you haven't the first idea what to do" look.

Which just goes to show how right sheep can be.

Last spring I foolishly mentioned to our neighbour Marcus that I thought it was about time we had a few sheep, partly for ground maintenance and also for the freezer. Fine, the best thing was to wait for autumn and pick up some of the smaller lambs not going to market.

So he turned up the other day with three fairly small (but not that small) sheep in his trailer. I climbed in and hauled them out one-by-one and. . . well, that's about it so far.

They're quite settled in the top field, spending most of their time by the fence near Alfie the boar, but I can't help feeling there's something I should be doing.

Pigs need attention, shelter, feeding and watering. Sheep need. . . well, not much it seems, so long as there's grass. Not that there's much chance of me doing anything with them. They haven't let me within ten metres of them yet.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Morale-booster on a rainy day


A Westray September is a moody companion. The equinox brought strong winds, first from the southwest, then from the cold north. Heavy rains have forced many of the pigs indoors. We've even had hail.

Yet there have been sunny days that have felt like small miracles as summer fades into the memory.

We've dragged ourselves out for walks on some of the island's best beaches, but only one of us has been in for a swim.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Left a bit, down a bit

"Stand over there and let me know if I need to stop," said Bruce, clambering aboard a digger the size of a Tiger tank and firing up an engine that could be heard 150 miles away in Inverness.

"Whaaaoooo!!" I shouted about seven seconds later, adding some frantic, flagless semaphore just in case Bruce hadn't got the message.

Pulling over a decrepit, old lean-to at the front of our house to make way for a lovely new extension with big windows to enjoy the view over the sea to Rousay and Orkney Mainland sounded simple enough - large cracks had appeared and the thing was already edging away from the house.


We hadn't bargained for one piece of timber not being quite as rotten as it looked. It was wedged under the strip of concrete (can't remember what it's called) at the end of the kitchen roof and began levering a good part of the roof into the air.

Fearing Mrs Pig Farmer's reaction to a large hole in the kitchen and, most important, damage to the Sky dish at such an early stage in the football season, I thought it best we went for plan B. A little use of the saw and we were up and running again, the solid concrete coming down surprisingly quickly.



What I hadn't bargained for was what was left. Somehow you don't notice pink when it's on the walls of a "room" used only for bringing on veg seedlings and sorting out the recycling bags.

Even more worrying was Sal's reaction. I can't imagine how the planning department is going to react to this one.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

It's cuteness time again

The pig farmer strolled into the pigshed on Monday morning, whistling a happy tune, full of the joys of late August and so on.

Little Kim - due to farrow on Friday - was having a lie-in, the black and white cliff-face of her back to the door.

There was a little blood near her back end. "Uh-oh," thought the pig farmer, hurriedly clambering over the wall and discovering that Little Kim had been full of surprises. Twelve of them, to be exact.



They were all clean and feeding well, getting that all-important first milk. Despite this being her first litter, Little Kim had done everything by herself. Pigs never cease to impress and amaze me.

As the piglets tucked in, mum gave a little grunt and the second afterbirth slithered out (sows give birth in two batches) and I made myself feel a little less redundant by cleaning up before putting food out for Little Kim and introducing the little ones to the heat lamp and cosy, clean straw where they settled in for a snooze.

As the week's gone on, they've grown in strength and confidence and now, at five days old, they are exploring the shed and even trying out Little Kim's food.

The video is all-too short and the quality a bit ropey - what do you expect from a secondhand mobile phone? - and the sound in the background is Little Kim enjoying her breakfast. Pigs may be amazing, but they have no table manners.


Saturday, 14 August 2010

Eye eye

"That's excellent," said the optician. "This is going to be a very quick eye test. Your sight is up to pilot's standard."

"Does that mean I'll be able to fly a plane after this?" said the pig farmer.

"Absolutely!"

"Funny, I couldn't before."

*drum roll* *cymbal* "Thank you, I'll be here all week, try the pork."

As it happens, my sight is degenerating. That's the bad news. The good news is that it's degenerating slower than it should be for my age.

I can't tell you how grateful I am to be a 49-year-old with the vision of someone aged 47.

After a good 40 minutes ("quick"!!) of lenses, computer read-outs, a strange thing that squirts air at your eye-ball, ever-so-slightly uncomfortable places to put your chin, the upshot seems to be that I need reading glasses.

I've ordered some of the half-lens thingies which will let me look sternly over the top of them should I hear something that displeases me, such as a failure of the hop crop, a drop in the price of pork or a new album by The Killers. I may even post photographic evidence.

Friday, 6 August 2010

About a boar



The lad emerged from the trailer, snuffled around the paddock and went over to the fence to introduce himself to the four remaining porkers - all clearly very interested in the newcomer.

Our new boar arrived home this week and has already charmed us all. After much debate over his name - during which time the female members of the family firmly overruled any attempt by the pig farmer to call him Brian O'Driscoll, Derek Dougan, Robert Plant or Che Guevara - he's ended up as Alfie.

He's just over three months old, so won't be ready to 'work' for while yet, but he's a smasher and I'm chuffed to bits with him. I just hope he's as fertile as he's good-looking. ("Good-looking" as far as pigs go, that is).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Tatties

It's been a slow year for the veg. Spring was cold right up until late April and even then the wind kept swinging back to the north, bringing a chill from Faroe, Iceland, even the Arctic.

