A Man and His Companion
Take to the Road
(Lyons Press)It may seem pretty silly for a man to write a whole book about traveling around England for a year trying to sell a book about chickens. It may be sillier for a man to be traveling about England for a year trying to sell a book about chickens, going with a chicken as a traveling companion. And --- silliest of all --- for a man to travel about England for a year to sell a book about chickens with his companion being a Buff Sussex pullet.To those in the trade, "buff" means yellow-brown. Pullet is a young hen. Sussex is a breed. And a Buff Sussex is decidedly the dullest-bulb bird of them all. It's as bad as driving around with a Rhode Island Red or a White Rock: the most normal, tedious, unexceptional members of the family of gallus gallus.If you are looking for an interesting traveling companion, it would be something if you pulled up to that school (or prison, or old folks home, or kindergarten class --- all of Gurden's haunts) with a White Silky (fur, black skin --- see above), or a Cochin (skirt and long panties --- see below), or a White-Crested Polish (black feathers, white knot atop the head). That's high-class chickimamery.
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So, Travels with My Chicken misses a beat and it may even be silly, but it escapes being stupid because,
- Most don't know that chickens are excellent companions for long journeys; and,
- Gurdon can be an affecting writer.
As to the first: think of another pet who will go about with you without complaint (if it gets too hot, they just croak). Think of a pet who will, if the right sex, deliver your breakfast to you daily. Think of a pet that likes eating the bugs and worms in your front yard. Think of a pet that doesn't try to crawl in bed with you or lick your face or throw up on your crotch or best rug.
Finally, think of a pet who, again, if the right sex, will wake you, a living alarm clock, at five or so in the morning, and will repeat his song until you guillotine the little bastard and fry him up for lunch (or baked in a pie, savory, with onions and butter and thyme).
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Gurdon doesn't mind at all being a bit silly, even somewhat odd. Ostensibly, he is writing a book about driving around England publicizing his previous book --- but Travels with My Chicken includes a chapter or two about the death of friends and members of his family, some whose funerals he has to fit in during his publicity gigs.
Gurdon even recalls several gatherings of people ostensibly interested in his expertise on chickens, people who turn out to know far more than he does. In one case, in a seminar at Ford Open Prison in Littlehampton, he finds his class of fourteen prisoners dwindling such that, "If this rate of attrition kept up, Vera [his chicken] and I would end up trying to entertain Catherine [the sponsor of the prison class] and nobody else."
Travels with My Chicken set me to wondering why a man who loves (and goes about with) chickens is such a curiosity. Would attention accrue to him if he were motoring through England, Wales, and Scotland with a duck? A goose? A fox --- or skinks, skunks, shrikes? What is it about a hen for a companion that garners him multiple appearances on television, many interviews on radio, even invitations to a large number of book signings?
I am thinking it is the deruralization of England (and other First World countries, including America) over the last awful century. Fifty years ago one could move around with a chicken, or a dozen of them, and not be the object of much interest. Who's to crow over that?
But then again, perhaps it is the nature of the beast. Chickens are not creatures you can necessarily pour your heart out to ... like I can with Sasha, my beloved Chesapeake Retriever, head on my knee, large eyes touched with such love and sympathy, ready to lick my ear in a trice. If I told my woes to my Black Japanese Bantam, she'd just as likely peck me as put up with me.
Sure, pullets can be trained not to flinch when you approach. You can put them to sleep by laying them on their backs and slowly rapping the ground first on one side then on the other of their little pointy heads. They can even appear on television without shitting on the host (as Gurden amply documents). But you don't find them in the average household anymore, except in the southern countries.
Thus Gurdon can ask a class of four-year-olds at the Lingfeld Day Nursery "how many of them had seen a chicken before," and at least one will say, rather emphatically, "I haven't seen one. I haven't seen one. I haven't seen one."
The sad truth is that when he finally ends up with his dog-and-pony (or chicken and cat-box) show at the Star & Garter building in Richmond Park, not only have the old veterans seen and raised chickens on their own, they all want a chance to touch Vera. Just to remember the old days, out on the farm.--- Vicky Lane