The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars (Ch. 1): Luck, Generosity and the Rules

By Brian Fawcett | Feb 27, 2023

Chapter One: Luck, Generosity and the Rules


Several hours before daybreak on December 26th, 1962, a heavy overnight snowfall short-circuited the electric fences that separated the two main fields at Great Crouchs Farm, just south of Rushlake Green in East Sussex, England.  A two-year-old Landrace boar from the northern field crossed the perimeter and entered the south field, which was the precinct of an older Welsh boar. The younger boar, an unusually aggressive animal, moved in on the half-buried two-metre-tall culvert in which the Welsh was sleeping along with about thirty pregnant sows, and without hesitating, charged into its dark interior.

Within seconds, sows began to stream from the far end of culvert twenty metres away, squealing and grunting with approbation, each pink body steaming as the moist heat of the warm shelter dissipated in the cold air. By the time fifteen or twenty of the sows were outside, the racket inside crescendoed, the Welsh appeared, moved out into the open and silently wheeled around, bracing himself.  Two or three more sows chugged by before the Landrace crashed against the Welsh, staggering the slightly smaller boar but not knocking him down.

Two boars.

The two boars were shoulder-to-shoulder as dawn began to break, fighting as their  instincts dictated. The stronger and younger Landrace pushed and shoved, trying to knock the Welsh off his feet, and both attempted to slash at the head and flanks of the other. In nature, from which state these animals were far removed by several kinds of human intervention, their brutish struggle would have been short and nasty, ending when one of them collapsed from injury or loss of blood, or conceded the superiority of the other by fleeing to the nearest thicket. Here there was no thicket to retreat to, and there was little blood spilled because both boars had been de-tusked and thus weren’t able to inflict much more than bruises with their instinctual head feints and flank slashes. Generations of selective breeding had narrowed their shoulders and enlarged their hams, making them—not accidentally—much larger and—this time accidentally—steadier on their feet. Still, had the two boars been human beings, theirs would have resembled a contest between two out-of-shape accountants: much more a contest of will and endurance than of fighting skills, physical agility, or strength.

From a distance, the struggle might even have appeared faintly comic. The boars were, after all, awkward combatants fighting with weapons that existed only within their imaginations. Had they been tusked and feral, their fight would have long been over. Here, their instinctual programming trapped them in a combat that was interminably exhausting.

From closer in, any sense of comedy would have been obliterated by the stench of testosterone and the rawness of their exertion. An onlooker would see how large these animals were, around four hundred pounds each, and that their intentions were lethal. Their jaws and snouts were caked with stinking saliva and blood, their heaving flanks rendered epic by effort and exhaustion. That onlooker would have recognized the absolute violence of their focus, the mindless ferocity of their desire to harm the other, and might possibly have been moved by each animal’s will to hold its ground.

Certainly, I hadn’t gotten the impression that I was being asked to enjoy a comedy  that morning when Ronald Surry burst open the door of my room and yelled: “Wake up and come outside as quickly as you possibly can.”

The tension in his face had me hitting the floorboards before he’d finished the sentence. I threw on my clothes, tore down the narrow stair to the kitchen and was pulling on my Wellingtons by the back door within thirty seconds. Ronald’s wife Joan had to tell me to put on my coat and take my work gloves. Her expression reinforced what I’d seen in Ronald’s. Even their verbally precocious ten-year-old daughter Judith, rarely anything less than exuberant, was pale and silent. Something bad had happened, and it wasn’t over.

I was halfway along the path through the garden to the empty gilt sheds before my surroundings impinged on me. A foot of snow? No, there was more than that, not two feet, but closer to the latter. In Sussex, this was a heavy snowfall, and an emergency.  It was late December and this was the first snow of the season.  I’d gotten the impression that even a dusting of snow was noteworthy, if not quite a rarity in this part of England.

The contours of the Sussex Downs were transformed by it, pristine, white, soft.  But wait a minute. This was already the most gentle landscape I’d ever lived in—a far cry from the Northern British Columbia boreal forest in which I had been raised.  Could the snow have made it even more gentle than it already was?

