The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars (Ch. 3): Females and Males

By Brian Fawcett | Mar 13, 2023

Chapter Three:  Females and Males

 On the morning of December 26, 1962, a domestic boar crossed from one field to another on Great Crouchs Farm in rural Sussex, England and attacked that other field’s resident boar. It took two men to separate them, but the intervention came too late for the older and smaller of the two boars, who died on the scene of heart failure. And for the younger of the two men, the fight became an object lesson about the essential nature of males—porcine, human, or other.

Now, object lessons are often misinterpreted or missed altogether if insufficient contextual information hasn’t preceded them. As the younger of the two men, there wasn’t much chance I was going to miss the import of this object lesson. The older Ronald Surry’s lectures that preceded the battle weren’t just rants about what violent shitheads males were. They had been detailed; they included near-equal amounts of data about the superiority of females; and they’d been as numerous as they were clear and coherent. And so to me, the battle between the two boars felt like a giant exclamation mark to things already cooking, which is precisely how an object lesson is supposed to be received.

Until that December morning in the snow, the anti-male side of Ronald’s curriculum had seemed to me slightly obsessive and off-kilter, and I’d deliberately parked a lot of what he told me—I’d sort it out later, along with the thousand other incoming data, facts and semi-factual lore that were fascinating and overwhelming me at the same time. But if I had been skeptical so far, enough of what he’d been trying to convey had gotten through to me that my receptors, on that morning of December 26, were wide open and perfectly tuned. And after it was over, my head swirled with the vivid contextualization it delivered to the events at hand.

Pig farm.

Some of Ronald’s lecture materials had concerned the inferiority and irrelevance of males in nature, and are now culturally more familiar than they were in the early 1960s.  There’s the temporary usefulness of males amongst bees and ants, where the queen mates and the female workers then ignore, occasionally euthanize or simply sweep the suddenly-superfluous drones out of the nests and hives with the other trash and debris. Then there’s the female spiders’ habit of devouring their physically-inferior males after mating (about which Ronald startled me by presenting it as an example of nature’s efficiency without invoking a trace of the customary poor-little-guy bathos).

Those were sort-of-amusing throwaways to more important illustrations Ronald offered to demonstrate male violence and biological irrelevance, the worst of which was, in his telling, the human male kind. This wasn’t quite culturally prescient of him, but it wasn’t common in those days. Ronald was the first person I encountered to point out that the planet’s long-term carrying capacity for human beings is about 1/20th of its current population, and that therefore human male virility had become a threat to planetary survival, and not just a generator of a lot of gross behavior, some directed toward women, the truly destructive kind directed at one another and at the planet.

Ronald was misandrist: his world-view began with and nearly always returned to his loathing of males. He loathed males because he believed that the uncontrolled urges of human males had been the true source of the violence that had recently ravaged most of the world, to which he’d been a witness and in which he had been a participant and possibly even a perpetrator. But his most frequent source of illustrative pedagogical examples was the one that was closest to us both: the farm, and the single-minded violence of its boars.

On the farm, Ronald had control over this violence—at least up to a point, as the Christmas night snowstorm demonstrated—and his nominal mastery of the boars on the farm was, I suspect, an important element in the psychological glue that kept him together.

Bookstore He seemed to understand this, too. Ronald rarely strayed far from Great Crouchs, staying within a radius of about five miles, inside which lay Heathfield, the nearest sizable town. He ventured south to Eastbourne just once in the months I was on the farm, and that was to take me to a bookstore. Once I had the location, he didn’t go back. He hadn’t been to London, he admitted, in the fourteen years since his discharge from the military.

Heathfieldnd, Engla

This wasn’t agoraphobia in any clinical way. Ronald was fully functional in that he went where he had to, and got what needed to get accomplished done there—and probably with fewer digressions and less dithering than most people. He liked to take me with him on his trips outside the farm because explaining what we were doing and why kept him focused: we went to the butcher, grocer, and wine merchant in Heathfield together regularly, and usually concluded our transactions with astonishing efficiency. Sometimes when we were there, we ventured south to Horam and the Merrydown apple winery, where Ronald slowed down just a little because he enjoyed talking to the proprietor—or maybe he just enjoyed buying another case of Merrydown. We sometimes doubled that purpose up to meet with the agricultural suppliers in Horam and in Heathfield to order feed, or to discuss food supplements, drugs and new farm equipment, all of which Ronald did from lists that were covered with point-by-point annotations. But he didn’t really enjoy being outside the farm and Rushlake Green, and he didn’t bother to hide it from me or anyone else.

