After they'd hatched it was pleasant enough in a sentimental kind of way, especially - we supposed - for the children, to see the mother hen surrounded by a cheeping following of yellow fluffs, but in due course they grew up into pullets. We kept the hens gratefully, but as we already had a cockerel called Boycott (Yorks. C.C.C. and England) and as cockerels fight dreadfully we had to get rid of them. We were far too tender-hearted to wring their necks, pluck, draw (always with a scoop of salt handy for a better grip on the entrails), truss and roast our own poultry, so another solution had to be found.
I took the coward's way out. After all, simple abandonment was sanctioned in Greek legend: wasn't the infant Oedipus just left out on a hillside? (Having consulted Wikipedia to confirm this, I notice that the fourth entry is The story of OEDIPUS, in 8 minutes, performed by vegetables. H'm.) So late one night I collected all the redundant cockerels off their perch, put them in a sack, where they lay very still and quiet, and drove them several miles away to a little farm I knew where they kept poultry. Lurking in some nearby roadside trees I let them out, knowing that in the morning they would find their own kind, and maybe the kindly hand of the farmer's wife scattering grain, or maybe not . . .
. . . to this day, whenever I'm in that part of Scotland, I can't pass that farm without a sense of guilt that maybe Oedipus knew.
Later we moved elsewhere and took with us the remnant of hens - and Boycott - that had survived the collapse of their hen-house. In time the same problem arose. My heart was no less tender than before. Fearful of my exalted position as a pillar of the community being compromised through being discovered wishing immature cockerels on to innocent and hard-working hill-farmers, I sought other means.
I'd made the acquaintance of a RAF Wing Commander, a local wildfowler, someone who presumably had the twist-and-pull-and snap technique of giving birds their quietus honed to perfection. I submitted my problem to him. Only too happy to help, he turned up one evening shortly after roost, ready to pitch in. I suggested that if I went into the hen-house - a new one that I'd built, incidentally - and handed the victims out to him, he could do the deed in such an experienced and immediate way as to minimize the troubling of soft hearts. No feathers flew on Death Row: the condemned cockerels were perched peaceably, some with heads tucked underneath their wings, as though to avert the eye of the Grim Reaper. I passed the first victim out to the Wing Commander, and returned for the second.
Outside there was a whirring sound I couldn't place, a combination of wind in the trees and a distant helicopter. I came back out with the second, and discovered the Horrid Truth: far from a simple and humane quick twist and sharp pull of the bird's neck, the Wing Commander had grasped the bird by the head and had whirled it round like a football rattle until it came off.
I expect he's Marshal of the Royal Air Force by now.
Girl and a Birdcage c.1929
1 day ago