Pygmalian fell in love with a sculpture and Aphrodite granted his wish of companionship and made this sculpture human. The famous Eliza Doolittle, of GB Shaws famous play, changed too, from Cockney street girl to refined Fair Lady. Changes manifest in many ways and forgive me for this strangulation of mythology to fit my prose, but the changes in my life are manifesting to me in ways I had not accounted for.
Recently, whilst out photographing sheep, I was hailed by a man on a bike. It turned out he owned the sheep farm just down the lane from us and his teenage son was struggling with English. The teenager’s professor was a mad man with a temper and Alex was stressing so much, the progress was slowing. Would I come and teach him English?
I am a teacher of accountancy in the past, but not knowing French, this seemed like it wouldn’t be easy, but I have also been a student and any help you can get is welcome – so I agreed. The lessons are going well. I sit on Friday for a couple of hours and draw up elements of our English language and realised there was a lot about my language I took for granted re structure and grammar. The lesson is on Saturday afternoon, followed by a lovely social hour of chatting with his parents and inevitably a large slab of home-made cake appears. It’s a pleasant distraction from my normal routine.
I am actually a very shy, nervous person when it comes to meeting new people which is strange to my friends given my whole career was as contractor moving from company to company every four to six months – new sites, new staff, new work roles. Or perhaps this slightly isolated life – you can’t really settle too much – left me feeling a little vulnerable. I have friends who have stayed in one job for twenty five years, part of the furniture so to speak, but I was lucky if I made twelve months maximum. But I made friends and some now have reached the twenty year mark and although a couple have been sadly in- social since I departed to France, the rest remain a bond via social media and email and I am very glad of it, as settling in a new country can feel isolating.
So the teaching was a brave move for me and it’s not easy. I need to learn French and next year I will make the effort. Maybe like Eliza, marbles in my mouth may help.
But another change has taken place. Three years ago when we bought the barn, I was travelling in our van, our belonging precariously stuffed in every crevice, when a story came into my head about a pig. The long journey gave me time to scrawl a draft and Tony said it was funny and I should write another. In the next week, I wrote seven and a character began to emerge. It was then, a turning point in my life, I decided that I would write and illustrate. I was already drafting an accounting book, and another one about business. I had also written a political article to help the South Bank Undercroft skateboarders win their battle against closure – LLSB [Long Live Southbank] deserved support and I helped the campaign in its early days. Writing was a future career that would be transferable to wherever I found myself.
So like Pygmalion, I fell in love with my pig. He has a little way to go, the tales are in draft, and many, many sketches fill notebooks. In the meantime, four other characters grew and they too have stories to tell. I researched hard and for a year devoured many books on children’s writing and publishing. I spent long hours perched on those little children’s library chairs, hogging the picture book section and getting strange looks from parents. After a couple of weeks, I got my explanation off pat and from slightly weird adult who struggles with reading, I was now elevated to potential future JK Rowling.
I read the absolute classic writing book by Stephen King. You must read. Funny, insightful and full of gems to improve prose. There is also a lot of heart in there, confessions, and truths. This book is coming to England with me in December as it deserves a re-read. I am also taking a book about the writing and filming of Amelie – my absolute favourite French film. One of my characters is a slightly serendipitous creature and the book has some great insights into how to translate a character who lives in an almost imaginary world into a believable and very grounded reality, who makes changes that benefit all who surround her. My bag is packed and I will be away for a month. I may be away for longer – a sudden personal event may extent that visit till summer or longer.
But I digrese. The sheep farmer also owned a pig – Nellie. My lucky day. To the farmer she is bacon for Christmas, to me she was the perfect manifestation of my pig. In London there were no pigs to sketch. In France we are in a beef area and only a couple of weeks ago we took a wrong turn heading towards Boussac and found a pig farm. But it is due to close early next year. I braved the muddy field and much to impatience of the teenager feeding them [I am an IT programmer, he told me, and I hate pig farming! – oh dear], I snapped away, while pig-pigs snouted for food in the mud and swilled their noses clean to snout again. Their excitement is real, those floppy ears bounce, those grunts get higher and they demand attention. Bowls are knocked over, little front trotters are stamped and lesser dominant pigs are scolded fiercely in the quest for dinner. Much maligned and misunderstood, I have a huge soft spot for pigs.
As a seven year old I would visit Hobbs Cross Farm in Essex, just a short train ride from our home. They breed rare pigs and they fascinated me – their characters, relationships. I remember vividly one little young pig, obviously bored as it was a hot summer day and all other pigs either snoozing, laying together in companionable piles or in love – one pig had pressed his nose to another’s, through the wire divide of their compound – a Romeo and Juliet moment. Our little pig had no time for that. The impatience grew, the food bowl was first jumped into, then turned over, much to the dismay of another pig about to eat – who gave a heaven high look and trundled back to his straw bed. The lovers were squealed at. Sleepers were squealed at. In the end he became a tantrum, bursting with frustration. I had to go. I bet later his mother gave him a real whopping. But he made me laugh and I still remember his as a pig with an attitude. Long may they stay that way.
So I have a short window of time to sketch and photograph Nellie. The book here is a journey into Swine world and has shed a huge amount of light on pig behaviour and how pigs share their lives with humans – both in a good way and not so happy outcomes. I hope my pig will bring happiness to his readers. I have a very soft spot for him and like Pygmalion I hope my sketch will come to life and be more than character between the pages of a book.