Common sense told me that the compelling source of Ronald’s misandry and agoraphobia could only have been the Second World War and his personal experiences in it. In my first months at the farm he said almost nothing about the War, although whenever it did come up it was clear that it warranted capital letters. He may have believed its examples were common knowledge and hadn’t yet recognized how little of that my background had equipped me with, or maybe he was waiting until my education had progressed further before he laid on the damning details he was carrying so close to his heart. That was fine with me; I was willing to study on his schedule.

Misandry is one thing, feminism is another. I’ve never been sure if Ronald was a conscious and conscientious feminist, a female chauvinist, or was simply indulging an experiential prejudice against males, and I don’t think he had it clear in his own mind. And does it matter? A female rape victim doesn’t require those distinctions for validation, does she? Ronald Surry had probably seen men do worse things than commit rape, and, according to Joan, he had been a post-fact physical witness to the fine details of the most vicious mass atrocity ever perpetrated. His arguments against males were usually orderly and rhetorically consistent, but they weren’t always factually comprehensive. When I learned not to be seduced by every story I heard from him, I recognized that much of his evidence was anecdotal, and that I had never had access to more than the surface of his databank.

Women, meanwhile, were his antidote to all of it. That didn’t quite add up, either, because the only acceptable example of feminine glory was Joan. While he seemed to prefer female company to male, he was equally sharp in his criticism of the small circle of couples he and Joan socialized with.

The fly in the ointment was his open and curiously virulent dislike for his mother—my grandmother, and aside from my mother, the one person in the world he and I had in common. Our experience of my grandmother’s character was very different: In the years before I travelled to England I had witnessed the beginning of her descent into dementia, while Ronald’s experience of her had been during his childhood and youth, when she had been an extremely assertive middle-aged matriarch at the height of both her physical independence and her domestic tyranny, both of which had been considerable, even according to my mother’s sympathetic account. I’d been personally subjected to enough of my grandmother’s authority—you could accurately call it assertiveness or tyranny—that she wasn’t my favourite relative even before her mind began to slip.

But really, were you allowed to hate your mother? I didn’t think so, and so I waited for a more nuanced explication of her from Ronald, one that he never offered. And while I waited, I began to notice how abstract his love of females was, and how emotionally ruthless and overbearing he was toward the females around him.

I’ll start with the sows at Great Crouchs Farm, because from a certain point of view, Ronald could be said to have overseen their systematic rape, and that he then stole and sold their offspring for slaughter. He did this repeatedly, too. And yes, such a twisted view is absurd unless you’re an animal rights extremist, which I’m not. I do think that Ronald himself sometimes saw it their way, though.

The other side of this is that Ronald’s affection for the sows at Great Crouchs Farm was both grounded and genuine. He could identify most of them on sight, and several sows—and anyone who knows pigs will confirm the plausibility of this—had, over the years, established relationships with Ronald that were affectionate and even playful. One sow in particular exhibited behaviors toward him that I can only describe as coy and flirtatious whenever he entered a field she was in. This sow would “gambol” up to him, present her posterior to him for scratching, and arch her spine when he complied—which he usually did. He even referred to her as “my girl” and “sweetheart” (and then, so we’re clear, he would dismiss her with a whack from his stick and go on with his day.)

I thought some of the sows behaved like hussies. One, in particular, took a shine to me and would hurry over whenever I appeared in the field she was fallowing in. She would lean against me, in a porcine equivalent of a human female laying her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder, and wait for me to scratch her shoulders and back with my stick. Ever had a three hundred pound girlfriend try to lay her head on your skinny post-adolescent shoulder? Sure, it was funny. But it also unnerved me. [1]

Ronald’s relationship with Joan was egalitarian for the era, but there was often more principle to it than practice, and you understood, fairly quickly, that he had the final say whenever he wanted it. His attitude toward, and authority over, their ten-year-old daughter Judith was more visible and intrusive. He seemed to make both the daily decisions and the structural ones on her behalf, and if part of parental oppression is to propagandize the future of their children, he certainly overdid that: several times a week he would announce that Judith would grow up to be England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, at which Joan would roll her eyes and chide that Judith was just a little girl, and well, lay off.  Judith didn’t roll her eyes because she was just ten years old, but I did see them flicker with a combination of fear and resentment that bode ill for the future of the British Exchequer. She may not have had an alternate plan, but you could tell she definitely didn’t have much enthusiasm for Ronald’s.

Another way of seeing this is to describe Ronald’s dislike and mistrust of men as unbending—and to wonder if, to him, Joan’s—and Judith’s—most important quality, in his eyes, was that they were not male. That Joan happened to be as physically and technologically competent with the farm’s work as Ronald, and nearly as strong physically, would be, with such an explanation, an accidental and thus a dismissible anomaly. But to see it that way is also to turn it into today’s strain of gender warfare, and that demeans both Joan and Ronald. Whatever gravel Ronald had in his emotional gears, he genuinely loved his wife and daughter, and while I was with them, he treated Joan with a respect and tenderness greater than any I’d encountered between two adults.

