Udders and The Chicken King
I'm eighty years old, have just burnt one hundred and thirty nine
cows, and last night the doctor told me that I'm going blind. It's not
been a particularly good year.
Mind you I've had worse.
If you're a farmer you're used to things scrumbling up you see. In your
bones you know that this might just be the day when all your work adds
up to nothing. People think we're greedy folk, wandering over our acres
with pound signs clanging up over our eyes like oranges; and ready to
shoot the first person that dares step foot on the crops. But it gets
inside you, that land does. A bit like a cancer. If they stuck you on a
slab and cut you open the first thing that they'd smell was the fields
you'd be wandering about in. Because it's always there. Hanging over
you. Something that gets inside the guts of your pigs. A frost biding
it's time before it decides to crack your land wide open. You never
know. Sometimes you get a sense and it comes to nothing.
But other times.
Some people can go a whole life without the word 'blight' ever finding
reason to land into their mouths. It's a bit old fashioned. But not if
you're a farmer. If you're a farmer you've got it stuck behind your ear
like a half smoked roll up, ready to tug on again at any moment.
There was a man who set up the same time as I did. We both had a couple
of acres and did everything in the Market Garden. Beans, peas,
potatoes, cabbages all sorts; most of it for retail in Bircotes, the
colliery village. After a year the other farmers wouldn't go near him.
He was like a cursed figure. He had more blights, cankers and rots in a
single year then you can find in the Bible. And his tractor caught
fire. He took to the drink in the end; staggering out of The George and
Dragon night after night with the worst look you could ever think had
been stuck onto a human face.
There's a film called 'Far From The Maddening Crowd' which my wife took
me to see on my forty eighth birthday; and there's a scene near the
beginning when the farmers sheep dog gets over excited and chases his
entire flock over the edge of a cliff. And you see them all falling
into the sea. And then the camera goes up all close on the farmers
face. That's what he looked like, that farmer did. All the time.
We're having to go for the beef cattle now. The milk just didn't pay.
And they leave this place wrapped up in so much red tape that they look
as though they're off to appear in some kind of fancy show. Passports
for cows. You couldn't imagine anything more daft if you tried. I got a
letter through the post just after I was given the forms, telling me
that a man would be coming round with a specially constructed
photographic booth so that they could all have their pictures taken.
But I could tell who had sent it. Harry, of course. He writes like a
man with a bottle of rum in his belly and an almighty itch in his
If the Pilgrim Fathers had had to jump through as many hoops as those
bloody cows to get anywhere then they wouldn't have gone ragtailing it
across the Atlantic, spewing their throats up and wobbling like foals.
They'd have stayed put and somebody else would have had to go and be
the Founding Bloody Fathers.
There's a coach load due over tomorrow; gawping their way through the
village, trying to get a feel of where their forefathers originated
from. And they all want to be directly descended you see; it means a
lot to them. If any of those Americans can follow a line from their
mothers belly back to William Brewster you can guarantee that they'll
be over here soon enough, swooning at how it all started. Before one or
two of them starts moaning about the fact that they can't get anything
to eat. Or buy any souvenirs. Or actually get inside of the Manor
House. Thousands and thousands of miles and they end up looking at a
pile of old bricks and a chub locked door when they all thought that
they were going to be wandering around the secret meeting rooms
imagining themselves as 'the little band of lovers of truth and
To be honest I've not got that much time for them, though they bring no
harm in themselves. One or two I've made friends with over the years.
There was one young fellow with the brightest red beard you've ever
seen; as long as the moon hadn't completely called it a day you'd see
this little red triangle hovering up the street in the night time. He
was alright. He'd want to help with the sugar beet and would sing these
songs all day long. Said that when he was in Scrooby his body felt
right and it tended not to when he was back in America.
That was in the days when we used to get kids in singling the sugar
beet in May. Going round the fields making sure that there was just the
one left in the hole after the men had gone round striking them with
the hoes. Because they usually left a clump you see. And you only want
one of those buggers in each of those holes to start sprouting for the
next year. Otherwise you end up with 'em fighting for space and you
finish with a crop of piddlin' things that's not worth the
He was the happiest chap you could imagine, was Redbeard. Pulling em
up, knocking the soil off, and throwing them in a big heap before the
trailer came round to collect them. Four hundred ton by the time we'd
finished. And before young red beard left to go back home he'd always
ask if he could pick one to take back with him. And he'd take his time
mind you. He had to get the right sugar beet.
He doesn't come over anymore. Works for some tobacco company.