No time to think that through. Ronald was already outside ahead of me, and as I hurried down the pathway toward the fields I saw him struggling to free something from behind one of the sheds. He was cursing, the sound at once muffled by the snow and amplified by the silence. I hurried toward him, announcing my presence as I did.

“Good boy,” he said, without looking up. “Crawl across and help me clear these. We’ll need two of them.”

“What am I after?” I gasped as I scrambled atop the shed and leaped into the waist-deep drift that had accumulated behind it.  He wanted sheets of half-inch plywood, four feet by eight, of which there were five or six leaning against the back of the structure. I banged the first two together to shake off the ice that had accumulated from the overnight freeze and subsequent snowfall. The first sheet, as I lifted it, was unexpectedly heavy and rigid: it had been waterlogged before the storm and now it was frozen solid. The cold was already penetrating my gloves.

Fueled by adrenalin, Ronald and I got the two sheets needed—one for each of us—across the fence with surprising speed despite their weight and slippery surfaces. I clambered back across the shed roof and jumped down beside him.

“What now?” I said. He pointed toward the south field and explained what had happened, then what we had to do: separate the fighting boars.

“Isn’t that going to be dangerous?”

Ronald gave me a look that reminded me I was an idiot. But he answered the question anyway.

“Yes,” he said, straining to get a firm grip on his sheet of plywood. “It will be dangerous, so we’ll have to be careful. Once I’ve planted this sheet between the boars, they’ll be unable to get at one another, but will be in such a rage that they’ll look for something else to attack. You’ll slip your sheet in to block the view of the boar that can see me. That’ll be the Welsh, because he’s less aggressive. So long as they can’t see one another or us, it’ll be fine. I expect they’ll lose interest pretty quickly, because they’re likely exhausted. Keep the bottom of your sheet firmly on the ground because you don’t want them to be able to see your legs. They won’t look up.  But they might try to go under the plywood if you give them room, and they’re surprisingly fast.”

Ronald Surry.

I picked up the second sheet and followed him across the field toward the boars, my attention wandering despite the racket and the weight of the plywood, which it took some effort to keep from dropping.  In another part of the present almost as compelling as the fighting boars, a rosy fingered dawn was breaking, and, with the storm done, the sky overhead was lightening to a vivid blue. At our backs I could see—or was it that I could feel—a richly mottled stain of salmon seeping from one edge of the horizon to the other. When I looked to the west the first rays of sunlight were touching the crest of the Downs.

That the day before, Christmas day, had been my first Christmas without snow, had barely registered on me. For two months, I had been so firmly inside the here-and-now that I could barely recall what I’d been and seen before I arrived in Sussex. That’s because everything around me was impossibly and mostly intoxicatingly exotic. The landscapes and people of Sussex had infused my senses, as before that, London had, ancient and smoky, with its perfume of diesel and coal. London had compelled and frightened me at once, but rural Sussex, with its soft hillsides and ancient villages nestled within ivy-rich greenery, had so far been exotic and enchanting.  I had suppressed my vexatious self-insistence to plunge into it, which I could see was neither foreign nor new to anyone but me. I had done this without the faintest sense of adventure, because I was very young, without any sort of perspective or scepticism. Without understanding,

I was doing something elemental: adapting to things beautiful and alien and completely unexpected, my senses open in a way they would never again be. For two months, data, fact, truth and lies had become one and the same: thrilling but difficult to identify and categorize. I was simply devouring everything, storing it for the future, likely deploying more memory engrams in those sixty days than I would in the next twenty years.

