The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars: (Ch. 14) The Rules of Life and War According to Ronald Surry

By Brian Fawcett | May 30, 2023

Chapter Fourteen: The Rules of Life and War According to Ronald Surry

These are the important facts about the morning of the 26th of December 1962: Two boars fought in a Sussex field, one boar died. They are facts because I witnessed the battle—or the last moments of it, anyway—and there was another witness, now unable to testify. More facts are: a) that the combatants weren’t sows; b) they weren’t cows or chickens; and c) the boars didn’t secretly wish they were fox-trotting or waltzing (sorry—that’s not a fact but an assumption). That the other witness and I may have successfully stopped the battle but were unable to save one of the boars, or, later on, to improve the personality and/or character of the other (whatever that might mean), are slightly more shaky facts.


Beyond this there’s little else here, under the rules of evidence, that I can verify with confidence. Despite the considerable if unorthodox integrity of my reconstructive method and the sincerity of my intentions, the line between careful fabrication and spurious fabulation remains more indistinct than I would like it to be. Care of fabrication is best achieved by going over the details again and again to strain from them whatever one can of the fabulous. But the fabulous remains both insidious and persistent.

For instance, in earlier descriptions, the intercepting of the battling boars by Ronald and me is stated as occurring “at dawn”, which implies that it was very early in the morning—at 6:00 or 7:00 AM, a “fact” that I hadn’t challenged in my memories of the event for more than fifty years. But this was an event that took place less than four days past the year’s shortest day, and dawn in Sussex at the 51st parallel of latitude would have occurred several minutes after 8:00 AM. This might explain one small mystery: that I distinctly recall Ronald entering my room “at dawn”. Since even then I was an early riser, it suggests that I was already awake, and probably reading when he opened the door. That might also account for the swiftness of my response.

What I’m trying to admit, indirectly, is that my careful fabrication of Ronald Surry, and to a lesser extent, Joan Surry might sometimes be operating well inside the realm of fabulation, despite my stated intentions. But since there are less than a half dozen living persons who knew them well enough to offer an alternate version, and all of them have chosen silence, this is the only reality they now have as characters.

Ah, wait. There’s that other reality, the one that exists because of the burden of love and good luck. Right now, that burden is heavier on me than it has ever been because of this attempt to bring Ronald and Joan back to life in these pages—and because living beings are troublesomely contradictory and obtuse. I can, for instance, feel Ronald fretting irritably over what I’ve made of him, likely wishing he had told me more of what he knew, been more candid—and possibly regretting some of the whoppers he sent me out into the world with. I was just a boy, and there’s a strong possibility that I was more gullible than either of us understood. Or maybe he was a better liar than I understood, or even more twisted by experience than I or anyone else had reckoned, and thus more desperate to protect his illusions about himself and the way

Joan might object, too, were she alive to read this. She may regret telling me that Ronald had “seen things a man shouldn’t ever see,” which I first heard but didn’t understand as her reason to forgive Ronald’s eccentricities while I was an 18-year-old boy in 1962, and which she repeated to me during our last face-to-face conversation in the mid-1990s with amplified detail. I’ve chosen to believe she was speaking truthfully, but there’s a possibility that what she told me derived from her innate kindness, and that she made up that story to excuse Ronald’s many eccentricities and his increasingly rotten and/or crazy behavior, because she felt bad about having, finally, sent him away. Love’s burden can be carried in more than one way.

I hadn’t for a second blamed Joan for ending the marriage and precipitating Ronald’s humiliating return to Canada—I witnessed more than enough of Ronald’s craziness after he returned. He’d become a truly impossible tyrant, and sending him away, I think, had been a matter of simple survival on Joan’s part. I’m sure that most lives have their missed opportunities, their regrets and mistakes, but this mess struck me as one she hadn’t deserved. The causes of their marital collapse are likely some combination of what I have above, but then, unless I’ve nailed it on everything, there’s the infinite number of alternate causal tracks.

Wait a minute more! I want to be clear that in my reconstruction of their lives, it is important that you, as my reader, recognize that it was never my intention to recreate Ronald and Joan as literary characters. Like people in the real world, I’ve allowed them the ability to startle, disappoint, and even disgust, although I haven’t taken on the last two very much.

