Martin Gurdon Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance:
reflections on raising chickens The Lyons Press 2005 (2004)
Having travelled from the west coast of Britain all the way to the west coast of the United States, it seemed a little odd to have picked up this arresting title in Seattle’s University Book Store only to find it was written by a fellow Brit. But that’s not the only coincidence surrounding our acquisition of this book, a witty parody of a famous work on tinkering with motorcycles, and this review therefore is split into two unequal halves, the first a gentle appreciation, the second a mild rant.
After moving to a Welsh farmhouse with a little bit of land we decided to give it a year before getting chickens. We acquired a hen house along with a handful of hens and — horrors! — proceeded to give them names (including the predictable ‘Henrietta’). In return they gave us a few eggs and a lot of humour before succumbing one by one to the ills that fowl are prey to and being replaced one by one. By the time we bought Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance we were familiar with many of the situations that the author so wittily relates.
As you might expect Gurdon’s book concentrates more on the art than the science and technique of raising these egg producers. Almost a How-Not-To than an user-friendly manual, this is really a personal account of one townie’s experience of trying to live the Good Life in southeast England. Yes, they give their fowl names, but these are more along the lines of Wimpy, Psycho and Satan than Henrietta and Daisy, and more behaviour-appropriate. Yes, there are a few words of advice but largely this is a collection of anecdotes divided into twelve chapters (‘Eggs and a Potted History’ is the only chapter laden with overt tips). Typical of his approach is this description of Zorro’s reaction to being caught and held:
As I tickled him under the chin, round the back of his jawbone and between his shoulder blades (bliss for tamer birds) you could almost see the inner struggle going on in his small, testerone-crazed head, along the lines of “You bastard! I hate you! I really hate you! Oooo, this is quite nice. Bastard! Bastard! Yes, that’s better. Touch my birds and you’re dead! Keep going under the wings, particularly the left one. Bastard!”
This raised more than a flicker of recognition when we read this.
And now for the tepid tirade. It’s quite clear that this is not a manual on raising chickens: there’s no index, no diagrams, no list of breeds; the illustrations are designed to raise a small smile, not help you build a coop or distinguish a fancy fowl from a brown hybrid farm bird. This is more a How-did-we-do-that than a Do-it-Yourself handbook; above all, it’s a typical example of insular British, culture-specific, self-deprecating humour. So why do the American publishers have to spell things out for their readership? We helpfully informed that “all conversions to $ are approximate” but what’s the problem with “I handed over 20 pence” instead of, as here, “I handed over 30 cents”? Are US readers incapable of realising that (a) 20 pence is a small amount and (b) the UK is a different country and therefore has a different currency? In any case, with rising inflation and changing currency rates such approximations are always going to be unrealistic, even more so to anyone reading a few years after its 2005 US publication (let alone a decade later).
Not only that, but does everything have to be translated? British publishers don’t feel the need to re-spell ‘neighbor’ as ‘neighbour’ in a work by an American author, so why reverse-engineer it here? I’m sure “Fred the rooster” must have originally appeared as “Fred the cockerel” so why the re-configuration? The book is sprinkled with four-letter words and expletives so I’m certain ‘cockerel’ or even ‘cock’ is not going to embarrass someone who’s just been told how to sex a chicken. And why in the name of all that’s holy does ‘bookshop’ have to re-christened ‘bookstore’? Which Americans can’t suss that a bookshop is a shop that sells, well, books? Or are there no shops in the US?
Enough of riding this hobby horse. Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance is a very funny, easy-to-digest read which comes in manageable chunks, and is as likely to amuse avian flu hypochondriacs as much as your average bird-fancier. This transatlantic edition has a Further Reading section of US chicken books (many — surprise, surprise — published by The Lyons Press) and lists of stateside poultry organisations and hatcheries which, I’m guessing, weren’t in the original edition. But just in case you weren’t in on the yolk (sorry about that) the back cover includes the disclaimer Nature/Humor…
Incidentally, we liked our egg-layers to be free-range. And Mr Fox liked his take-away meals. After I spotted him loping away through the long grass in our field with the penultimate hen in his jaws we agreed that the Great Egg Production Project would be formally and finally wound up.