I was also aware that, given my shy vulnerability, my stupidity and my youth, I was extraordinarily lucky to be where I was and doing the things I was doing—even when it included separating two angry four-hundred-pound boars in a snowy field on the day after Christmas. Ronald Surry, my maternal uncle, was a man I had never laid eyes on until a little less than two months before. His wife Joan had likewise been a complete stranger. In spite of this, they had taken me in on the basis of a single hand-written letter from my mother, who had almost certainly warned them that I was younger than my eighteen years, a child in a man’s body, which had become, I think, what she liked best about me. I had been her last child, and one she wanted to keep forever.  Yet out of that same tender affection she had somehow let me wander a continent and an ocean from her orbit. I’d arrived in England as a projectile from a profoundly stretched cultural slingshot, and to my hosts I had been, alternately and without apparent logic, utterly receptive and malleable one moment, resistant as stone the next, and hilariously obtuse and absurd the one after.

When Joan, a few days after I arrived, had served a pot-a-feu of beef and mushrooms for lunch, I announced, imperiously, that I could not possibly eat mushrooms. She was startled by my emphatic seriousness, and asked why I couldn’t—or rather, as she sensed, wouldn’t.

The truth was that the only mushrooms I’d encountered until that lunch had been the gruesomely tasteless shards that came in Cream of Mushroom Soup. These smelly, ill-tasting bits and their sauce were a key ingredient in North American “Fiesta” foods, an extreme form of culinary laziness that my mother, otherwise a skilled cook with a repertoire sharply limited by the narrow selection of available ingredients—particularly fresh ones—had been infected by.

Fiesta Food, for those lucky enough to not know it, consisted of a can of mushroom soup dumped over hamburger or chicken or pork chops and then boiled until the meat was as soggy as the mushroom bits. I’d loathed Fiesta food since early childhood and without looking at what Joan was serving, thought it would be more of that. But of course I couldn’t say that to her, so I got, as they say, creative.

“Mushrooms are a symbol of Nuclear War,” I said. “You understand, don’t you? The Mushroom Cloud.”

I glanced at Ronald and saw he was trying to stifle his amusement—and not succeeding. When I looked back to Joan she had her head in her hands, trying to disguise hers.  I fussed and fumed a little more, and then tried the pot-a-feu. Goodness—fresh mushrooms could be quite tasty!

*                  *                  *

After I’d disembarked in London via Southampton from the rickety ocean liner on which I’d crossed the Atlantic with five other young men—or boys, or whatever we were—I’d been able to survive just five days in London before I felt the irrepressible need to call the telephone number my mother had taped into the back of my passport.

When I made the call, the operator took the number I gave her, instructed me to insert some of the strange coins I’d been collecting without a clear grasp of their relative value, and moments later a female voice answered, in an accent that sounded to me like Queen Elizabeth’s. I tried to explain who I was and what I wanted, but before I got past my first bumbling sentence, the voice interrupted.

“Come,” it said, and gave me directions to Victoria Station, where I was to take the 10:00 AM train to Eastbourne the next morning. I left the YMCA early and made my way through the crushing gloom of early November London to musty old Victoria station. Once there, I did what the voice had instructed me to do, and a little over two hours later, I stumbled off the train at Eastbourne.

Joan Surry.

I mean that literally. I tripped on the top step of the rail car, spilled awkwardly onto the platform with my heavy packsack, and Joan Surry had to move swiftly to keep me from planting my face in the platform’s filthy concrete. I don’t remember her laughing at this clumsiness but I was surely too preoccupied to have noticed—in that moment with trying to recover whatever shreds of dignity I had left, but also, well, generally. The truth is, she laughed at me frequently in the weeks and months that followed, and this bit of slapstick had been the first of my pratfalls. It and the mushroom cloud reference were one of many things I said and did that amused her, most of which I hadn’t intended to be funny.

I didn’t take offense at Joan’s laughter. Her bemusement was always gentle, and, really, I became addicted to it. That’s because laughter and ridicule was rarely the end of it. She would go on from there to tell me a story or deliver some related fact or truth I hadn’t suspected the existence of, or she would gaze at me for a moment and shake her head as if she couldn’t believe my ignorance, or was it my incredulousness, or was it my enthusiasm to do better next time?