I haven’t created them as the sort of stereotypes I could then throw under a metaphorical or plot-generated bus for the plot points and vivid drama. The conventional verity with which I’ve fabricated Ronald and Joan as coherent beings is less important to me than whether I’ve got a coherent and accurate depiction of what they—and mostly Ronald, who talked more—thought about the properties of the world as it was in Sussex in 1962, along with their experiential background—if I’ve reconstructed that with sufficient degrees of accuracy. This narrative may well be, in other words, fictitious, but it exists without fiction’s intentions.

But before I get into Ronald Surry’s version of the rules of life and war, I want to inject two stories that I’ve been avoiding because they’re inherently destabilizing. Both are about Ronald’s attitudes toward sex.

1.) Among the responses some piglets have to their abrupt weaning from their mothers and being crammed together with other weaners in crowded pens is that they discover fellatio. The first time I noticed a piglet into this, it seemed fairly predictable, given that the piglets had, as recently as a few days before, been getting their nourishment from their mother’s udders, and now they’d discovered something similar-looking on the underside of pigs their own size. The piglets receiving the attention didn’t seem to mind it, or if they did resist, the one with the propensity or whatever it was simply moved on to another pig that didn’t. Better this than an outbreak of tail-biting, I decided, which happened more frequently, and always turned into a messy group riot. It seemed to me a fairly minor consequence of putting intelligent animals in an environment that is boring and stressful at the same time.

Ronald didn’t see it that way. A few minutes after I’d spotted such a piglet and decided to ignore it, he saw what it was doing. But where I’d shrugged and gone on to other things, he stopped and glared, his face and neck flushing. Then he rushed off to the parts shed and returned with a six-inch length of galvanized wire in his hand. He scrambled, muttering, over the side of the pen with the wire, grabbed the little pig that was happily fellating one of his pen-mates, and while it screeched loudly, jammed the wire into one nostril, pushed it through the centre cartilage into the other nostril, and pulled it through until the two sides were of equal length. Then he twisted the wire ends together twice so that the pig had two sharp pieces of wire jutting from his nose. That of course ended the fun, which was what Ronald intended. It was the most violent thing I ever saw him do.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked him an hour later, after his colour had returned to normal. “It didn’t look like that little guy was hurting the other weaners.”

Ronald mumbled something I couldn’t hear, didn’t repeat it, and was off on some obscure errand, his face again reddening as he strode away. The next time he caught one of the weaners at this—about a month later—he did precisely the same thing, except that this time he flushed up, if possible, a still more spectacular shade of enraged red, and he remained irritable for the rest of the day. This time I didn’t ask him any questions, because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to come up with any answers.

Now, unless you’re strictly after laughs, it isn’t wise to let an eighteen-year-old boy come up with explanations for older adults’ odd behavior. That’s where this one went: I had to figure out on my own why Ronald’s reaction to a couple of piglets getting some oral gratification was so extreme. Ronald’s explanation, had he offered one, might have run something like, ‘well, its an unhealthy practice. Long pause. It can spread bacteria and make the entire pen anxious, which in turn could lead to tail-biting, or worse. You’ve seen what they’ll do to one another’.

That’s fine, but why get so irate? I’d seen Ronald less fired up when an outbreak of tail-biting was in full and bloody blossom. He’d calmly locate the tail biters, grab them, and put them in an empty pen. Then he’d brush the tails of the other weaners with solution bitter-tasting enough to discourage the biters from continuing the fun. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes didn’t.

So, no, Ronald had been upset here because it was homosexuality. Did he think the little cocksuckers were going to sap the vitality of their victims? What was that a metaphor for? Was it this Dr. Strangelove simple: that Ronald thought homosexuality was an evil, even when it involved pigs less than a month old?

It didn’t add up. This was a man liberal and tolerant in nearly every way, so what was really going on? It wasn’t something about which I could query him, that was clear. It seemed discreet to not bring it up with Joan, either, which was strategically wise of me because I didn’t know how to be discreet about sexual matters, and like most males, I was decades away from learning how. But the questions remained. Did something happen to Ronald in the army—or earlier—to forge so strong a prejudice? Who knows?

2.) The second story is about a woman Ronald met shortly after the war while he was stationed in occupied Germany. The woman was a military officer, British or American, and apparently quite beautiful. I didn’t ask if she’d been Ronald’s lover, or the lover of someone who’d told Ronald about her. Ronald made a point of repeating that she was both attractive and desirable and “a perfectly pleasant woman”—a term, I recalled, that he’d used to describe his abandoned and then divorced Canadian wife. While I was wondering, once again, about what that meant, he launched into a detailed but not quite clinical description of this woman’s anatomical anomaly: a prolapse vagina.