And there hasn't been what you'd call a lot of rain, although we are a long way from being under drought conditions as some further south are.

The carrots are a good month behind schedule - let's hope the Autumn King variety lives up to its name - while the salad crops are in the process of bolting and the beetroot has been a virtual dead loss.

So it came as a whopping great relief this morning when I took a gamble and lifted the first potato plant of the year, finding a clutch of firm, pale cream tatties begging to be scraped and put in the pot.

That is where they are now, with the smell of roast pork filling the kitchen, our own cabbage in another pot, a few small neeps ready to be roasted alongside the joint and a handful of baby carrots, thinned out from the rest of the crop this afternoon. I love Sunday dinner.

We've the best part of two-thirds of an acre set over to potatoes and turnips, the hope being that there will be enough to feed us and to make a decent contribution to the pigs' feed as well.

Last year I planted 100kg of seed tatties by hand. Well, when I say I, I mean it was me, my son Will, stepson Pat and Sal's brother and sister-in-law Martin and Kathy, who were foolish enough to believe that a trip to Westray was in any way a holiday.

This year I planted about double the amount in a patch of the bottom field where the sows had spent most of last year. Well, when I say I, I mean Jimmy and Alistair from down the road did the ploughing, rotovating and allowed me to help with the actual planting, sitting behind the tractor on a precarious sort of stool affair above a sort of plough thingy and next to a tub for the potatoes and a chute to drop a tattie down every time the little bell on a wheel at the back rang.

The snag was, as Alistair advised me, that the bell often gets clogged up and won't ring. There was nothing for it but to take a leaf out of the Captain Mainwaring drill manual, so I was bumping along trying not to fall off while muttering: "One-two-three-plant-two-three-plant-two-three," and so on.

Still, the result is a lovely patch of dark green plants that have not yet, touch wood, succumbed to blight or mildew. And, of course, the pot of fresh new tatties that will go down a treat with a hint of salt and a little butter.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Anniversary

Three years ago, pretty much to the day, a worn out sports reporter from the West Midlands stumbled his way onto a croft on the island of Westray, carrying some vague (VERY vague) ideas of making a better way of life.

I look back at that man and wonder what the hell he was thinking.

Still, more by luck than good judgement, I'm doing all right. The derelict, unloved farm we bought is now semi-derelict and much-loved. The Stoneyhall herd of Saddleback pigs is registered with the British Pig Association, my two big girls Molly and Kim continue to produce prime porkers, while Kim's daughter, Little Kim, is expecting to farrow for the first time on September 3, the day war broke out (and my parents' wedding anniversary, as it happens).

Westray Pork is available on a regular basis at Dounby Butchers on Orkney Mainland.
We've got chickens and ducks too - and before winter we'll have a decent roof on the house and maybe even a second bedroom.

So, late/early on this Friday morning with Arnold Layne seeping from the speakers, the pig farmer watches the light struggle to heave its way into the sky, and he's a happy man.

This has been no escape to "The Good Life". We're not the Tom and Barbara that I suspect may folk south who know us believe. I'm still the grumpy old cynic and I'd rather be a real farmer than a hippy, while the whole thing would never have worked had Sally not been happy (so she assures me) to carry on her career.

Nevertheless, there'll be pork in the freezer this winter, with tatties, swede, cabbage, carrots and leeks to go with it. I'm really quite proud of what we've achieved so far.

My great grandfather James Bews left a small Orkney farm in 1879 to seek his fortune in England. I can't help but wonder what he would have made of my occasionally ludicrous attempts at farming. I can only hope he would understand that I've finally found a place where I feel truly at home and where I plan to spend the rest of my days.

Incidentally: Kim is very much better, almost frisky by her standards. The ankle problem disappeared as quick as you could say "trip to abattoir". Quite who's fooling who I'm not sure, but the Wolf-pig will sort it out when he comes here next month.

Incidentally 2: I'm not suggesting that my parents' wedding had anything to do with Hitler's decision to invade Poland. . . that was more the result of an unwise bet at my great uncle Heinrich's 20th birthday party - we'll never hear the end of that.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Moll's hols

I had a feeling it was a bad idea, but blundered on regardless. After all, Molly needed a good seeing to and I needed to make sure we had pigs ready to go to the butcher next spring. She was off to see the boar.

There had been a snag - quite a bit one. Garry's boar Boss's back legs had gone and he was off to the great pigsty in the sky. Gaz has shipped in a replacement, but he's less than a year old and the L-plates are still on, not to mention the fact he's a bit of a shortarse.

Still, we decided to give it a go - what could possibly go wrong?

Molly harumphed and grumped her way down to the ferry, drawing alarmed looks from tourists in the queue as my girl whiled away a few minutes banging at the walls of the trailer.

Later that evening I received a call from a weary-sounding Garry. Molly had arrived no problem. She'd gone into a paddock with the young boar and two other females. She picked a fight with the boar and then beat the living snot out of the two females.

Garry got her out into a paddock of her own, but she quickly broke out and waded in for round two. Somehow Garry broke things up again and doubled up the electric wire which seemed to do the trick.

