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; 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 didn’t want to miss.  When he left the army after the war, he had a
succession of jobs, one of which was to farm chickens.

This story came back to me in the holidays when I read
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, as part of
Bedford’s Big Summer Read project.  It
was, I thought, a wonderful choice of novel to get us thinking about the First
World War, a story of the wartime poet Siegfried Sassoon’s, stay in a
psychiatric hospital during the war.  The
short, seemingly innocuous, passage I highlight today tells of the psychiatrist
Rivers’ three week break at his brother’s chicken farm.  The point Barker is trying to make is
multi-layered.  The last time Rivers had
visited the farm, a year ago, 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”.  
The allegory is obvious: the chicks have gone to war and within months
they are scrawny objects, cooped up in the trenches while the home fires
burned.  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.  Scenes from nature have provided fertile
ground for wartime allegory since the days of Homer’s Iliad, and it is an
interesting contrast to note here in our book that away from his deeply
disturbing day job, Rivers can make some sort of sense of his wartime charges
through the observation of the peaceful daily life of a farm.

But everyone reads with a slightly different slant, with
different spheres of vision, bringing 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? 
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, with his family, in such a stable,
understated way, after all the awful experiences 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 old age they
have nothing to offer the current day.  And
it is a very grave mistake.  I hope that you
will ask, that you will show an interest, and that you will learn from those
who have been through far more than you have. 
And do it now; do it this evening when you get home; do it this weekend;
there is no time like the present and you never know how long you or they will

Well done, by the way, to all those who read the
book.  Do enter the book review
competition and do by all means come and chat about it at some stage on one of my
early morning open doors.….

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