Medieval spectre haunts the land while animals 'sleep' on TV

June 8, 2001

Andy Brown relates the hellish falout of foot-and-mouth.

It began one regular Saturday morning, our two-year-old strapped safely into her car seat, watching the familiar landscape fly past. The start of a ticklish cough rattled in her throat. We were off across the moor to give it some fresh air.

Our house is in the village of Sheepwash. A friend affectionately shortens this to "The Wash". Given the incessant rain and the large number of livestock around here, the names are apposite.

As we rounded a tight bend - the worst blackspot on these roads - we spotted a familiar car in the layby opposite. The driver was leaning from the window, filming something; a dead pheasant on the road.

We knew him instantly: a friend with a new digi-cam, recording a year-in-the-life-of their smallholding. Filming the roadkill was possibly bizarre, but then he's an artist. And an American. We stopped to chat. He said there was talk of foot-and-mouth in the area. We made tentative arrangements to call by on our way home.

When we arrived at their farm, his wife was making hazel hurdles in the lower field; a gift for a friend in London. Such tasks connect her to hundreds of years of farming crafts, she says. They keep a small flock of indigenous Devon sheep; spin and dye their wool. She knits his jumpers.

"Quiet today." Her fingers were busy at the stiff wattles. She was right. For once the neighbours weren't out. No sounds of chugging tractors; no shepherds whistling at their dogs; no distant shotguns. We didn't give it much thought though. Instead, we headed back to the house to drink cider. The starlings would be in to roost at any minute. We waited for their discordant arrival in the giant oak.

The sun set, the light faded, but no starlings came. Another sign of quietude. In our cups, we stumbled to the stable. One of the horses was limping. Medieval farmers led their lives by such animal signs: sows squealing in their sties; hens huddled in the coop; broken spiders' webs. All predicted bad weather. Some country practices are still based on such lore. But a medieval peasant noticing spring flowers with their heads prematurely drooped, birds flying down chimneys or coffin-shaped coals smouldering in the fire could only have predicted one outcome: ill omen, tragedy and death. With the cider inside us, it seemed that the quiet land, the empty roost and the limping horse might also portend something grim.

A week later, our friends' farm was quarantined. The sheep destroyed. They weren't allowed "off site". Words like "quarantine" and "culling schedule" replaced "hurdle" and "starling roost" in their vocabulary. We left them two bottles of whisky in the letterbox at the end of their lane. "Make sure they get them please," we asked the police guard. She was delighted to see someone at the end of her 18-hour shift. "They'll be needing them," we added. "They're not the only ones," came her laconic reply.

As the epidemic spread, so did the rumours. Stories proliferated. "X is in hospital; took a beating from some farm lads who caught him moving sheep." The lynch mob, witch-hunt mentality. "Y's been fined £1,000 for shifting sheep to meet the grazing quotas," something that goes on a lot, "unnoticed", around here. "Z's dead." In fact, Z is still alive, but the police did take his shotgun from him. You see, he'd been wandering around the farmyard shooting his own livestock. People had rightly become nervous that, in his fever to do a "proper job", he could have turned it on himself.

The stories of personal hardship became sadder by the day; the general mood increasingly medieval. The whole country was already driving over bales of disinfected straw, just as visiting merchants in plague times washed their coins in vinegar before entering villages to trade. As the cull of livestock picked up pace, the measures became stricter; the landscape more Bosch-like. We were the tormented inhabitants of one of his vivid hell-scapes: squad cars and soldiers guarded the gateways of every farm; putrid smells of rotting flesh wafted up from the piles of roadside corpses; great bonfires lined the roads from village to village; acrid smoke settled its damnable dust on everything. Our daughter's cough worsened. We started coming down with it too. The doctor told us it was "environmental".

But, for me, the medieval link goes deeper than the surface of these distressing scenes. I have just finished writing a novel based on the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion. It begins in Sampford Courtenay, a village only ten miles from here. When their livelihoods are threatened by economic pressures, social changes in land use and religious reforms, the Catholic peasants of Devon and Cornwall march on Exeter. They want to protest and exercise their democratic rights. Except in Tudor England, there are no democratic rights. In the ensuing massacre, some 4,000 men, women and children are killed. The old religion is replaced by Protestantism and the free market. Massacre aside, it all sounds very contemporary; the parallels with present-day protests at the siting of livestock pyres and gravesites, and the massed countryside marches, only too clear.

Our friends' farm has since been sprayed, lime-washed and partially reopened. We've just met them - at our place, not theirs - for the first time in eight weeks. They bring round some photographs. A mutual friend took them at their farm last summer. The sun is shining. We're sitting in the field, eating and drinking, as bucolic as you like. But to say that things will soon be back to normal as in the photos seems naively optimistic. Our friend tells us to burn the bag the photos arrived in.

"Everything off the farm's got to be burned," he says. "Even the hazel hurdles need dipping in citric acid, before sending to London. You wouldn't credit the ironies." The worst is, perhaps, that the new digi-cam has found a new role: documenting the slaughter and clean-up. Three minutes of footage have already been broadcast on Sky TV. Farmers from "the third world" may well have seen those shots of Highampton. Only now, we're not so sure which way round the world lies any more.

Our daughter has become restless. She's been stuck indoors for weeks. "Watch the news, Mummy," she coughs, with a nagging insistence. Why? we ask. "To watch the animals," she says. Which animals? "The animals sleeping on TV." Already I'm singing the song: "He ain't dead, he's just asleep." Out of the mouths of babesI I note this, for her words and her misperceptions form part of the complex jigsaw this puzzling crisis has become. Words - like the virus in the livestock, like my daughter's worsening cough - are in the blood. As well as lecturing on creative writing at Exeter University, my partner and I direct the Arvon Foundation's residential writing courses at Totleigh Barton, just a mile from the epicentre of the Devon outbreak. The centre is surrounded by grazing farmland.

By early March, Arvon is forced to cancel some of its writing courses and to close its gates temporarily. By early May, with the crisis waning, we reopen, but not without severe disruption and losses - yet another industry badly hit by the epidemic. But before the gates are closed in March, I make one last trip to work. Driving across the cattle grid, I stop to spray the wheels of my car. Something lying in the neighbour's field catches my eye. My view is obscured by the scraggy, spring hedge. Whatever it is strikes me as unusual; grey and bulbous, with four legs sticking up into the damp morning air. It is also upside down.

Might it be a ewe stuck on her back, kicking and struggling to right herself? She'll need my help, or else her chest will collapse and the crows come down to finish her off. Or is it one of my daughter's "sleeping" animals? As I sift through the troubling images of the past months, I begin to see whatever it is as a dead cow, its rigid legs raised in rigor mortis. I look closer. Its sides are distended, the hair weathered away, as if it might burst at any minute into a putrid mire of gasses and liquids.

It is only when this unpleasant reality has sunk in, that I see it is not reality at all. What I am really looking at is an old, overturned bath. I laugh at myself. Like my daughter watching the news, I have misread the signs: slaughtered cows and sheep on pyres are really just sleeping, aren't they; the rising smoke around them nothing more than the perfumed miasma of a dream?

If this is a dream at all, then it has rapidly become a local and national nightmare. When the country finally awakes from it; when both the real bath, and the metaphorical bath of the rain-soaked Devon countryside, are righted, we pray that all the night sweats, all the misreadings and mistaken images, come out fully in the wash.

Andy Brown is lecturer in creative writing and arts at Exeter University and centre director for the Arvon Foundation in Devon. His third poetry book, The Wanderer's Prayer , is published by Arc, £5.95.

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