So, Molly's over there on an extended holiday, enjoying the lovely views of Scapa Flow, Hoy and Graemsay from Garry's place and it looks very much like a wasted trip.

What she doesn't know is I have the wolf-pig lined up to put her in her place. That'll teach her.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Prestcombe Dinah 47 (Kim)


Kim poked her nose out of her hut as she heard the gate into the top field rattle and the unmistakeable shake of sow nuts and barley in a bucket.

She eased herself out of the doorway, carefully put a front foot on the ground then decided she couldn't manage the second. She went down onto her knuckles and shuffled towards me.

I hurried over and put the food down. She tucked in - so clearly nothing wrong with the appetite. She quickly got back up to her feet and, as the morning wore on, she moved easier around her paddock, if still a little stiffly.

This has been going on for a couple of weeks and - if I'm honest - Kim hasn't been right since her last litter nearly a year ago. While the ground was soft it wasn't a problem, but we have had a long dry spell in Westray with cool northerly winds so the soil is packed hard as concrete.

The vet came by on the monthly tour of the island and gave Kim a thorough examination. The old girl was good as gold, but didn't really want anyone touching her ankles. The vet's diagnosis came as no surprise. Kim has arthritis, it's unlikely to get any better and she almost certainly won't be able to stand up to the strain of carrying and nursing piglets.

So the decision I've been putting off for several months now looks unavoidable. Kim's been a real pal and taught me more about pigs than anyone else. I'd love to keep her as a pet, but she's in pain so it's probably time to say goodbye.

Sometimes I hate farming.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Rogue male

He knows, the clever little bastard.

Every time I turn a corner there he is, about three or four yards away, keeping one exceptionally beady eye on me, judging the distance perfectly, absolutely confident the pig farmer has neither the speed nor the agility to catch him.

He's the last of the holdouts, the Outlaw Josey Wales of the chicken world. If he had a middle digit he would undoubtedly raise it skyward in scorn at farmers in general and small-time pig farmers in particular.

Much as I loved having hens all over the place, they were becoming more numerous and a threat to our veg garden - not to mention the fact that there was chicken shit everywhere.

So I built a hen run next to the small stone building which until recently had been a winter pig house. I'm pretty pleased with it - it's got a gate and everything.

Biting down my terror of chickens, I grabbed hold of the 17 hens one by one and transferred them to their new quarters. Most seemed happy enough. That left the five cockerels.

Adam - the oldest of the bunch and as close to a nice guy as cockerels get - was tempted into the hen run and quickly settled in. I caught two of the young ones and pulled their necks. Another was allowed in with the hens and behaved himself well enough to earn a reprieve.

Which leaves us with Josey Wales.

Reckon I'm gonna need to round me up a posse.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

What we did on our holidays

"Have you remembered it's our wedding anniversary?" said Mrs Pig Farmer.

"Err. . . cannot tell a lie. . . no," I said. "But don't go getting all superior - it's 5.30 in the afternoon so you forgot too and the middle of traffic gridlock in Galway City Centre is no place to discuss this anyway."

"Good point. Happy anniversary."

"You too, now can we get the bloody hell out of here? It's like driving round Stoke."


It wasn't a holiday as such, we were in Ireland to meet up with Sal's brothers and say a final farewell to their parents at the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

As my brother-in-law Martin pointed out, his dad Ray was not one for the big romantic gestures - unless you count lifelong belief in the communist cause - so it had come as some surprise to find that his final wish was that his and Marion's ashes be scattered over the coastline of the west of Ireland.

I strongly suspect that the cliffs were a little different when they visited 20 years ago. The natural beauty and the spectacular seabird display remain, but the place is a tourist magnet with a whacking great car and coach park, underground restaurant and gift shop. Still lovely, but hard for someone used to solitude of Orkney to cope with. However, that wasn't the point - Ray and Marion's memories of the place are what mattered.

Sal and I scouted the location on Saturday and, at 2.30 in the afternoon, it was a heaving mass of humanity. Fearing the repercussions of a coachload of tourists from New Hampshire getting covered in communist remains, we got up there good and early the next day.

Sally, Martin, Alan and Steve went past the "Do not pass" sign, opened the end of the long cardboard box Mart had packed his mum and dad in and tipped them over the edge, wisely keeping their mouths shut as the onshore breeze ensured some ash, at least, was scattered inland.

"From here you can see the Atlantic, the Aran Islands and the Connemara mountains," said the fella, opening the patio door of the rented cottage with a flourish.

The pig farmer looked at the sea about three miles away and, shrugging off a moment of homesickness for Westray, made a valiantly polite attempt to appear impressed. He would have said something, but yer man was up and running. I'd completely forgotten how the Irish can talk - which is odd considering I have a Dublin-born mother who learned to talk some time in 1930 and has hardly paused for breath since.

We stayed in Doolin, a fine spot on the Clare coast with a couple of good pubs and boat trips out to Aran and the cliffs. But - and I never thought I'd say this about the west of Ireland - it was so busy. I reckon I've been spoiled.


We were in O'Connor's in Doolin. Outside the rain was hammering down and inside damp, unsmiling tourists were steaming nicely as they tried to decide whether or not they liked (a) Guinness and (b) traditional Irish music.

