Another point of view
You never forget your first egg. Ours was laid by Margo, named for Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life, because of her fancy fluffy feet and her long beak, which she tended to look down. It was all the more precious because she popped it out in bleakest midwinter when hens decide, quite rightly, that it’s too cold for all that. Sitting in a strawy manger, it seemed like a miracle – daintier than dino-sized shop offerings and very slightly pink. We couldn’t bring ourselves to crack it, never mind eat it, so we blew it out – and now it sits perfectly preserved on a tiny silk cushion in a glass box. Like Lenin, only lovely.
Over the five years she ruled regally over our urban flock in Brighton, Margot (now roosting in peace) laid countless dozens of eggs. It’s a city garden, so we only keep bantams. Right now we’ve got three fancy pekins: Blanche (The Golden Girls), Blithe (Spirit) and Dolly (Parton). They live in a hand-built wooden coop called Cluckingham Palace and often have porridge for breakfast.
In 2005, we were poultry pioneers and our constituency, Brighton Pavilion, was Labour. Our neighbours made jokes about Tom and Barbara Good wondering, a bit worriedly, if we were getting goats. We threatened them with a pig called Trotski. Back then there was no chicken aisle in the pet shop, because chickens weren’t petsand you had to buy specialist products on dodgy websites. Now there’s a flourishing mini-industry and you can flick through Your Chickens magazine. Thanks to newly invented chicken harnesses our streets will soon be full of hipsters taking their girls for a walk. Meantime, Brighton Pavilion has elected the UK’s only Green MP.
There are two other feather families on our road, and both have neon “Re-elect Caroline Lucas” posters in the window. Our girls often cluck over the wall to them. We’re considering playdates but worry about red mite – far harder to eradicate than head lice. We prize every egg, especially wonky offerings which look like an effort to squeeze out.In summer our egg tray overflows, and after boiling, scrambling and poaching we whisk mayonnaise and lemon curd. A nice Italian neighbour taught us zabalgione. And there is no smugger dinner party gift than a bowl of ultra-local beyond-organic bantam eggs complete with artful smears of crap and just the one feather.
It’s very tempting to think that this is the “good life” – mentioned more than a dozen times by David Cameron when he launched the Conservative manifesto this week. “We can be the country that not only lives within its means and pays its way, but that offers a good life to those who work hard and do the right thing,” he said, flanked by Samantha in a suitably nettle-green dress. He declined to say whether they were more Tom and Barbara than Jerry and Margo, but we know. We all know.
One of the inspirations for The Good Life was The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour. Published in 1976 when doubts about a world entirely dependent on fossil fuels coalesced around the oil crisis and the miners’ strike, it showed how to grow your own vegetables and make your own cheese. It sold more than a million copies in 20 languages. Now oil prices are plummeting along with inflation, and there are no miners.
We are cravenly local, seasonal and organic, and farmer’s markets are sexy. Michelle Obama has written a book about the White House vegetable patch.
This is all very lovely, and who doesn’t want to crystallise their own fennel pollen, but it fails to link personal responsibility and collective action. Sustainability has been commodified. The contemporary “good life” evoked by Cameron has more in common with Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine than Tom and Barbara’s muddy plot in Surbiton. While the Goods ploughed and dyed their way to self-sufficiency, the French queen dressed as a shepherdess milking perfumed cows into buckets made of Sèvres porcelain. I often think of her as I spend the morning digging up the choicest worms for my girls. Cameron is banking that we’ll all be so blissed out on our own fetishised good lives that we won’t consider voting for anyone who might be having a bad life.
Chickens, and my girls, certainly aren’t to blame. Proof that we can look beyond our own lives lies in HenPower, an amazing charity that helps set up coops in care homes – bringing joy, and eggs, to all. It turns flocks into communities.
Cameron’s good life is entirely privatised: look after your backyard; build our own bucolic dream; and don’t worry about what might be happening over the wall or over the road or over the border. Spoil your hens with organic treats and give them cutesy names, but don’t tell them how most chickens live (and die): in vast, filthy factories of death, unable to spread their wings, unnamed. Cameron confuses selfishness with self-sufficiency and hopes we will too. He shouldn’t count his chickens.
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