31 January 2012

La Cochon Culturale

The commonality of animal rearing for food is rooted in the peculiarities of local history. Ashington’s history as a significant urban centre dates back only to the early twentieth century. Rapid development of the local mining industry in this period required the colliery owners to import a labour force from outlying rural areas and from their agricultural estate lands in places as distant as Ulster. Continuity of the rural subsistence skills that these people brought to the area was facilitated principally by the emergence and resilience of the allotment movement and stimulated periodically by the shortages of war, recession and unemployment.

Having said this, rearing of animals is more than a mere matter of subsistence. These semi-domestic animals are subjects of an array of beliefs and practices whose logic is intimately related to local experience, and, in particular, to the threat of mining death. Above all, the pig is simultaneously the most revered and feared of animals. In some accounts it is attributed with the powers of prediction. Charlie Burnsey: ‘You can tell when there’s a storm comin’ when a P.I.G. turns its arse to the breeze.’ In other accounts it is characterized as the purest of animals. Jackie Thompson: The pig eats nothing but ‘rubbish, muck and shite, but when you cut it open it’s as clean as a whistle’. Indeed, among the varied ingredients, the Guinness, the virgin’s urine, and the rabbit droppings, that are used to nourish prize vegetables, pig’s blood is regarded by many as the very best. Charlie Burnsey: ‘A bucket of gissy blood on your leeks works wonders . . . it’s like rocket fuel.’

Contrastively, for fear of inviting death many people refrain from using the word pig, referring to it instead as ‘P.I.G.’, ‘gissy’, ‘grunter’ or descriptively ‘round fat thing with stumpy legs’. On a number of occasions the taboo has been used effectively. For example, one man relayed a story of the last days of the strike of 1928. Many of the men at Newbiggin pit were weakening and returning to work. In response, a group of men broke in and nailed the decapitated head of a pig to the entrance of the main shaft. Before the management had time to remove it, one of the returning men saw it and beat a hasty retreat. Word of the event spread and the strike remained firm for a while longer

Leisure and Change in a Post-mining Mining Town - Andrew Dawson

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