The pig farmer and friends were having no problem with (a), but (b) was leaving him a little cold. I like a little traditional music, the pipes especially, but you can't help but get the feeling in a lot of pubs that once the tourists have left, the locals breathe a sigh of relief, happily close the blinds and get out the karaoke machine.

"We have made very good progress," said the pilot, casually ignoring the fact that, thanks to the Icelandic volcano, we were the best part of a day late. "Such good progress that we have completed the journey in 45 minutes and Kirkwall airport isn't open yet."

Terrific. You finally arrive home and Orkney is shut.

Once the ground control team had finished their breakfast and we'd been on a sunshine tour of airspace above the islands, we landed to the most beautiful, warm day yet this year.

Later, kicking my heels around town, I noticed the Norwegian flag flying above the town hall. Things seem to have changed while I've been away.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Mrs Pig Farmer counts her blessings

"Little Kim and the Wolf-pig have done the deed," said the pig farmer as he was handed a mid-morning cuppa.

"How do you know? Was he smoking a cigar?" said Mrs PF.

"No. She's got muddy footprints and slobber all over her back."

"Nice."

"Yeah. Just think yourself lucky."

Saturday, 8 May 2010

New faces

The last chords of Led Zep's Misty Mountain Hop died away and I heard the clicking of trotters on concrete behind me.

I removed the earphones and turned around to see a little ginger pig looking very hopefully at the bucket I was holding.

We had one of those "What the hell are you doing here? How the f**k did you get out?"-"Groink" conversations as I led her back to the shed, unbolted the barrier, put food on the floor and let her in. I tied a pallet to the barrier for extra height and bolted it back on.

Annie the Tamworth gilt is our latest acquisition, the hope being that she'll produce lots of little Tamworth/Saddleback cross piglets. Tamworths have a reputation for being lively - skittish even - and very vocal. On neither score does Annie disappoint. It's an interesting contrast with her room-mates, the laid-back Saddlebacks Martha, Aretha and Tina.



Four of our ducks have been sitting on eggs for a while now and yesterday, the most attentive of them hissed like hell at me when I went over to give her some food. Sure enough, there was just a glimpse of a couple of little yellow fluffy balls under her. I'll be making a duck nursery today.

And, finally, Dotty the mare - now with my stepdaughter Amy in Essex - had her foal this week. Touchstone Optimistic, a colt, arrived on Wednesday night and is big and healthy.




He's called Smarty Pants - that's going to take a bit of living down in the playground.

Here he is with Dotty and Amy.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The big, bad. . . pig?

Chris pulled the door to his shed aside and what I'm reliably informed is a pig trundled out and strolled into my trailer.

I drove back the mile or so home and had a proper look at the fella from the safety of outside the trailer. I peered in and found a face peering back at me. Not just any face, but. . . well, this. . .

Apologies for the lack of quality, but Ifor Williams rarely fit their otherwise excellent pig trailers with studio lighting.

And I was a bit scared.

What (or who) came to mind was the great Lon Chaney junior, star of the 1941 film The Wolfman.
I'm right, am I not?

"Blimey," I thought. "Little Kim's not going to be happy."

Little Kim is the best part of two years old and has yet to have a litter. She's about a year late starting working, but she's kind of a pet, Molly and Kim have been adequate for our needs so far and the pig farmer couldn't organise a smoothie in a juice bar.

So the Tamworth boar from up the road has been called in. As it happens, he seems amiable enough, but Little Kim wasn't having any of it.

First she tried a head-to-head confrontation, leaving himself with a cut behind the ear and Little Kim with scratches and a nick on her leg. Since then they've been mostly avoiding each other and are in separate beds, a state of affairs that will probably go on until she comes into season.

I'm just popping out to check if there's a full moon.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Seconds out

It all started so well. I was up out of bed at 7 o'clock sharp (why sharp?) in a particularly good mood, washed, dressed in my best going-tae-the-toon clothes and ready for a day out.

Coffee and toast made and consumed, I loaded up a bucket with barley and tatties and went to see the sows. At this point things started to unravel.

The first sign that something was wrong was that Little Kim was where Molly should have been. She was snuffling around the hut while Molly cowered inside. Then I noticed a loose strand of electric fence wire. . . and a couple of broken plastic fence posts. . . and a twisted section of stock fencing.

I put some food on the ground (in two separate places - sows aren't good at sharing) and the girls tucked in. Then I spotted the blood on Little Kim's ears. And on her cheeks. And on her back. Molly had a cut on her ham and scratches on her face.

You didn't have to be Sherlock Pig Farmer to work out that Little Kim had bust her way through a line of electric wire, a stock fence and - from the lacerations on her back - a barbed wire fence. The lengths some people will go to to start a ruck.

With only 15 minutes until the ferry left for town, the day out was abandoned, purple spray was liberally applied and the rest of the morning spent repairing fencing and adding extra security measures.

I'm now going to Kirkwall on Wednesday. . . possibly.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Cough please

It wasn't a terrific day for Merlin the pony and the pig farmer found himself surprised that he had quite a bit of sympathy for the croft's cockiest and, at times, most troublesome resident.

Merlin is not what you'd call a prime specimen. . . hardly in the class of a Badminton winner or a Gold Cup contender. Come to think of it, there are donkeys on Blackpool beach that compare favourably.