A prolapse vagina—I now know—is a reasonably complex medical condition with a range of possible organs and/or tissues involved in the prolapsing. The womb, parts of the lower intestine, the bladder, can each or all be involved, and with varying degrees of pain, risk, and erotic inconvenience. Today it is a condition relatively easily remedied by surgery. In the middle of the Second World War, it probably wasn’t, and for most women of that era, it was probably difficult to acknowledge as a condition at all. It’s hard to imagine what a young woman for whom intercourse was almost certainly awkward or even physically painful would do with a normal libido and large numbers of men who found her attractive.

Oh, wait. And this is where it begins to get silly. In early 1963, I was an eighteen-year-old with a predictable deficit in both sexual knowledge and experience, and so I had no real inkling of how a prolapse vagina might present. I also had an active imagination. Was Ronald telling me about something fairly simple—a woman with physical difficulties that made it hard or impossible for her to enjoy conventional coitus? And then what? I’d gotten the impression from my mother and some of her more loudly complaining friends that such a description covered most women.

Somehow, that didn’t sound like what Ronald was trying to impart to me, and it definitely wasn’t what I wanted to hear. More likely he was talking about a woman who derived sexual pleasure from unusual activities because of a strange genital configuration. Or was this something stranger and more exotic still? A woman who could hand you her sexual organ while sitting across a table from you? Where was I supposed to go with this difficult-to-process, unasked-for information?

Empiricist-of-good-will that I was, I went to all of the possibilities I just listed and accepted them all, holding to the sanguine premise that this woman had been, after all, attractive, desirable and “a perfectly pleasant woman”, whatever that meant. Yes, I’m aware that, given the poverty of my experience of intimacy with women, “a perfectly pleasant woman” could have been a bed-post with a face painted on it. Or maybe the female officer was really Ronald’s ex-wife, and the entire story was a coded explanation for why he abandoned her. And why had he chosen to tell me this story out of thousand others he might have.

At the time I probably thought, oh, hell, let’s get to the next story, one I can understand.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the way Ronald expected me to respond. I knew he was trying to tell me something important about sex and women, but what was it? If he was trying to tell me that human sexuality was inherently strange, he was forgetting that I already thought everything was inherently strange, and that I was thrilled about it. Or was he telling me that human sexuality was inherently strange and wonderful? “Okay, fine,” I’d have said, had I been capable of such directness—which I wasn’t—“Where do I get some?”

Or was he warning me that human sexuality teemed with unpredicted uglinesses and complications, and that I ought to brace myself for that? If so, I’m not sure I would have listened, and pretty sure I shouldn’t have.

I did get the impression that the woman with the prolapsed vagina had experienced considerable shame at her condition, and that some men—I hoped Ronald hadn’t been one of them—had responded poorly to it, and to her. Bad males, as always, filled Ronald’s world. Was this woman’s shame real, or was I getting Ronald’s guilt at having exploited her, or at having done nothing about other men who treated her badly? Or was this Ronald’s existential shame at being male? Or was it his shame at being human? All of the above, probably.

Then there’s the wholly reductive possibility that Ronald was a prudish homophobe who thought that oral sex—almost certainly the only erotic activity that a woman with the prolapsed vagina could have engaged in without physical discomfort—was morally wrong. That doesn’t sit any more comfortably than any of the other explanations, given his moral pragmatism in other contexts. But wasn’t it true that for his generation, sex was anguished in ways it hasn’t been for successive generations?

War rubble.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for his generation, given their barely post-Victorian moral values and attitudes about sex mixed with the most violent and destructive war in human history. We’ve all heard the stories about German and then Soviet rapists on the Eastern Front, but there’s been astonishingly little written or said about what the angry Allied troops did to German women after D- and VE-days, or, to be more specific, to Ronald’s world, during the post-surrender chaos that lasted almost three years before Germany’s legal and security systems again became effective.

All such speculations—here, at least—must remain inconclusive because I simply didn’t then and can’t now know for certain what he was trying to tell me, and there are too many plausible alternatives for me to settle on a single explanation. And maybe the story of the woman with the prolapse vagina was nothing more than a generic army story, passed from generation to generation, war to war, and that the real woman with the prolapse vagina had been a camp follower at Waterloo in 1815.

