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Chasing Chickens

I spent most of last weekend chasing chickens, and before you get any strange ideas about the relationship between me and poultry sui generis, I should point out that these were in fact my family’s chickens. Ever since I was young, these clucking, jittery things, mostly hens with the occasional cockerel to help beget the next generation, have been a part of my life; it is easily the most rural part of my Fenlands self. Anyway, I returned home last weekend under the parental mandate of ‘Tom, wouldn’t you like to come home?’, which has since the dawn of rhetorical questions meant ‘Please jump in the car and return post-haste’, and as often happens when I make the journey back to the place where it (almost) all began, it was the same-old same-old with a subtle surprise. The new occurrence this time was that my father has now decided to occasionally let the chickens out of their run, and instead wander free through the grounds of Bray Manor (note: not a manor). I learnt two things that night: it is very easy to train chickens using long strings of spaghetti; and it is rather difficult to get roaming chickens back into their hutch.

In fact, I spent most of the weekend attempting to do just this. Like a bumpkin ninja, I would wait in the long grass for a hen to wander by, and then spring from my hiding place and wrap my arm around its surprised body. At least, that was the plan, but more often than not the chicken was equal to me, and would run off to some mysterious hiding place (which might have been the anonymous slots of Las Vegas, but was more likely underneath a bush). Occasionally, my father would wander down the garden, ask me to play squash or move a chair, and then remind me, in his gentle paternal way (which vanishes when we play squash, by the way), that you cannot bend the chickens to your bidding, but rather must wait for them to find their own way home. This is just one of the seven ways in which chickens are famously like undergraduates (note: not a famous comparison). My father’s strategy was much simply than my own samurai-inspired approach: wait until the chicken is ready to return, and then enable it to do so.

When not chasing chickens, I was attempting to put into words some challenging but fundamental ideas from my research. These are the big ones, the questions which hang over me and my project like the mouldy ceiling in a nasty two-bedroom flat (to extend the metaphor, my PhD and I sleep in different rooms, but sometimes when the PhD has nightmares it comes and sits on my bed and pokes me, repeatedly asking ‘Hey, what ya doing?’). Many hours have I spent in front of a laptop screen, or occasionally a notepad, twisting my brain to find a way to turn the fluff of my brain into the neatly-knitted wool of the written word. But all this to no avail: too often I would have a mini-brain-wave (a brain-flick-of-the-wrist, if you will), have a celebratory biscuit, and then return to my words only to discover, mid-biscuit, that they were, in fact, awful. One of my attempts involved making up a new word, histori-win, and that’s never a good sign.

Each night I would stumble off to bed, often slightly before my parents (what is happening to me?), and I would lay in bed thinking the thought of many a postgraduate: What am I doing? Then I would fall into a deep sleep, and dream of theses with teeth and documents with dentures (hey, they’re my dreams, okay).

Until one night I awoke at five in the morning, opened the blinds, and was hit by both a blast of early-morning sunshine and a dose of clarity. I scrabbled for a pen and some paper, alighting on a notepad I was given when I was nine, a notepad adorned with photos of the Power Rangers. For half an hour I scribbled and scribed, pausing only to let out gasps of delight and put on stray items of clothing. Before long, the messiness of my mind had become the messiness of my handwriting, all amongst the messiness of my childhood bedroom.

Pepped up on some early-morning PhDing, I ventured down the garden to check on the chickens. They were all curled up, snug and, insofar as hens can achieve this, rather smug in their run. Slightly nonplussed, I went inside and made some toast. Perhaps awakened by the ker-chunk of the toaster and the smell of honey, my father wandered down and put on the kettle. ‘So’, I inquired of him, ‘you managed to round up the chickens last night…’. He gave a knowing chuckle: ‘Not quite, I just put some corn in their run and left the hatch open. That always seems to work.’ The rest of my day was spent weeding, occasionally finding speckled eggs under hedges.

Have you ever seen an omelette comprising twelve eggs? It’s quite the sight. I have now returned to Warwickshire, my Power Rangers notebook stashed safely in my bag. In the end, my father knew it, the chickens knew it, probably even my nine year-old self knew it better than me: sometimes, you have to let the solution come to you, unforced and unconstrained. And if that doesn’t work, well, a breakfast the size of a pillow never hurts.

You can find Thomas on  Twitter: @thomas_bray12

Image: Creative Commons/ FunkyChicken