Not only has the lad got short, fat, hairy legs, but he has a pronounced "underbite". His bottom jaw sticks out so that his teeth don't line up. This means, as horses' teeth keep growing, the two sets don't wear each other down.

So the vet - out from Mainland on his monthly tour of Westray - came to call, brandishing a large file. Merlin was good as gold at first and vet and Mrs Pig Farmer were able to cope comfortably. However, Merlin finally decided enough was enough and started playing his face.

"We need to hold him in the corner," said the vet. "Do you happen to know any fat bastards?"

A fat bastard was humming along to The Undertones' Here Comes The Summer while he did some repairs to a pig shed which has had a hard winter. Summoned to help a damsel and a big hairy vet in distress, he shoved Merlin into the corner, leant over him and pressed him to the wall while trying not to wince as the filing continued noisily.

Job done, there was one final conversation - will gelding him (Merlin, not the fat bastard. . . or the vet) improve his behaviour. See? I told you it was a bad day for him.

"Probably," was the answer. The fat bastard squirmed in sympathy as Merlin had a thorough examination.

I daresay there are places where you can pay good money to have your bollocks squeezed by a 6ft 7in Scotsman with a beard, but it's not my thing and it's certainly not Merlin's.

The vet departed with a promise to send us an estimate for the job. I'm finding it hard to remain objective and, just for once, I'm standing shoulder-to-shoulder (in reality shoulder-to-knee) with Merlin on this one.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

I'll play the joker

The back of Geordie's old lorry was tipped up about as much as it was going to go without removing the roof of Marcus's nice new shed, but about a quarter of the barley was refusing to budge.

The pig farmer happened to wander in at that moment, seeking a minor favour.

"Malcolm's young and athletic," said Marcus with a remarkably straight face, "maybe he can help."

So it was that 15stone of pig farmer, shovel in one hand, rope in the other, was slithering up and down the virtually grip-free floor of the back of lorry, set at 45 degrees. Having landed on my arse several times, I managed to reach base camp and, with a few shoves of the. . .err. . . shovel, dislodged the recalcitrant grain.

As I swept the last out (Marcus hates waste) I was reminded of two sounds - Stuart Hall's laughter and the click of a Health and Safety Officer's red pen.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Charmed, I'm sure

Mrs Pig Farmer fixed me with a "what-the-bloody-hell's-he-on-about-now?" expression and said: "Come again?"

"Nobody says 'how do you do?' any more."

"You mean 'howdyado'?"

"No, the full 'how do you do?', preferably in the manner of a late 1940s British matinee, while raising a hat."

"You've got a hat."

"I don't think a grubby woollen hat counts. I was thinking more along the lines of a trilby. . . a tweedy one. . . who was it who wore one?. . . Harry Worth! I just think the world would be a better place if everyone said 'how do you do?' once in a while."

"Are you all right?"

"You mean, how am I doing?"

"Bugger off."

Radio 7 are rerunning an old Harry Worth series - sadly it hasn't aged well.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The pig masseur

Pete the pig let out a sigh of contentment, let his back legs slowly sag and lowered himself into a sitting position - on my left foot.

I wondered whether to stop scratching his back, but it was kind of peaceful. Westray was bathed in warm sunlight, birds were singing, daffodil heads showing for the first time, the sea looking good enough to swim in.

So, ignoring the numbness creeping around my left toes, I gave him a tickle behind the ears and, as he rolled over onto his side, a good rub on his belly. I've never had a proper professional massage, but I like to imagine the bloke's version (Turkish? Finnish?) is a bit like going to an old-fashioned barber.

"And how would sir like it today?"

"Groink."

"No problem, did you see the football last night?"


Or something like that.

Pete finally got up and I led him back into the main pigshed where he was reunited with his brothers. I was supposed to be sorting the lads out with the biggest three due to go for slaughter today. It wasn't at all easy with quite a bit of scrapping going on, while Haka tried to mount everything as if the future of the species depended on it.

Pete was easily the biggest, but he was also the quietest and most easy-going, making no attempt to molest his brothers and generally minding his own business.

Trying hard to ignore the alarming sight of Haka with a whopping great erection heading for me, I lifted the barrier, shook the feed bucket and got Giorgios, Boss Junior and Haka (a late replacement for Pete) through, quickly slamming the barrier down to stop Pete and Tip following.

A little feed on the trailer ramp got the lads heading in the right direction, but Haka had a sudden change of mind, decided he needed to give Pete another seeing-to and jumped the wall back into the pen, getting stuck halfway.

The pig farmer made a grab for his back legs and got a handful of tail, at least I hope it was tail - he didn't squeak anyway. And there we were, a pig balanced on the wall and a pig farmer with not enough grip to pull him back. After a few quiet moments, I let go and he scrambled back over.

A little later I repeated the process, this time making sure I was behind Haka, gently shoving him onto the trailer in a "pig farmer ain't gonna take that kind of crap again" way.

Back in the shed, Pete was snuffling through some cabbage leaves, blissfully unaware how a little bonding over a back-rub had earned him an extra month.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Pony trotting

I rarely run. I don't really see the point and never have - even in the days when I turned out for various incompetent rugby and hockey sides. A brisk stroll from scrum to line-out is all the exercise a man needs.