So we’re sure we’ll get the most coherent version of Ronald Surry, I’ll be interpreting what I have strong evidence for, not simply recording what he told me. That means I’ll continue to assume good will and intellectual clarity on his part. I’m also going to take that one step further and tidy up the rough edges—lapses in logical and moral consistency, moral values that have dated badly enough that I’d have to spend pages explaining why what he’s saying isn’t “appalling”, etc. I’m also going to divide things into “wisdoms” and “rules”, even though that wouldn’t be a distinction he, following his mentor Francois de La Rochefoucauld, would have made.

I’ve separated the wisdoms from the rules the way I think Voltaire might have: if something happens the same way nine times out of ten, it’s a rule. On the other hand, wisdom is a tendency, and tendencies should be viewed with circumspection and then mixed with introspection, not fiat and enforcement—unless you can perpetrate a practical joke, in which case, anything goes.

Ronald Surry.

My other key to all this is that Ronald Surry’s wisdom always got delivered in more circumspect terms than his rules. Thus, I’ve had to piece together most of this from fragments of remembered conversations, or from homilies he launched on the fly and didn’t substantiate. Some of them, admittedly, floated in on Merrydown and might be my own drunken musings taken from those encounters, not Ronald’s. But maybe not. It was almost as likely that he’d drop one of his wisdoms on me while we were walking across a field looking for an errant sow, or driving into Heathfield in the Mini to buy more Merrydown:

1.) Human beings are no different from animals, although they’re much more likely to be successfully violent than animals and capable of sustaining the violence for longer periods. More noble motives, like a belief in equality, social justice, or kindness and/or ritual hospitality, are fragile and easily thwarted and redirected.

2.) Democracy is a necessary evil because it prevents persuasive lunatics and oligarchs from doing what they really want to do to the rest of us. Just remember that it too can turn malignant in a heart-beat, and can’t be trusted not to descend to the lowest common denominator, which is what went wrong with both communism and fascism: they both descended too swiftly to their most venal and violent denominators—and stayed there because violence and venality are so much easier than thinking.

3.) Acceptance of the lowest common denominator destroys everything: marriages, friendships, political movements, and nations.

4.) Taste is the secret decider of most things. To be a man of taste you have to educate your senses as well as your intellect.

5.) Rules create sense and prevent chaos. Art and Literature don’t have that obligation and thus mostly generate chaos.

6.) It is better to survive combat than to die in combat. But survival is an issue of degree, and it is always temporary.

7.) There are circumstances under which life is not worth living. The frequency of such circumstances appears to grow with war and with old age.

8.) Reading is the foundation of everything that’s good about the modern world. The willingness to read is crucial to healthy democracy at virtually all its basic stations: it creates equality, grounds public education, generates opportunities and undermines the class system. It erases gender, ethnic and racial divisions, and it is the true fuel for the pursuit of happiness.

9.) No matter what they claim, the English have nothing to teach anyone about sex. If they happen to suggest something that sounds wise and liberal, they’re almost certainly faking it, believe the exact opposite, and are quite likely planning to do whatever it is they’re suggesting you do to barnyard animals in the near future.

Now, the rules:

1.) People are primarily moved to act by simple, banal motives: hunger, sex and fear.

2.) People mean well, unless they’re hungry, cold, or afraid—which most people are.

3.) People do terrible things more easily than they do difficult things.

4.) Women are superior to men because they are less prone to use violence to solve complex problems.

5.) More than five people constitutes a mob.

6.) Always avoid mobs.

7.) Avoid uniformed men with guns.

8.) Whenever conflict is in the offing, crawl under a table or bed. Failing that, puff yourself up to maximum size and bluff. If that doesn’t work, attack without reserve—or faint, if you’re sure no one will kick you to death while you’re unconscious or put you in front of a firing squad.

9.) War is a lifelong addiction for many individual soldiers who survive their first combat. But it changes every soldier, and almost never for the better.

10.) The further you are from those you love, the more dangerous the world gets.

11.) Pigs are less likely to kill you than human beings are. Even the boars are less dangerous than human beings, despite all their loud grunting, teeth gnashing and their giant testicles.

12.) Be ruthless about the things that matter to you. You only get one kick at most cans, so make yours a good one.

