Simon Dawson was working as a real estate agent in London when his wife, Debbie, suddenly proposed that they move to Exmoor & run a smallholding. Simon has never lived in the country & hates the outdoors. However, as he had promised to make the move (albeit in a noisy pub when he was half-drunk), he feels obliged to give it a go. The Dawsons sell up in London but Simon has to keep working to make the project financially possible so he lives in a room at his mother’s house & continues working during the week, making the trip to Exmoor every weekend.
Simon’s initial reluctance to make a complete lifestyle change is understandable & the fact that he commutes from London to Exmoor every week means that he finds it harder to become part of the local community. Initially they rent a house with no land but eventually they buy land close to their house & the smallholding begins to take shape. Debbie immediately finds her feet, getting a job as a cook. She convinces a reluctant Simon to keep chickens which they house on a friend’s property in return for looking after her poultry as well. Eventually they have pigs, horses, sheep as well as chickens, ducks, geese & a dog called Dex.
Simon finds it difficult to reconcile killing & eating animals that he’s grown to love – however reluctant he might have been to have any animals in the first place. From his first horrible attempt at killing a chicken & the day when he has to send his first pigs, Black Bum & Spotty Bum, off to the abattoir, Simon soon decides that rearing animals with kindness so they have a happy life is the only way he can bring himself to eat meat at all. He has to learn to contain his rage at the unfairness of Nature when a hand reared pig dies or a fox kills all the chickens. The Dawsons experience a lot of setbacks, especially financially but, after more than ten years on the land, they know they made the right decision to keep trying to fulfill their dream, even when it would have been easier to give up.
I enjoyed Pigs in Clover with a few reservations. Simon’s relationship with his family seems odd, to say the least. It’s not until halfway through the book that we learn that the estate agency he works in is owned by his mother & brother, neither of whom are ever named. Of course, it could have been their choice to be anonymous but they’re distant, slightly hostile figures all the same. His mother tells him of a reduction in his working hours from full-time to part-time over the phone & finally lets him go altogether in the same way without really having any idea just how finely balanced their finances are or what a devastating effect this will have on their lives. Their one visit to Dorset is a disaster as they just can’t understand what the Dawsons are trying to achieve.
I would also have loved to have heard more of Debbie’s experiences. Alternate chapters about Debbie’s life on her own in Dorset while Simon was in London would have been fascinating. We learnt a lot about Simon’s many near-death experiences with quad bikes, electric fences & rogue sheep & his philosophical tortures over eating the animals he’s grown to love. he even becomes a miserable vegetarian in London because he can’t bear to eat animals that haven’t had a happy life. I wanted to know more about the work Debbie put in to learning butchery & all the ways she made ends meet. They eventually made a modest living through selling their organic produce at farmers markets & online & Simon became a writer with a weekly newspaper column & wrote The Self Sufficiency Bible which led to running courses on what they’d learnt to others wanting to have a go at self sufficiency. They also made a decision to streamline their tasks so they could become self-sufficient without dying of exhaustion. This became even more important once Simon was living full time in Dorset & their relationship began to suffer because they did nothing but work without ever feeling they were getting ahead.
I read Pigs in Clover courtesy of NetGalley.