So it came as some surprise to find myself hubba-hubbaing up Westray's main road in wellies and padded boiler suit, puffing, wheezing, hoping the heart attack would decide not to arrive at this particular moment.

Our Shetland ponies, Teddy and Merlin, have been a little fidgety since Dotty the mare left. They were jumpy as I led them out of the bottom field, across the road and into our lane.

I noticed Merlin's headcollar was loose, made the mistake of trying to sort it out one-handed and he wriggled out of the thing altogether and took off up the road. It wasn't the best time to find out that the clip on Ted's lead rope had broken. He headed north as well, a breathless pig farmer in pursuit.

The lads headed half-a-mile up the road where they met our neighbour Chris. He parked across the road and herded the boys onto a track. The track led over the spine of the island. The pig farmer collapsed into the passenger seat of Chris's car and (with scant regard for the vehicle's undercarriage) we set off in pursuit.

Relieved not to be stuck in mud at some point, we found the boys socialising with Hannah's (another neighbour) horse. Chris blocked the exit while the lads and I had a frank discussion about lead ropes, running away, the pig farmer's knees and suchlike.

Securely tethered, the boys followed me the mile or so home and I was quietly satisfied to see both looking pretty knackered by the time I led them into the stable.

I managed to keep it together until I collapsed in the kitchen, hand reaching out for a reviving mug of tea.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sunshine on Westray

It was a beautiful day in Westray today, even allowing for that Orkney rarity, a hard frost. The sun shone and what snow showers there were passed to the south-west and east.

Molly the sow, now painfully thin after feeding 13 piglets for eight weeks, was more than relieved to be moved to her own pen. I kept an eye on the little ones for much of the afternoon, but they seemed unfazed by the sudden departure of their mum/milk ration.

Molly will now have a few weeks of rest and food, then, once she's back to fighting weight we'll see if The Boss has a window in his diary and the whole thing starts again. It seems like a hard life for the old girl, but she thrives when she is in-pig and a sow at the top of her game should be able to produce two litters a year.

Away from the pigshed Sally and I enjoyed tea and cake on the patio, watching the sunshine shimmer on the sea between Westray and Rousay, chatting about the extension we will get built this year, working out who the occasional passers-by were before admitting it was a bit chilly and seeking the warmth of the kitchen.

Later I went through one of my favourite annual rituals. Unlike previous years where I've spent hours poring over catalogues, we put a list together and did the whole thing on line, Sal persuading me to try some new ones (bok choi) and some that haven't worked for the last couple of years (parsnips).

She'd obviously been doing some research as my Wolverhampton-born-and-bred wife had left in the Google search box 'how to grow yam'. She wonders why I laugh.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Barnet

The scissors gave a tug and my head jerked to one side. I suppressed urge to cry out, felt my heart sink, closed my eyes and prepared for the worst.

I hadn't had my hair cut for more than four months and it was a little wild - somewhere between Marge Simpson and Mel 'Braveheart' Gibson. Not really a problem when you live on a small island where nobody seems that impressed by the cut of your clothes or your hair, but when you feel it pushing the hat off your head, steps must be taken.

I was visiting Kirkwall and booked myself in at the hairdressers where Sal gets her locks seen to. It was 10am, I hadn't had any tea or toast and I wasn't feeling exactly communicative. I don't like going to have my hair cut - any length of time staring at my face is very disturbing, just ask Mrs Pig Farmer - and I'm not keen on small talk that early in the day. Maybe that counted against me.

The hairdresser (for want of a better description) approached my head like it was a bomb about to go off. I'm not sure she'd ever cut a man's hair before. I'm not sure she knew that sharp scissors are available in many good shops. I think she might have wandered in off the street and fancied a go. Barbering. . . how hard can it be?

I gave clear instructions (half-an-inch on the sides, a little longer on top, tapered at the back) and she dived in. The trouble is with a bad haircut is you can't exactly stand up halfway through and storm out, especially if you're in a town that has no such thing as a walk-in barber's shop you can run to to repair the damage.

So I'm left with hair short at the back, several different lengths on top and wierd wispy bits that I'm having to tuck behind my ears to stop me looking completely insane.

I shall be on the phone later to Lauren, who runs a hairdressing business in Westray, to arrange a repair job, at the same time apologising for not going to her in the first place.

UPDATE: My brother-in-law Mart has asked for pictures. I'm a little reluctant to reveal the full horror, but in the interests of openness. . .

. . . looking good, I think you'll agree.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Essex girl


Dotty the mare (pictured, left) let out one last - very loud - whinny, disappeared over the brow of the hill and was gone.

At the fourth attempt, Dotty has set off for her new home in Essex where she will be cared for by my stepdaughter Amy. Bad weather prevented her travelling on the ferry to Aberdeen for two weeks, then the lack of a trailer left her kicking her hooves at our place for another week.

Everything finally came together today and, surprisingly considering our somewhat fiery relationship, she was good as gold. She was happy to let me give her a rubdown and put a light travelling rug on. Then she hesitated only briefly before trotting calmly into the horsebox.

Regular readers (Mr and Mrs Wainwright) will remember Dotty and I have a love-hate relationship. I hate dealing with her and she loves to make my life difficult.

