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Issue 02

What Gives You Life?

Jenny Taylor

Dr Jenny Taylor is the Kirby Laing Research Fellow in Media, Journalism and Communication and lives where she was born, on a smallholding in Suffolk, England.

When I got my chickens I cried. I was born on a Land Settlement Association smallholding with pigs, commercially-grown salad vegetables for Covent Garden market – and chickens. My threat in moments of high dudgeon in the city was to “go home and grow potatoes.” Well, now I’ve done it.  I have lived in London on and off for 40 years. But here I am, in Suffolk for good, because of lockdown. Lockdown forced me to decide: London or here. I was actually forbidden by the government from travelling between the two, and I couldn’t risk “doing a Dom” and sneaking away “for family reasons,” infecting the nation. It is odd how things work out.  

My chickens all have names, naturally, so they’ll never end up as coq au vin. I couldn’t bear to wring their necks now, even though I often threaten them when they jump onto the table and snatch a crisp when I’m chilling with a beer at the end of the day. There’s Hildegard – the one who is a bit separate, and I fancy somewhat mystical therefore. There’s Gertrude, dirty Gertie who never seems to have a clean petticoat. And there’s Meaghan, dark and lustrous, whose distant cousins occupy a California hen coop much beloved of junior royals. 

My chickens are hilarious, and so feminine, they couldn’t possibly be gender neutral. They stick to each other like a girl band (except when Hildegard is feeling mystical), yet boss each other furiously, jostling and jumping on each other to get at their feed. They waddle towards you comically like fat ladies in skirts running to catch a bus. They burble loud and proud as they sit to lay.  And yes, they do actually lay eggs. Three a day. That’s not something a cock can do.

Photo: Jenny Taylor

They give me life. They force me to get up at dawn in all weathers to free them from their coop, and I’ve seen the sun coming deep yellow like an egg yoke and spilling over the hill into the frost and turning it pink. And I’m out there again at night in the just-dark to shut them in again, in case Monsieur Renard pays a twilight call. The local pub is called The Fox – so I’m not taking any chances.

Local chaps made the coop and the chicken run for a consideration, and that’s a connection I’ve now got with the locals. The one with the ponytail worked as a shipwright at Felixstowe Docks and is married to a Royal Ballerina. Now that’s something I’d not have known otherwise.

Photo: Jan Kalish

I feel rich beyond measure. All those little spherical packs of protein, so beautiful to behold, to taste, to treasure: perfectly oval, brown, warm to the touch and ready to be given away at a moment’s notice, for joy. 

I’m only playing of course. Real smallholding is tough, physical, relentless. Chickens get pests and diseases, eggs need grading and stamping, markets can be ruthless. But I believe that if everyone grew some fraction of their own food, and if it were a legal requirement warranting perhaps a small tax rebate, oh how happy and healthy we all would be!