We are sitting in the restaurant at the end of a busy summer day. The waitresses, young, pretty and flushed with heat and work, are teasing Nic about his golden highlights. ‘L’Oreal or Clairol?’ asks Louise. Nic has been a waiter here for two years, working on weekends during his A levels (biology, chemistry and physics) and full-time during his gap year, funding his travels, then returning to earn money for the year ahead. In two weeks’ time he’s off to King’s College in London to study bio-medicine. This is his farewell party.
I’ve watched Nic’s transformation from a young, shy boy, to confident young man. He’s a good waiter, who stays friendly and calm even in the push of a crazy, busy lunch. Today he beams as he opens his present: a boxed set of pocket Penguin books that he’s wanted all summer, writers as varied as Albert Camus and Elizabeth David, John Mortimer and Freud, a healthy sign of eclectic interests for this future scientist.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say that a good waiter will make a good scientist but I’d put my money on Nic. However, watching him as he chats happily with his young co-workers, I can’t help thinking that I haven’t put my money on his future, that few of us, including our Government, are backing Nic and the kind of scientist he hopes to be. The news this week that the Hall family is closing their guinea-pig farm in Staffordshire in a final attempt to get back the remains of Chris Hall’s 82-year-old mother-in-law, stolen from the churchyard where she was buried, is in fact an abandonment of the scientists on whose work our lives depend.
I confess that I’ve wondered why the Halls persevered for so long. Although they managed for three decades quietly to produce a crop more beneficial to mankind than turkeys or sugar beet, the past six years have been sheer Hell. The list of incidents-460 in the past two years-includes death threats, sinister acts of sabotage and arson. How much easier to grow weeds rather than live in fear and isolation. How much easier not to deal with this truth: animal-rights terrorists are as threatening to democracy as any bomber with a knapsack full of explosives.
In 1999, when the campaign of violence began, I saw the Halls as farmers fighting for their right to grow the crop of their choice, not as a brave family providing biomedical science with the basic ingredients needed to carry out studies that have led to the discoveries of vitamin C, blood transfusions, antibiotics and vaccines. Now, in guilty retrospect, I think that every farmer in the country should have supported the Halls by raising-symbolically-a crop of guinea pigs, every family who has benefited from cancer treatment or a blood transfusion, who has a child dependent on asthma inhalers, should say a grateful prayer for the courageous Halls.
Meanwhile, Allister proposes a toast to Nic’s future. Allister, the youngest chef in our small brigade, brimming with creative talent and ideas; Allister, diagnosed with childhood diabetes age four, dependent for the past 16 years on two daily injections of insulin, the life-saving treatment first carried out on guinea pigs. A farm is a small universe. This one owes a lot to the dedication of scientists and to the noble guinea pig, and to the courage of fellow farmers who needed but never got the support they deserved.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on September 1, 2005.