This is a brave piece of publishing by Canongate who are renowned for their willingness to tackle projects more cautious heads might let pass. Fortunately for them their track record is good – securing Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father way, way ahead of his success in the US Presidential nominations was masterly. Publisher Jamie Byng, as the chair of this year’s World Book Night initiative, lifted the coverage to a whole new dimension. More recently, Canongate’s decision to publish Julian Assange’s autobiography without the author’s approval has backfired (and reportedly cost them a million pounds) but I suspect they will turn that to their advantage in due course.
Pyg is – I think – fiction. Although there is an extensive entry about sapient – or learned - pigs on Wikipedia (complete with a poster naming our hero, Toby) the possibility that it is an elaborate spoof still lurks.
But let’s take Pyg at face value. Using a font – Caslon Antique - redolent of the kind of poster that you’d expect to see promoting Mr Kite’s benefit, with arbitrary use of capitals and italics, immediately gives the book a feeling of historical veracity. And the early part of the story tallies with Wikipedia’s account:
“The original Learned Pig was trained by a Scotsman Samuel Bisset, who ran a travelling novelty show. The idea of an "intellectual" animal was not new [but] no performing pigs are known to have been trained before.
The pig was shown with great success in Dublin. After Bisset's death the pig was taken over by a Mr Nicholson, who toured it in Britain. It was exhibited in Nottingham in 1784, coming to London in the following year." According to publicity at the time,
‘This entertaining and sagacious animal casts accounts by means of Typographical cards, in the same manner as a Printer composes, and by the same method sets down any capital or Surname, reckons the number of People present, tells by evoking on a Gentleman's Watch in company what is the Hour and Minutes; he likewise tells any Lady's Thoughts in company, and distinguishes all sorts of colours.’”
So far so good, and synchronous with the book except that Mr Nicholson turns out to be Sam of that surname, Toby’s friend from very early days who, now grown enough to claim ownership of Mr Bisset’s assets, allows the story to travel to London via a stellar cast of name dropping. Thirty four pages of explanatory notes list, among others I regret I do not know, Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Joseph Banks, William Wilberforce, William Blake and Robert Burns.
The sapient pig in these pages progresses far beyond Typographical cards and undertakes rigorous studies at Oxford in a number of disciplines, ending in the award of Bachelor of Arts cum laude. Only the art of speech seems to elude Toby but his thoughts are expressed articulately throughout.
And I thoroughly enjoyed it . . . but I return to my original position of this being a brave piece of publishing. I would have loved to have been in the meeting where Jamie Byng (interviewed in nb60) and the editor, Jenny Lord, discussed this book and agreed to publish it. In Russell Potter’s acknowledgements Byng ‘at once understood and embraced Toby’s story, and has since worked with such extraordinary energy to bring it to the world at large’.
In an age when publishers target readerships with demographic accuracy, here is a book which has no immediately obvious readership. I find it difficult to know whether it would work as a reading group book but would love to hear from anyone or group who gives it a go. In the meantime, I have no hesitation in suggesting you check out Pyg as a personal read – it doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve read and there aren’t many books that fall into that category these days.