There’s one more item, and I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s a rule or his most genuine piece of wisdom. Of all the things I learned from Ronald Surry, it has influenced me more than any other—and not just because many of his other rules I could have or would have learned by other means. This came from the core of his personality, although I think it was already slightly twisted by the time he imparted it. It’s this: One of the duties that comes with having intelligence is that you are obliged to use it at all times.

This is something that I’ve tried hard to practice, with mixed success, I’m afraid. And it isn’t precisely what Ronald laid on me. What he said was this: The disadvantage of having a superior intelligence is that you’re obliged to use it.

It’s possible that he was merely trying to convince me—and himself—about something quite a lot less profound than I took from it. I think he believed that intelligence only mattered if it was considerable and unusual, and he was, I suppose, suggesting to me that I had this sort of intelligence, although he might just have been telling me that my intelligence was superior so I’d try to be a little more thoughtful—or, when I went out into the Big World, I’d behave decently.

Built into the odd way he phrased this was the proposition that intelligence is both the core and the sole relevant substance of a person’s character, and that without character, a person is not capable of moral agency. At the time, I thought this was an arbitrary way of seeing the world, and I still do. It presupposes, first of all that everyone knows where and what the boundary between intelligence and stupidity is. In Ronald’s mind, for instance, a person with Downs Syndrome wouldn’t be capable of arriving at sufficiently complex judgments to act with intelligence. It was, as a matter of fact, hard to tell whether he thought Rolf was capable of these, or the other trades-people we encountered in Heathfield.

I believe he was simply wrong about this. Human beings are capable of intelligence by mammalian instinct alone, and sometimes by the sheer simplicity with which they deploy the mental and emotional resources they do have. I think it unwise to underestimate how much people understand, and plain stupid to generalize about how they understand, and what relevance and quality their understanding has to their lives and to those of others.

Ronald also seemed to be hinting that intelligence was an onerous burden and that prejudice, temporary emotional overflows, or envy, rancour, revenge, are all easier to follow, and perhaps more gratifying. Too true, I suppose. And perhaps he was glimpsing his own future, where he would lose control over his fears and the prejudices rippling through them. Certainly it was the alternatives to exercising one’s intelligence that destroyed him, just as it worsened the lives of much of his genetic line.

In his defense, Ronald had experienced, at close range, an ultra-violent and destructive period in human history during which specious Darwinist prejudices became the servant of murderously simplified ideologies. Nazi Fascism and Soviet Bolshevism killed more than sixty million innocent people before 1945, and Bolshevist excesses in China and the Soviet Union would murder a hundred million more before it was discredited. In a sense, the Western Democracies fought World War II against the idea of survival of the fittest (or the survival of the most appropriate according to the ideologies that had run amok). What Ronald had seen of the world had left him morally terrified, and in many ways, morally and intellectually damaged, if not completely incapacitated. It turned out that damage didn’t heal with time and distance. It became more debilitating as the years passed. This is now understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Ronald was walking proof of how slowly and patiently it can destroy a human being.

Whatever it was that he intended me to understand about using my brain, I heard something else—something more compelling, and, I think, better. The two genetic lines that converge in me had gone to war against the other here, and this time, my father’s sanguinely pragmatic ancestors enjoyed an easy victory over the morally-agonized but more twisted and obtuse genetic line that runs through my mother.

It seems to me now that, for better or worse, intelligence is both the root of the collective human project and its crown jewel. Perhaps it is also its Achilles heel. But this intelligence isn’t a mystical or ineffable or archetypal collectivity and it certainly isn’t possible to summarize it into ideology or moral formulae. Yet it doesn’t reside in the individual, either, not in the sense of private accumulation and possession and accomplishment. It’s too vast, and too complex, and the responsibility for it would crush any single man or woman.

Still, the struggle for survival—of the individual and of the species—will be played out, as Voltaire taught me, one human being at a time, at a thousand levels of intelligence, all of them capable of intersection, advance, wastage, failure and transformation. This is the ten thousand points of light that Thomas Wolfe wrote about, the source of the artifice that is beauty, justice, kindness, and which is always quietly demanding, I hope, embodiment in each of us.

Intelligence belongs to the world, not to the self or the individual, and it might be the only collective worthy of our unquestioning loyalty. It expresses itself best not by glorious public monuments or absolutes of custom, but in careful, unacknowledged individual acts. And it is those small acts that will decide the future of the human species, if (and now I hear Ronald’s voice) it is going to have a future at all.

Sussex snowfield




  • 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