And then, of course, there was The Colonel. Every year he used to
visit. Dapper was the word you'd use. And a gentleman. Oh yes, very
much a gentleman, with his white double breasted suit and black string
tie, and that white beard of course. And he'd soon make it to the
farmhouse and spend an afternoon with myself and Harry, who he seemed
to get on with like a long lost brother.
Which is what Harry is to me in many ways. Because I never had any
siblings to scrap with and we've known each other since we were both
old enough to get our bibles for Sunday school attendance. And now he's
eighty years old too, will be stone deaf before the year is out, and
has always given the farming a wide berth after watching his brothers
tractor burst into flames and his liver burst with booze. No, he worked
at the sugar refinery at Newark, where all those bloody beet used to
The Colonel loved this village. I don't quite know what it was. He once
told me that he'd like to die here, that if he could he would buy up
the old water mill, and grind corn from sun up to sun down. Snickling
the bags on a chain and hoisting them up on a pulley to put into the
hopper. You think a man like that would have seen enough corn to last a
Sometimes, he'd say, I imagine myself trotting along this old road on a
horse and dray when the stars are out, looking for the silhouette of
the Scots Pines to show me the way ahead, he would say. And he was
always on the move was The Colonel. You've never seen such a busy man
for somebody of his age. We have to get bigger every day he said. Or
else we die.
And then he'd look around and you almost felt he might shed a
Anyway we're the Village Elders now, Harry and me. When we're out with
the dogs and sticks you can see the American tourists staring at us as
though all of their history is hidden inside our old frames. Like we're
sages or something. And you can tell that a lot of them want to come up
and say something to you, especially when you're having a glass at The
Pilgrim Fathers. Harry always has a look around to see if there's any
near us and then starts talking rather loudly about Obadiah and The
Scriptures and The Pestilence.
He doesn't seem too concerned about his oncoming deafness. He's heard
it all before, he says. Anyway there'll be planes flying over here
soon, and when everybody is pulling faces and pointing at the sky the
only thing that I'll have to worry about is the frozen effluent raining
down from above. Ice bombs they call them. And they're on the increase.
You'll have no chance, he keeps telling me. Because they drop from the
sky without a sound.
I've still got the toasting fork that we won in the three legged race
at the vicarage when we were kids. Never used it mind. Don't suppose I
ever will now. And I'm too old to expect my other senses to help me out
by getting all keen on me. Sitting there in front of the fire with my
nose twitching as the bread begins to brown.
There was a chap that used to milk with us who had lost his sight, who
could feel his cows. He used to go up and feel them and know which
where his. He knew.
It was a nice job on a Winter morning, when frosty, that was. All the
cows in the shed breathing. And the warmth of the teats in your hand. I
milked for fourteen years without a day off you know. If I used to go
out I'd be back for milking. Fourteen years without a holiday or
The dairy herd and the sugar beet. And now they're saying that they
want us all to cut back on the sugar beet to give the Third World a
chance. And the cows have been burnt. There used to be a good number of
farms here, now all the land is being bought up by one person. But
that's the way of it. Make things bigger. No variety. I wouldn't be
surprised if most of my acres don't end up going too. Not like the
Pilgrim Fathers is it. Hardly building a New World. Going backwards
more like. My descendants will be lucky if they end up with an acre of
land and a cow between them.
Which is why you've got to hand it to The Colonel. There's a man who's
made his mark. When he died they said he still possessed the arteries
of a much younger man. And Harry and I said we'd go over, and see his
museum. But things didn't turn out right that year for the pair of us,
what with the Risimania which caused havoc with my beet. And then
Harry's brother died.
They put up a bust for him too, the Colonel; he was that popular. It
wouldn't have happened here. Three plaques on the Manor House, that's
what we've got. The religious leader of the first settlement with a
written rule of law in America, and you can't even get a cup of tea.
Harry reckoned that we should stand outside with a flask and some
pasties, given that the farming business is getting worse by the year
and his pension doesn't keep him in the black with the landlord.
But the Colonel never complained. He liked it that way. 'You gave us
the constitution', he'd say, 'and look what I've given you'.
He always had the beard you know, just like when he first came. And
Harry says that he told him his secret recipe, that last year he was
here. But that he would never reveal it to another living being. I
don't believe him of course, but every time we see a chicken he taps
his nose and says it's all in the spices.
And we'll not make it over now, Harry and I. It's a long way to go is
Can you imagine him having to burn all his chicken? Or watching them
run off the end of a cliff?