I put it down to the Irish temperament - you can take the girl out of South Armagh, but you can't take South Armagh out of the girl. This morning, for instance, I was walking her out to the field when Little Kim came harumphing out her pighut, ready for breakfast.

This happens every day and has done for the last four or five months and Dotty never pays the least attention. Today, she decided she was scared of pigs and came to a standstill, nostrils flared, eyes ablaze, before turning round and making for the stable again with pig farmer in tow.

It took a couple of carrots and an armful of haylage to calm the nerves (Dotty's, not mine) and the second attempt proved more successful - Little Kim being busy inspecting the mud in the far corner of her paddock.

The whole episode summed up our relationship - a concerted power struggle involving stubbornness, bloody-mindedness and moments of genuine terror.

Nevertheless, I'm going to miss her and - considering she's due to give birth to "a future Badminton winner" in May - glad she'll be in far more competant hands than mine.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Round-up

I lay on my back in the mud and reflected that I hadn't had an afternoon like this for some considerable time.

I hadn't missed it a bit.

Mid-afternoon I'd discovered that Haka the pig (he's all-black) had decided the nice stone building to which I'd moved him and his brothers wasn't quite like home so - no doubt whistling the Great Escape theme - he had bust through the electric fence and returned to the main pigshed where he was busy saying hello through the barriers to his sisters and to Molly's piglets.

I got the feed bucket out and tried tempting him out. It was only a partial success and, after half-an-hour, we'd made it about three feet down the alley between the buildings.

At this point Haka had second (or third) thoughts, turned round and skidaddled back inside and to square one. I tried again and spent another 15 minutes or so trying to shift the stubborn little sod.

Pat came out to help and, at about the 14th attempt, we got Haka to within a couple of yards of where he should have been, only for him to turn round and attempt to make a break for it. At which point I did the wrong thing, let frustration take over and grabbed him by the front feet. He wriggled a lot and managed to knock me over backwards.

So there I lay, hoping the dampness seeping through the layers to my bum cheeks was just water. I took time to tell myself off for skiving out of bucket training, took a deep breath and we decided to leave the lad in the pigshed, hastily throwing up a quick barrier to keep him in.

Bucket training starts in the morning.

Briefly. . .


It was a lovely day yesterday.

But some on the farm chose to sleep in.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Jarvis Cockerel

The old stager and the young pretender stood head-to-head, then circled cautiously, beady eyes locked on their opponent.

The older fella started deliberate dancing moves in and out while his rival - his son - made fluid steps to one side, then the other.

Both fluffed their neck feathers out, crowed silently. . . and started knocking seven bells out of each other. There was blood and, if cockerels have snot and saliva, there was that too.

We have been building up to the big fight between Adam and his lad Jarvis for some time; both have been strutting around like David Cameron on one of his more obnoxious days for some time. It was just unfortunate that the showdown should be in the middle of the pen occupied by Molly and the piglets.

Not that they were bothered. Moll had her head firmly in the feed bucket, while the piglets, having taken to solids with some gusto over the last couple of weeks, were equally oblivious.

The pig farmer wandered over to break it up before things got out of hand, deciding at the same time that a transfer for both birds was long overdue.

Neighbours had agreed to have Jarvis so I fished out an old cat box and started stalking the boy. I have partly overcome my chicken phobia after sending three younger cockerels to meet their maker last week, but I still need to wear gloves to pick them up (feel free to point and laugh).

A little barley was put on the floor and as the chickens gathered around, I positioned myself behind Jarvis who promptly proved to be not as daft as he looks by edging around to the other side of the group as I reached out to catch him.

Half-an-hour later patience was wearing thin and something of a chase ensued, Jarvis moving effortlessly and gracefully around the pigshed, the pig farmer tumbling over gates and walls, tripping over buckets and getting covered in fertiliser futures.

As Jarvis popped out into the veg garden I remembered an important rule of mine: if rounding up and animal starts to resemble a Benny Hill sketch, give up and have a cup of tea.

That was yesterday. I finally got my man today, Jarvis dropping his guard while I pretended to be sorting out bedding for the pigs. He was stuffed into catbox and driven round to the neighbours where he immediately got into a fight with two other cockerels.

I hope he's all right.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Cockerel cowardice

OK, I admit it, I'm a big, fat Jessie; a cowardy custard of the deepest shade of yellow.

We have far too many cockerels and a cull is long overdue, but I'm finding all sorts of reasons not to do the deed.

I don't know if it's because I'm soft. It's certainly not because I like them. With the obvious exception of Adam and Jarvis - who both seem secure enough in their status to be relatively easy-going - they are total bastards.

Five of the younger ones are especially deserving of a well-wrung neck. They have teamed up and now go about the place gang-raping any hen unfortunate enough to cross their path. I've got to do something, but I'm finding all sorts of excuses not to.

I've always been scared of chickens, so just picking one up is an achievement. I managed it today. I stood quietly behind him as he pecked at a few grains and quickly lifted him up. I should then have pulled his neck, but he looked at me, I looked at him and put him down.

Pathetic.


The piglets are growing fast, just as their mum is shedding weight - lots of it. Poor Molly always struggles when nursing piglets; her backbone is sticking up and she is more grey and white than black and white.