Ronald Surry found me a source of amusement as well, but his was of a different dispensation, and his laughter had to be endured rather than enjoyed. For all the energy I expended trying to make Joan laugh, I spent more ensuring that what I said and did wouldn’t be a knee-slapper for Ronald. He was a good man, and as interesting a person as Joan, but he was neither merry nor sweet—unless it was evening and he was halfway through a bottle of the apple wine, Merrydown, as it was appropriately called, of which, Joan said, he drank too much.

I didn’t think Ronald drank too much Merrydown. I had learned that after a third glass, his sternness would ease, his relentless sarcasm would wane, and he would grow loquacious. If the occasion merited a snifter of cognac, which it often did, the loquation would become categorical, and some of the myriad things in the world that he found evil and fearful might become tangible and articulate. His normal intellectual poles were wary silence and the instructively categorical, and unless he’d been drinking there wasn’t much in between. I learned to listen to him very carefully, usually observing whether the instructions made sense in the day-to-day tasks of raising pigs, which was the only reliable laboratory I could test them in, or if they articulated some element of a larger rulebook I was beginning to sense the existence of. Most of what he told me seemed to be speaking to both.

This was the first time in my short life I’d been willing to listen to or observe any adult, and that wasn’t because Ronald and Joan were the first adults who deserved my curiosity. There’d been dozens of interesting and capable adults contributing to my upbringing, including both my parents. But I was recalcitrant by nature, and the hormone fog of adolescence had been unusually thick and bewildering to me. Perhaps because as a young child I’d been allowed and even encouraged by my mother to live in a world of my own imaginative invention, the environments around me had made few practical demands beyond household chores, and held just a single threat: a strong-willed father and his plans to make me into something I didn’t want to become.

Because I was my father’s son—or, as they say, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree—I did my best to be and do the exact contrary of whatever it was he wanted of me.  In a way, this was how I now found myself in England—to escape my father and his intention to rebuild me as a businessman. Of course, I was also there to piss him off, to egregiously not get on with the life he had planned for me.

By itself, and boosted only slightly by the wanderlust of several of my boyhood friends, that refusal to cooperate with my father’s plans had propelled me from the northern frontier of Canada to this farm in rural Sussex, England with Joan and Ronald Surry, two people I didn’t know much about even though they were my uncle and aunt. From those facts on, it was all good news: Sussex was heaven, I was fortunate to have stumbled into the orbit of Joan and Ronald, and just smart enough to recognize it. Before very long I would have chewed and swallowed iron scraps and old shoes to remain with them.

Joan and Ronald were farmers, but of an unusual sort. Both were educated, and both acted and sounded like it, particularly Joan, who had, according to Ronald, “gone up to Cambridge” for a time, and possessed the accent and sensibility to prove it. Ronald had gained most of his education from the Canadian military, some of it in officer training stints at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He had made the most of the mobility that intelligence and courage—or recklessness—enables in wartime, given that he had gotten his original commission defusing unexploded German bombs in London during the Blitz. He had ended the war as a major in the Canadian Army Signals Corps, which is to say he was in military intelligence, a spook. I got the impression from him that in his day, military intelligence wasn’t the oxymoron it has since devolved to.

Despite their genteel demeanor and accents, Joan and Ronald were not “gentlemen” farmers, or hobby farmers, as the term now is. Great Crouchs Farm was a specialized working farm, on which pigs were raised and sent to market as “feeders” when they were forty to sixty pounds and nine to ten weeks old. The operation consisted of three boars and roughly sixty sows, each of which produced up to a dozen offspring slightly more than twice a year, meaning that at any given moment there might be two hundred fifty to three hundred animals on the farm. The Surrys worked hard, with long if irregular hours, and were aided by just two employees, an older man named Rolf, and a teenager from Rushlake Green whose part-time labours I replaced when Ronald realized I wasn’t there for a short visit.

Rolf tended the fields and did much of the heavy work, which included unloading feed and other supplies; loading the young feeder pigs when it was time for them to go to market; and occasionally supervising the removal of dead animals for “The Hunt”, which I assumed, without needing to ask, was the kennels where the hounds used for fox hunting were kept.

