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John Gadd: Pig expert and avid storyteller

In August 2020, long-standing contributor and columnist John Gadd passed away at the age of 90. Up until his last month he continued to write for this title in a monthly column. In this article we look back to a remarkable character, whose contributions reflected his many passions.

Only once did I have the privilege of meeting John Gadd in person. It was on a beautifully sunny day in April 2007. Just months before I had started in my position as editor for Pig Progress. At the time I thought it would not be such a bad idea to get to know all the expert contributors in the international pig industry personally. After all, John had been writing for the title Pig Progress for many years already, so in terms of content I could definitely consider him to be one of the founding fathers of the title.

British pig expert John Gadd loved to write - not only was he a regular columnist for Pig Progress, he also kept an illustrated diary for decades. - Photo: Adam Gray | SWNS.com
British pig expert John Gadd loved to write - not only was he a regular columnist for Pig Progress, he also kept an illustrated diary for decades. - Photo: Adam Gray | SWNS.com

At his request, we met in the historic Half Moon pub off the A350 in Shaftesbury, Dorset, England. Together with his wife Barbara he lived in a cottage in the nearby village Fontmell Magna; for him, it was an easy drive. I happened to be on a short holiday to Wales and England, so that was an easy place to meet.

Of the lunch meeting itself I do not remember too much – just that I was quite nervous. He was one of the world’s well-known pig experts, and I really had just entered the scene. John must have been 77 years old at the time. I remember him being very knowledgeable and kind; I was relieved that he had an open mind and did not dismiss me for not knowing much about pigs. We chatted for almost 2 hours. 

Over 300 columns for Pig Progress

I’m grateful that Pig Progress was able to count on that open mind for another 13 years, as he became one of my trusted colleagues-at-a-distance. According to his own calculations, John started writing columns for Pig Progress early in 1990. With at least 10 columns a year, he achieved over 300 columns for the title, a contribution of monumental size.

A bookcase full of the diaries of John Gadd at his home. - Photo: Adam Gray | SWNS.com
A bookcase full of the diaries of John Gadd at his home. - Photo: Adam Gray | SWNS.com

Pig management issues

No doubt his specialty was pig management issues. In his long career he had seen countless swine farms in the 33 countries he had visited professionally. He kept a close record of everything he saw on farms, of what he advised and what he learnt. With that, he could write about dos and don’ts, about things that can go wrong and things that should be improved, in an easy-to-read style, combining a joke with hands-on advice. How to find the best age for weaning, how to optimise ventilation in farms, how to do appraisals – every time a pig-related question included “how”, John surely knew the answer. Quite appropriately, his column series was called “What the Textbooks Never Tell You About…”.

National and international magazines

Dorset was also the place where he started his long career in pigs, when he became a manager of Taymix, a large pig farm, after having graduated from Aberdeen University, where his interest in agriculture began. He then worked for RHM as well as Dalgety Spillers, before deciding to stand on his own legs as an independent consultant from the age of 53. Besides finding a monthly job as columnist with Pig Progress, he also contributed to a wide range of other national and international magazines, including the British title Pig World. Again, according to his own calculations, he topped 3,000 articles on pig production. Apart from that, he wrote four textbooks about pig production, some of which were translated into Chinese as well.

One of the 4 pig handbooks written by John Gadd. - Photo: Harm Putman
One of the 4 pig handbooks written by John Gadd. - Photo: Harm Putman

A passion for writing

The vast number of publications already reveals it: Becoming a successful and lasting contributor to many pig journals requires something else apart from a deep interest in pig production. John continued to write for Pig Progress until the end – his last column arrived in my inbox about a month before his death. His daughter Alison once explained to me that writing was his “lifeline”, and there is much truth in that. He had a quality which is not found in many pig people – it’s that of the storyteller.

Diary

It could be seen in virtually every aspect of John’s passions outside the world of pig production, most notably in the daily diary he kept during many years of his life, which he called the “Omnium Gatherum”. The diary, complete with an index, eventually came to consist of 170 volumes with at least 36,000 illustrations, mostly photos, and approaching five million words. The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph once called it “very probably the longest illustrated diary in the world”.

I started off my aide memoir, to remind myself of who I met in business

A short video on YouTube, shot in 2013, zooms in on the “why” of his diary. John is filmed saying: “I started off my aide memoir, to remind myself of who I met in business. I was meeting then perhaps 400 or 500 people a year. And I forgot who they were, so I noted these down. That was quite important, because most people keeping a diary give up after the first year. It’s just like swimming, you are very keen to start and then it gets to be a pain and you give up. These aides memoires kept me going and got me through that wall of resistance.”

Storytelling

Now storytelling is not only about telling, but also about the stories – about listening to them, about curiosity, about experiencing, imagining and collecting. No wonder then that history was a place where all those passions came together – from prehistoric subjects like Stonehenge to modern-day events – and from the author T.E. Lawrence to local archives, each subject had his entire interest. John had a particular enthusiasm for the Great War (1914–1918) and he made various journeys across the Channel to track the events that had taken place at the battlefields. And as may be expected, these trips were also documented in detail.

Always an informed opinion

Even at the age of 90 he held well-informed opinions about more topical issues, like for instance Brexit or Covid-19, and would not hesitate to share those in our email correspondence. Though he did not contract the virus, it was as if he knew what was coming.

About Covid-19, he wrote in mid-May 2020: “If I do catch the virus it will be from those carers who come in weekly, as they look after lots of other ‘oldies’. I’m not worried – what will be, will be. I have had a wonderful life and 62 years of a marvellous marriage; my dear wife’s ashes under an English oak sapling in the corner of a wood 400m away. I will end up too, next to her, and what is left of us will be together again for all time. A fitting end to one of life’s great love affairs, as it has been.”

John leaves behind a daughter Alison, who kindly volunteered to assist putting this review together. He also leaves behind, among other things, a 170-volume diary, which can be viewed in the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, UK.