(Judith? That’s a story for another day, to be told with an accompanying critique of the damages that can be afflicted by helicopter parenting.)

Mushrooms in the Sussex forests.

Joan’s pedagogy, on the other hand, was both more indirect and more successful than Ronald’s, probably because she instinctively understood that I resisted everything anyone tried to teach me, and so took me through the side door of whatever she wanted to impart. A week or so after my ridiculous pot-a-feu declaration, for instance, she began to take me on her weekly mushroom-hunting expeditions. By now it was mid-November, and, she explained, past the optimum mushroom-gathering season, which in England, is September and October. There were still plenty of mushrooms about, just not the choice porcinis and chanterelles, and of the ones to be found, often ink or wax caps, more than the usual percentage were poisonous, or unpalatable unless gathered at the right moment.

Had I been paying attention, these forays would have turned me into a mycologist instead of what I actually am, which is a man who’d like to be one but isn’t. But I was young and distracted by a thousand things, and weren’t mushrooms, however delicious in a pot-a-feu or Joan’s post-expedition soups, still just fungi?

East Sussex forests.

The truth was that Joan and I did much more than hunt for mushrooms on these expeditions, which often took us miles from the farm along the ancient footpaths of the Sussex Downs. I learned to understand how the landscape retained water or let it pass, to identify plants and their habitats, to appreciate the hedgerows of England and their often-remarkable histories, and to become a connoisseur of small graveyards and the stories of obscure courage in the face of hardship and loss the gravestones evoked in me.

Even if I wasn’t always adequately focused on the whereabouts and edibility of mushrooms, I was nearly always perfectly focused on Joan and her gentle pedagogy, and I was learning how to listen to soft voices and to see subtle things for the first time. I was also developing the perceptual pattern that has stayed with me all my life: look short, look long, think, and then focus on the middle distance.

It took three years in the Forest Service during my twenties to recognize that most of life—certainly the most interesting elements along with the kinds of danger you can actually do something to avoid—is best apprehended in the five to twenty yard range. It took quite a lot longer for me to realize that I had been taught to look there by Joan Surry.

I’d never encountered a woman like Joan, and I’m not sure I have since. I was more enchanted by than enamoured of her, because she was, after all, my aunt, and she was almost thirty years older. She was warm and intelligent and physically adept and, equally important, she saw nothing unusual about herself. I was occasionally puzzled by her deference to Ronald, but I noticed at the same time that she was also maternally solicitous and protective of him. In her view, he was fragile; she wasn’t. Without recognizing it, I came to share that view and I acted accordingly: I deferred to Ronald, but on Joan’s example I also tried to protect him, without needing to understand exactly what from, or why. Subconsciously, I’d decided that the true authority at Great Crouchs Farm lay with Joan, and I was practicing her methods. I listened to Ronald, showed him respect, and didn’t seriously challenge his authority or the often-shaky verity of his “facts”. But I didn’t believe him without reservation, and I didn’t believe in him or what he said. Not the way I believed, and believed in, Joan.

That was to become a permanent habit, actually, and not always a useful one. To this day, I’ll listen to what men have to say. But that’s as far as it goes, and it’s rare for any man to gain my automatic respect, and rarer that I trust his judgment. Another part of my brain is waiting for the bullshit and the testosterone to flood in and drown both sense and kindness.  I’ve been even less willing to submit to male authority and I’m a disruptive force, usually playfully—in every male group I‘m forced to join, whether it’s a baseball team, a team of planning experts or an organization of other writers. But any woman who displays the slightest authenticity I will follow blindly over the nearest cliff or into their heaviest traffic, whether it’s emotional or practical. Five failed marriages are the proof of that (and, I suppose, of my lousy judgment when it comes to women: strength, I’ve learned, comes in many forms, and its most common expressions are, in men, violence, and in women, single-mindedness).

In 1962, both misandry and feminism were relatively new and intellectually intriguing, at least to someone of working class origins like me. I’d grown up in a matrifocal family, but it was also one in which the ultimate authority rested with my father, whose domestic exercise of it, oppressive as it always seemed to me, was actually fairly light and negligent. In retrospect I enjoyed a safe if not quite violence-free home life in a very secure environment, but I was too busy squirming under my father’s thumb to notice. That my father rarely exercised his authority at home—and that when he did it was nearly always contested by my mother—likewise sailed over my head. What caught my attention was that my father’s only means of enforcing his authority was physical violence, at the threat of which my mother melted into the background. I paid attention to that because I was the one most likely to be on the receiving end of that violence—his or anyone else’s, since I just couldn’t keep myself from challenging anyone or anything that tried to put a thumb on me. I was also dimly aware that I wasn’t quite victimized or damaged by these frequent confrontations with my father. I thought this was because I fought back, with insolence when I was young, and by the time I was sixteen or seventeen, with blows of my own. It would be decades before I woke up to the reality that I hadn’t been damaged because my father had always pulled his punches, whether they were physical or of the less tangible kind.

