It's 7pm and as the setting sun shimmies and bobs towards the undulating spine of the far horizon, farmers across the country are going through the usual routine of feeding the pigs, tucking up the chickens and bringing in the haystacks for the night. All except for Fergus Pong, that is, who has forsaken such archaic and occasionally deviant pursuits and is settling down to quite a different sort of evening on his Staffordshire farm. There was a time when the air would have been full of the lowing of cattle, the barking of horses and the smell of shit. Now those familiar ingredients of rural life have been replaced by the gentle hum of electrical transformers, the soft whine of server fans and the smell of shit. That's because these days Mr Pong's establishment is a data farm.
"What bloody time do you call this?" Mr Pong calls out to me as I stomp muddily up the lane, woefully late for our interview. "I've been leaning on this 'ere gate for half an hour or more. Plays 'avoc with me knees, all this leaning. Got distracted by one of your fancy townie coffee shops, I shouldn't wonder?"
I apologise profusely, although it ought to have been clear to the most hard-hearted of scoundrels that I am in a state of shock. Forty minutes earlier I had been motoring along a country road, whistling contentedly to myself, when something large and shaggy and unpleasant had ripped through a hedge before cannoning into the side of my Nissan Micra and rolling me into a ditch.
This sort of thing had never happened to me before and I was a little unsure what I ought to do next. You'd be puzzled too, I shouldn't wonder. You'd probably have done what I did, which was to sit for a while with the thunder pounding in your ears and reflect upon why your horoscope that morning had hinted that it would be a good day for tackling money matters and for renewing old friendships, but had entirely failed to mention that your journey was likely to be interrupted by something resembling a medium-sized industrial unit bursting out of a nearby hedgerow.
On reflection, 'medium-sized industrial unit' is perhaps not the best simile, even if it is the first thing that springs to mind. Medium-sized industrial units seldom inconvenience motorists with such earnest commitment. Also, they are rarely hairy, nor do they huff and snort as they restlessly pace around your stricken vehicle, occasionally butting your rear offside wheel with their shaggy heads, or looming up at the window and glaring at you with sickly yellow eyes.
This one did, which suggested that this wasn't some form of commercial building after all. Oh no. This was a bull, although it was, admittedly, roughly the same size and shape as something that you might find a small engineering firm operating out of. What's more, it was the wrong way up. Or at least it appeared to be until I realised that it was perfectly synchronised with its immediate environs and it was me that was suspended upside down, the blood rushing to my head and the seatbelt applying an unfortunate degree of pressure to my lap.
Despite my discomfort I concluded that I would better off remaining where I was while this beast was at large. I count myself fortunate that it only stood glaring at me for a measly half hour before it got bored and wandered off, allowing me to release myself and proceed on foot to my prearranged meeting with Mr Pong.
Mr Pong, incidentally, doesn't appear to be in the least bit surprised when I tell him all this.
"Aye," he says.
I press him further. He elaborates.
"That'll be Colin. He's a mad bastard, is Colin. Always up to that sort of nonsense. He had the bread van over last week. Mr Wilkins - the bread man - he was furious."
I sympathised. Something ought to be done, I say, with some feeling as I remember where I'm parked. "Castration, that'll calm him down," I fume. "No - that's too good for him. He should be shot!"
"Aye," Pong says as he casually pulls a Twix from his back pocket and starts to unwrap it. "Happen yer right, although it'd be a terrible waste of a bread man. Be a fair old shock to Mrs Broadholme at the Post Office, too. She was quite fond of Mr Wilkins, and where would she get her wholemeal bloomers from in future? Probably better off shooting the bull instead. Fancy a finger?"
This last question is posed in connection with a mashed and partially melted item of confectionery peeking out of the Twix wrapper. It's proffered to me not in the manner of someone offering a chocolatey treat but rather as an assailant might wield a blade. It's not particularly sharp, but it is dangerously covered in straw, so I decline.
Pong shrugs and takes a bite. "Let's crack on then," he says. I suddenly snap out of my trance and remember why I'm here - Mr Pong has kindly offered me a tour of his new facility. He beckons me to climb over the gate and as I'm mid-straddle he unlatches it, swings it open and laughs enthusiastically as I topple face-first into a pile of dung. Bastard.