My official job, once I was given it, was to assist Rolf. I did that enthusiastically enough, but was only diligent and hard working up to a point. Rolf was as taciturn and stolid as a farm worker from a Thomas Hardy novel, and I’m pretty sure he resented me, probably because the village boy I replaced was a relative of his. So whenever the work seemed to be done, I followed Ronald around on his chores, hung out with Joan, or found a quiet spot where I could read. Eventually Rolf left me to do what I wished unless the task at hand was particularly arduous. Ronald went along with this arrangement because he saw that Joan found my company entertaining, that I was eager to learn, and was neither lazy nor squeamish, all qualities that he himself found, I think, hard to resist.

The Hunt, by the way, usually appeared in the form of a hoist-equipped flat-bed truck to load and carry off the dead. One day, there to pick up the carcass of a sow that had died during farrow, it pulled into the paddock with a pair of dead rams strapped to its bed.  When I asked the driver how the sheep had come to their end, he laughed and said they had been butting heads over an ewe, and got “carried away.”

I puzzled over that one for days. I’d understood the driver’s pun, but there had to be more to it than that. Ronald, when I brought it up with him, assured me that there was—and wasn’t.  “Males are violent and stupid,” he said, as if it explained pretty well everything. “The species doesn’t matter.”

I’d already figured out that Ronald used epigrams and quotes for most of his mental heavy lifting, but often, as with the “males are violent and stupid” one, the meaning quickly leaked out of them and/or whatever subtext they carried sailed over my head. Weren’t most people pretty thick between the ears? I found myself thinking about a waitress in my home town who, tripping over her own feet as she carried a food order down the aisle of the café she worked in, hadn’t put out her hands to stop the fall. I’d watched her skid across the floor on her face, the full plates of food still in her hands under her. To fall this way, I’d decided, was the purest possible definition of stupidity: the inability to preserve oneself from events in the practical world. And my sense of stupidity wasn’t at all gender-based. I had watched a boy about my age fall between some 2×8 planks on a construction site we were investigating, and because he wasn’t smart enough to put out his arms to break the trajectory of his fall, his skinny body had slipped between the planks and his face arrested his fall, breaking his nose with gruesome force. I avoided this boy after that accident, and when he was hit by a car and killed several years later I was pretty sure I knew why. It provided me with a working definition of stupidity that lasted until I began to perceive that stupidity is not just haplessness, but carries with it its own strain of malice.

At first Ronald’s fondness for epigrams and quotes struck me as pompous. But I discovered that if I waited him out, he would usually apply those quotes and epigrams to things I could make sense of, often in ways that were illuminating. Most of what he said led either to new books or to pigs, which had rapidly come to interest me about equally. It registered on me that unlike my father, who mostly quoted himself when he wasn’t paraphrasing Chamber of Commerce bullshit and Dale Carnegie nostrums, Ronald drew his epigrams from deep inside world literature, a location I much preferred to the Chamber of Commerce’s cliché department. I also noticed that his epigrams tended to be observational or ironic rather than prescriptive. He didn’t use one of those dictionaries of quotes that have since become popular for speech-making and cliché-mongering, and this was long before the invention of Google and MBA programs that teach the unwary but ambitious to think exclusively in capitalist slogans, metaphors, and invisible hands. This was applied wisdom, then, not ideology, and wisdom came with a barbed tip.

I liked it that Ronald got his quotes and maxims from reading.  His favourite epigrammatists, when it wasn’t the British literary critic Cyril Connolly, were La Rochefoucauld, the 17th century French nobleman and soldier, whose book of maxims was among the first of Ronald’s many gift books, and Voltaire.  Like Connolly and Voltaire, La Rochefoucauld’s thought proceeded by and to epigrams, which, I deduced, became “maxims” when the thought was fully realized. A “maxim” I took to be a distinct mode of thinking: it dealt in not-completely self-evident or universal truth, the kind one ruminated over and eventually applied, generally in a practical or tactical way. That seemed to be what Ronald did.