In every other way, the household I grew up in was ordered and operated entirely by females: my mother, my seven-years-older twin sisters, my maternal grandmother during the summers, and occasionally even by my mother’s friends, of which she had far more than my father, who seemed too busy for friends; so busy it seemed he came home only to eat and sleep, with a snarl in my direction whenever I was being unruly. Which was often.

Yet somehow, these two relatively autonomous but overlapping authorities, in retrospect, pretty much vanquished any sense of vulnerability and uncertainty I might have had through my childhood years. Part of the security I felt resided in the fact that my family lived in Northern British Columbia. I understood, if only vaguely, that we weren’t there by accident, either. My parents each professed, in their different ways, that civilization had done little other than kill innocent people and, (this according to my rabidly anti-communist father), restrict their business opportunities. For them, being consciously Canadian and living at the edge of the wilderness had been as deliberate a life choice as they knew how to make.

In many ways, my parents were right about this, or at least right about what it protected them from. Their deliberately-chosen ethos was “progress”—hardly surprising when the horizon before them was now as empty of everything but trees waiting to be cut down, and their roadmaps as rudimentary as the roads that led from where they’d come from to where they wanted to go. Their ambitions were as clear as they were modest: they wanted things to get better and bigger, but they really weren’t in a hurry for this to happen. What they wanted, generally, was more things—so long as they were secured in what they considered to be an orderly, business-like way.

Those values gave me security as a child, but they ceased to offer me anything at all when I reached adolescence. Partly it was because the hormones arrived during the most intense period of the Cold War, when school children were regularly told to crouch beneath their school desks as protection against the threatened nuclear attacks that Western governments were attempting to “normalize”. Children aren’t easily fooled about such things, and they are much better at putting “facts” together than adults give them credit for. I went through my adolescence expecting to die any day in a nuclear war that I believed was going to kill everyone and end civilization. And, not incidentally at all, I grew up thinking that the government, the local civil defense buffoons who made us endure the under-the-desk drills, and my parents, all had to be crazy people for going along with any of it.

Two months before the Landrace boar stumbled through the snow into that foreign-to-him field where he could smell the presence of another male, I had spent four days of the Cuban Missile Crisis hanging around the radio room of an ocean liner, watching the captain agonize over whether to turn his ship into the south Atlantic because he feared his port of call, Southampton, was going to be a heap of smoking debris when he tried to dock there.

Sussex fields.

By that point I had already become the first and only one of my parents’ children to reject their values and their horizons. If the world was going to end before I got much older, I wanted to see what I could of it, and that wish had propelled me thousands of miles from home, bathing my senses in the small, mossy-green realities of the East Sussex countryside where Three Cups was a little more than a mile northeast of Rushlake Green and Boodle Street and Old Cowbeech were two miles in the opposite direction. There were, to my delight, road signs that said so.

Stone walls in Sussex.

Such distances and proportions delighted me because Sussex was my first encounter with an organic human scale to life, in which physical distances have a relationship with the capabilities of the unmechanized human body—a scale, in other words, at which all human societies had operated until the advent of modern mechanical transport. This scale and its intimacies also clashed with my knowledge that in the air above, fleets of jet bombers, their bellies filled with nuclear bombs, circled at the point of no return, always enough of them at failsafe to ensure the end to everything—the sweet grassy fields and stone walls of East Sussex, as much as the boundless forests and shining lakes of Northern British Columbia.

*   *   *


[1] Pigs, with their poverty of defensive tools, are only comfortable in nature within a thicket, which the OED defines, unhelpfully, as “A dense group of bushes or trees”. A thicket, were it explained by a feral pig, would have a number of specific properties not enumerated by the writers of the OED, who clearly haven’t given much thought to the minds of pigs or to the idea of a thicket as respite, haven, safe house equivalent. A true thicket would have multiple narrow entrances (and therefore multiple exits), be impenetrable to attack based on brute or overwhelming force, provide shelter from the sun, bad weather, and flying predators. Oh look! Up there in the branches of the thicket crouch the ancestors of homo sapiens, also nearly hairless animals light on defensive tools.

*   *   *

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