"Don't you townies have gates where you come from?" he says, still giggling. There's a horrible wet sucking noise as I pull myself from the pile and I prepare to offer a shattering retort but he's already stomping across the farmyard.
I follow grumpily, my wet jacket flapping and the smell clinging to me like a chicken shit overcoat. And this strikes me as puzzling, since I was under the impression that Mr Pong no longer entertained any livestock on the premises. I raise this with him and he pauses to tap the side of his nose conspiratorially with one twisted and calloused finger before flinging open the door of the nearest barn with enough force to almost but not quite rip it off its hinges.
"Data entry!" he proclaims.
I peer inside to see about a dozen lines of poultry wearing little headsets, animatedly bobbing and tapping at keyboards with their beaks. Had you been there to see you might have been impressed by their professionalism and vigour, as indeed was I at first glance. But after overpowering my initial surprise and surrendering to a more thoughtful and analytical view of their endeavours, I become markedly less confident that they have things entirely under control - partly because of the apparently haphazard way that they're bashing their heads against the equipment, but mostly because they are chickens.
"They seem a bit... random," I remark cautiously.
"Of course," says Pong. "They're chickens."
"So I imagine they make one or two mistakes?" I ask.
He laughs - a dismissive snort that makes up for its brevity with mile after mile of rolling contempt. "Listen lad, everything they type is one hundred percent premium gibberish. But this little lot are currently inputting data for the Department of Work and Pensions so they're a damn sight more reliable than the cowboys that used to do it."
"You mean when the department relied on its in-house staff?" I ask.
He looks at me as if one of us has just trodden in something, but he doesn't know which. "I mean, cowboys, you cloth-eared tit," he says endearingly. "Too busy shooting up the equipment and practising their lasso techniques. They were real pains in the arse. Whereas your chicken is reliable, always on time and they'll do it for - "
"For chicken feed!" I chip in.
"For minimum wage," Pong corrects me. "Your chicken may be stupid, but it's got a decent union."
He slams the door shut, once again testing its action to a point very near destruction. We proceed across the farmyard and as we walk he gestures airily at the tumbledown sheds and silos around us, like a particularly filthy ringmaster in a particularly disappointing circus. "I've got them all at it," he says proudly. "I've got pigs processing insurance claims, sheep collating sales data and those guys in there are responding to requests for credit checks."
There are a couple of brittle and rusted sheets of corrugated iron covering the entrance to the nearest building. I peer through the crack between them and see two cows playing badminton. One of them thunders across the court, pirouettes gracefully and then smashes the shuttlecock back over the net to land at its opponent's hooves.
"They're on a break," Mr Pong says with a shrug. "The point is, they're much better off than if they were just standing around munching grass all day."
I agree that they most certainly appear to be fitter.
"Fitter, yes," says Pong. "Also more fulfilled, more challenged and, most importantly, more profitable. Normally they'd need four or five big expensive fields to roam around in, just to stop themselves getting bored, whereas all they need here is a moderately sized office and a generous supply of shuttlecocks. But there's more to it than that - much more."
Indeed there is. Fergus Pong does not just provide data handling services - surprisingly he has recognised that the data itself is a commodity. This is a remarkably astute insight for someone who doesn't look as though he could be relied upon to read a book without attempting to colour it in. With so much information at his fingertips - or rather, hoof-tips, claw-tips, trotter-tips, etc - Mr Pong has realised that he is in a unique position to create individual profiles containing everything from your shopping preferences to your medical history. In fact, the chances are that he could identify your favourite sandwich filling, cast your horoscope and tell you what colour your blood is on the Dulux paint scale just from your National Insurance Number. And in a world where everybody wants to sell you something, that's information that people are prepared to pay for.
