This is a talk about grandparents; and indeed older people generally. Specifically it is to do with my own grandfather, who would have been 109 on Boxing Day, had he not died about 20 years ago. I have often thought about the fact that for a short while after the Second World War my grandfather had been a chicken farmer, though when he was alive I never thought to ask him why. He had been something of a hero in my mind as a child; his valiance had been proven by the fact that he had been a colonel in the Royal Artillery during the war, when he spent most of his time fighting in India; his sporting prowess was such that he had been a good enough cricketer before the war to have played first class cricket in India and to have been asked to play against the touring Australian team in 1935 – I have the telegram asking him to play on my wall at home; and his Corinthian values were epitomised by his modesty and kindness: when I asked him incredulously why he had not taken up the offer of playing cricket against Australia, he gave two reasons: the first was that he had not played much recently, so he thought that someone else should have a go; the second was that he had a game of quoits on at the mess that day which he did not want to miss!
The only reason I knew he had been a chicken farmer was a lovely story he used to tell occasionally about a dinner party he held with about eight of his closest friends. It was the custom in those days to feed chickens a little bit of arsenic each day to keep them healthy. Arsenic, for those who do not know, is a chemical whose deadly colourless, odourless qualities made it a favourite for high-level poisonings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Anyway, the custom was that you fed a bit of arsenic to the chickens each day, paradoxically to keep them healthy, before taking them off it a couple of days before you wring their necks for dinner. It was just towards the end of the main course at this particular dinner party that my grandfather realised he had forgotten to take them off the arsenic – what was he to do? Tell his guests everything; take their plates away hurriedly and hope for the best; offer them seconds?
A few years ago, alongside the rest of the school, I read a book about the First World War by Pat Barker called Regeneration. In it, there is a short, seemingly innocuous, passage which tells of a psychiatrist called Rivers and his three-week break at his brother’s chicken farm. The point Barker tries to make is multi-layered. The last time Rivers had visited, only last spring, a box of chicks had been placed in front of the fire to keep them warm. Rivers “remembered them struggling out of the eggs, how exhausted, wet and miserable they looked, and yet curiously powerful, little Atlases struggling to hold up the world”. “Now”, thinks Rivers, “the same chicks were scruffy and bedraggled things running in the coops, and the only sound of the room was the roar of flame”. In relation to World War 1, the allegory is obvious: the chicks have gone to war now and within months they are scrawny objects, cooped up in the trenches against the sounds of battle. When they were young, they were powerful; but they have aged early and are quickly nothing. There is more, too, in this short passage on the farm; one particular chicken has been picked out by the others for some rough treatment and the only way to deal with this seems to be to wring its neck – it is survival of the fittest in its rawest form.
However, everyone reads with a slightly different slant, with different spheres of vision, brings different perspectives; what caught my eye was that Rivers’ brother had set up this chicken farm as a cure for malaria, a disease caught out in some far reach of Empire no doubt. The thought was that he should work out in the open air, to regain his health and earn some money. My grandfather had been out in the Empire during the war. Was his chicken farm in any way linked to his wartime experiences? Did he set it up for health reasons, financial reasons, or something else? Why did I not ask him? Or worse, maybe I did once, but did not listen to the answer properly. In one sense it does not matter – I am just pleased now that he found some peace in his later years, with his family, in such a stable, understated way, after all he had gone through. But in another way it does matter. It is too easy when one is young not to ask. It is too easy not to respect those of vast experience, however elderly, and to think that through age they have nothing to offer the current day. And it is a very great mistake. A number of you have been visiting old people’s homes recently; most of you will have elderly relatives of some sort. I hope that you will ask about their lives, that you will show an interest, and that you will take the opportunity with an open mind, to learn from those who have been through far more than you have.