I still have the Penguin paperback edition of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims Ronald gave me, its pages now brittle and yellowed by age. When I was eighteen, they didn’t always make sense. The maxims in Connolly’s Unquiet Grave made even less sense, and not just because so many of them were in untranslated Latin and French.  Still, I could feel a new sort of cognitive music in them, even when their significances eluded me. Maybe, I thought, they didn’t add up because I had nothing yet worthy of applying them to.

I rarely knew what Voltaire was talking about, but what I got from him was his clear loathing of systems that confined speculation and dismissed particularity.

Those books—and those months in Sussex—awakened a hunger in me that would become permanent. It was somewhere between the simple wish to learn and a more complicated urge to discover the rules, if there were any, that govern life—human and otherwise. I don’t mean those big aspirational but hopelessly unwieldy rules like the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. I’m talking about the smaller, more precise kind, the ones that sneak up and clip you across the side of the head when arrogance has convinced you that you’ve got everything figured, or the even more subtle and not-quite-secret rules that you never quite get straight even though they trip you up in a hundred different ways across a lifetime.

Until that morning more than fifty years ago when the snow shorted out the electric fences and the Landrace boar got into the same field as the Welsh boar, I thought rules were for other people. I’d spent most of my energy as an adolescent trying to find reasons to avoid, ignore or defy every rule imposed on me by my family, the education system, and a little more benignly, the culture—which in those days meant the Queen, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So what I’m saying is that my sense of what was important in life changed that cold winter morning—profoundly so, even though the occasion wasn’t catastrophic and the outcome wasn’t personally traumatic—except to the Welsh boar. I’ve been living out the consequences of that changed mind ever since. Some of those consequences have been practical, some cognitive, a few mildly spiritual, and I still believe that most rules are there to be broken. But I also now believe that there is a set of rules beyond the breakables that must be discovered—and pretty much respected.

At the same time, I want to be clear that there was (and is) nothing extraordinary or portentous here, by which I mean that I wasn’t breaking rules because my upbringing had inflicted serious damage on me. I wasn’t wounded and I wasn’t in England to heal myself. I was, rather, a blank slate; a tabula rasa on which the wax melted the moment I walked through the gate at Great Crouchs Farm, and then was etched with whatever passes for permanence in this life.

Individual life experience registers, I think, on a dynamic grid that defines what any particular human being was, is, and might become. Whether elucidating the exact and specific points on my experiential grid will help to illuminate a universal grid isn’t for me to decide, although I do believe that illumination and knowledge are better forces in the world than the darkness of uncritically-ingested entertainment or the heedless, headlong material acquisitiveness that have become our cultural hallmarks.

What am I trying to say here as a preface to what follows? First, that the environmental prerequisites of this account are those of most other accounts written by people who aren’t living in war-zones, or more broadly, don’t spend their days with someone or something’s foot on their necks. The prerequisites, in other words, are good fortune and the search for the elusive rules that make being alive sweeter, and once discovered, are not practiced at the cost of making adjacent lives worse. I guess I’m trying to assure you that I’m not going to be whining about how miserable life is when you’re more sensitive than the people around you (which we all are), and that I have no nasty ambition to remake the world and then to police it. I just want to know how things work—which is the best use of a fortunate life, right?

Before I arrived at Great Crouchs farm I didn’t recognize my good fortune; still held the childish belief that I deserved everyone’s love and admiration; and believed that rules were merely mental toys to play with or ignore. To have had the pedagogic hospitality and the kindness Ronald and Joan Surry conferred on me now seems to have been the greatest piece of luck in my now very long life.

What did they teach me, in a nutshell? Well, this: no, all’s not for the best in this best of all possible worlds. But they also taught me that there are things one must try to do about it.

*     *    *

Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of since its inception in 2001.




  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of since its inception in 2001.

You can find the full list of posted chapters here