Mr Pong - a man who has no time for soap, no concept of common courtesy and a rather too flexible attitude towards morality - is clearly someone of vision for, as I am about to find out, he has taken his scheme one stage further. Promising to show me something truly outstanding, he beckons me round the back of the cowshed. I, of course, I'm not nearly naïve enough to fall for that old trick. Not again. As soon as I dropped my guard I would feel the flat end of a shovel round the back of my head, before being bundled into a sack and shipped off to Marrakesh to become the plaything of a rich international plum salesman.
But Mr Pong promises me that this time would be different, so I take a chance and acquiesce - although I arm myself with a cruel-looking pitchfork and make him go first. Behind the cowshed is a narrow lane that winds up to the summit of a steep hill. We will be able to see Pong's pride and joy from there, he assures me, and so off we go.
It's very steep and, although I'm as fit as any man who spends most of his time sprawled in front of the TV, stuffing pizza down his neck, I still find it hard going. Many times I have to stop to catch my breath, either perched on a wall, slumped beside a tree or leaning against a horse. About halfway up I realise that Mr Pong is no longer with me. Moments later he motors past me in a three-year-old Ford Focus, parks at the top of the hill and shouts rude words down at me until I catch up.
It's dark by the time I get there, but the moonlight is sufficient for the task of surveying the landscape - which is what the dirty old farmer encourages me to do, once he stops laughing. I resist the urge to hit him, and this is just as well since I no longer have the energy to make a proper job of it. In fact, I barely have the strength to stop wheezing and stand upright, but having come this far it seems a shame not to make the effort.
It's just unfortunate that what I see doesn't seem worth it - field after field rippling with swaying crops. All very pretty, I'm sure, but not really the wonder of wonders that I'd been promised. Mr Pong assures me that all is not as it seems.
"I wouldn't expect you to understand," he says. "I had you pegged as a retard from the start. This, lad, is the future. We don't just collect data - we grow our own. Acres of the stuff - names, addresses, purchasing histories, credit reports, you name it."
I squint into the half-light. To me it all just looks like wheat.
"Genetically modified wheat," Mr Pong corrects me. He plucks out a stray stalk growing on the verge and holds it up. I see that in place of the root is a muddy USB connector.
"But the data is just..." I struggle to put my objection into words. "It's just data. It's random. It's phony information about made-up people. What use are imaginary people?"
"Ha!" he explodes, and I can honestly say that I have never come across anyone that could imbue a single syllable with so much disdain. "Very useful to have a lot of imaginary people filling in your surveys, providing you with feedback, winning your promotional competitions, generating outcomes for your charity, voting for your government," he says. "Very useful to have all those phony imaginary people following your social media accounts. Did you know that there are currently three times more people on Twitter than actually exist on the planet?"
I shake my head. It's difficult to believe that there is a market for invented data, but Mr Pong seems to be doing very well out of it. As he explains, he's had to move with the times.
"When I first came here, this was a dairy farm," the pungent old tosser tells me. "Now I deal in a different type of bullshit. But, one way or another, you still have to get your hands dirty."
Yes. I nod slowly in agreement as I contemplate the great universal truth spoken so plainly by this crap-stained philosopher. "You know... " I start to say, but I'm interrupted by the slam of a car door, the revving of an engine and the squeal of tyres." I whip round to see that Mr Pong has leapt back into his car. Frantically he shouts out "Colin!" before he floors it and rockets back down the hill, peppering me with a spray of gravel as he disappears.
Colin? My name's not Colin. I puzzle at what he could have meant. The sound of his engine dies away and I'm left in silence save for the soft whisper of the wind, the rustling of the trees and the low threatening snorts of some monstrous beast coming from behind me.
Some monstrous beast.
Ah... Colin. I turn slowly and there is my nemesis, waiting for me in the gloom, pawing the ground. The mad bastard. Colin the bull - shaggy, restive, glaring at me with those hateful watery yellow eyes. He lunges. I run, screaming.
It isn't necessary to narrate what happened next. The details are disturbing and rich in unpalatable memories. It is enough to say that in the years to come I will spend many a restless night haunted by the events of that night. My visit to Fergus Pong's data farm left many lasting impressions on me. Sadly, most of them could not be easily remedied with sticking plasters and calamine lotion.
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