Feeding her reminds me of shovelling coal into the Flying Scotsman at top speed. She's getting between 15 and 20lb of feed a day, but still can't seem to get enough.

The good news for Molly is that I'll wean the piglets as soon as possible - in a couple of weeks when they are six weeks old and she can get some well-deserved rest.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Cabin pressure

"We are currently about 30 miles south of Wick and will soon begin our descent to Kirkwall. The knocking sound you can hear on the fuselage is ice coming off the propellers. The aircraft body there is triple thickness so there is no need to worry, this is perfectly normal."

The pig farmer removed his nose from his book, having been previously oblivious to any knocking sounds, perfectly normal or otherwise.

The descent was on the bumpy side, but no worse than the bus ride from Edinbirgh city centre out to the airport.

The landing, however, was way more interesting. A 40mph south-easterly with 60mph gusts meant we had to swing over West Mainland and head in to the airport over Kirkwall town, the pilot taking us in almost sideways before straightening up only a few feet above the ground.

As a rule, I'm neither a nervous flyer nor a religious man, but there was a brief "if you're up there" moment before wheels made contact with tarmac.

As we left the plane the pilot emerged from the cockpit looking for all the world as if he does this sort of thing every day. . . which I suppose he does.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Pure gold

The bubbles settled to form a precise, quarter-inch head. The rest of the pint was a pale gold with the sparkling clarity of a Highland stream.

I gazed at it for a few seconds, revelling in the anticipation of the drink to come. It was a thing of beauty.

The pig farmer had settled himself down in Edinburgh's Oxford Bar and, it being mid-afternoon, he was one of three customers in the place and the only one sat on a stool in the front bar.

The Oxford is five minutes from Princes Street and has become relatively famous thanks to Ian Rankin's crime novels. It's the favoured watering hole of both Rankin and his fictional DI John Rebus, but trades solely on its excellence as a traditional pub.

I swopped smalltalk on the snow, the absence of tourists (pig farmer excepted) and Hibs' chances of winning their first Scottish Cup in 108 years with the barman before turning back to the pint.

Cool, but not cold, fresh, slightly malty. Deuchars IPA is an ordinary pint made extraordinary when it is served properly.

I love the Oxford Bar.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sleigh bells and sandwiches

Mrs Pig Farmer was off to Edinburgh and she had plans. "We can go out on the Sunday and have a picnic," she said, happily ignoring all relevant weather forecasts.

Oh deary me. Don't you just love an optimist?

Sal is training for a new role at work and that involves three of four sessions of a week or so at Edinburgh University. She travelled down on Monday and I'm joining her on Friday.

It'll be just the thing as I've not been at my best since Hogmanay.

Maybe it's the sight of David Cameron prancing around like he's already in charge without going to the trouble of asking us if it's all right.

Maybe it's the knowledge that I'm never likely to have a sporting year as good as 2009 (Ireland's rugby Grand Slam, Wolves' promotion to the Premier League, Wolves speedway team winning their league, the pig farmer beating his son at pool).

Or maybe it's just lingering disappointment at a 48th consecutive Christmas where I didn't get Scalextric.

So I'm packing my bags - or I will once my freshly-Dazzed undies have stopped steaming on the radiators. At least, I hope that's steam, you know what they say about pants on fire and nobody likes singeing around the gentleman's zone.

Tomorrow I depart on the 8.55am ferry to Kirkwall where my wonky knee (now pretty much numb thanks to Dr Karl's painkillers) will be examined. Once the team of experts from the Mainland have taken the scaffolding down, the day is pretty much my own. I will probably spend it window shopping for power tools. How times have changed.

Assuming I'm not snowed in, I'll be on the Friday lunchtime flight to Edinburgh where The Boy has bought tickets for Saturday's Scottish Cup tie between Hibs and Irvine Meadow, who appear to be a North Ayrshire Sunday League side whose name got into the bag for the draw by accident. Even Hibs can't mess this one up.

Some old mates are escaping from England (snow permitting) for a couple of days of light refreshment in some of Edinburgh's finest tearooms next week, but first I have to get Sunday's trip out of the way.

I'll get the snow shoes and a Thermos.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Phone a friend

It was 9.33pm and the phone rang. The pig farmer muttered something along the lines of "who's this and don't they know I've just opened a beer?"

"Hi Malc, it's Corinne," said Corinne.

"Oh hello, how are you?" replied the pig farmer, trying to remember the last time Sal's niece had rung him and coming up with "never before".

"We're fine. Happy New Year."

"And the same to you. How's little Henry and is your Dad upright yet?" said the pig farmer, settling in for a chat.

"Henry's great and Dad'll be fine once we get him a milky drink and tuck him up in bed. Can you tell me the names of the Ramones?"

"You're in a quiz, right?"

"Yep."

"Johnny, Joey, Deedee and Tommy - although you could also have Marky, Richie, CJ* and Elvis," said the pig farmer, going for the irritating, know-it-all extra bit of information as they do on that loathsome Eggheads show.

That's the trouble with being educated at a very moderate private school. You come out ill-equipped to deal with life's real challenges, but you're a demon in a pub quiz. Still, if it means you can help out family members in their moment of need, fair enough.

* He was the one who didn't get where he is today without wearing leather jackets, sneakers and shouting "Gabba gabba hey!"