Friday, 9 September 2011

Owning Chickens

Karl Marx believed that revolution would come when the status of the skilled working class and lower middle classes began to decay to the extent that they found common ground with the 'lumpen proletariat', i.e. unskilled workers.  I think his greatest oversight was consumerism, that the capitalist state successfully bribes many sectors of society away from unrest by permitting companies to constantly sell consumer products and through the availability of such items, the competition between individuals that they foster and the advertising which boosts both of these they were able to distract most people from political struggle.  However, as I have noted before the economic power of people who are working class and middle class has continued to slide over the past sixty years, to the extent that someone like me, a graduate holding sometimes managerial positions is not able to purchase those things which are seen as being associated with 'middle class' life.  Instead I am down at Lidl worrying about what of the immediate needs I can afford as if I was simply someone stuck in the unskilled working class, the bulk of whose expenditure, like mine goes on necessities: food, utilities and accommodation.

Back in July I read an interesting article by Oliver Burkeman about how poverty saps your willpower because there is a 'psychic cost' in worrying about having enough money and what precisely you can spend that money on, that then drains your personal abilities for doing other things that need will power, a whole host of activities such as dieting, exercising, taking classes, etc.  Thus, when society makes people anxious and worrying about where every penny is going it makes it far harder for them to improve their situation, thus, to some extent creating a 'dependency culture' though in the opposite way to right-wing thinkers believe.  In fact if you give people more money, you reduce them worrying about how they are going to pay the electricity bill or buy sufficient food and you thus leave them with more will power, more personal capital to do things like applying for more jobs, or more vitally take training and along with providing the funds for saving, you actually stimulate the personal capacity to save.  Obviously it impacts on individuals to different degrees.  However, I know as someone who applied for 80 jobs and attended 29 interveiws, I used up a great deal of my personal capital and consequently could not do other things such as reading fiction or non-fiction or writing.  Now I am in work, there are fewer concerns and I am reading more and writing more too as I have some 'spare' mental/psychic capacity to tackle those thing.

Of course, you are scarred by bad experiences and so I am now constantly nagged by the fear that once again I will be made redundant and have to try the house once again (a process itself which exhausts much personal capital) and this continues to make me apprehensive and probably not working at my best.  In addition, with a legacy of paying landlords after I have left the house due to fixed-term contracts, being wrongly taxed and having charges levied on me by Newham Council continues to sap my financial resources.  I just cannot believe how much I still owe.  This leads to fascinating situations.  The other day I realised I was walking along in my £28 suit and my £14 shoes, all from Asda going to my car which is insured for £1000 but in my bag I was carrying a laptop and an iPad which combined are worth £1800.  They belong to my company, of course, not me.  However, it does increasingly make me feel like a proletarian moving in a middle class context.  That was what my previous employer disliked.  They were insisting of bourgeoisie moving in their middle class context and seemed angry that somehow, despite my lack of money, I had, through my skills and effort had been able to get into their world and worked hard to drive me back out, something they were unapologetic about and I am still stunned by the words they actually used and the attitudes they exposed, this is 2011 not 1951 or 1911. 

Society is supposed to have moved on, though we do seem to be in the midst of a social counter-revolution something which I am glad more and more newspaper commentators are noticing and protesting about.  Strangely, from assuming I was middle class, I seem rapidly to be turning into a bit of a working class warrior.  My parents were skilled working class and I even lack their skills (nursing and electrical technology).  I guess if wordprocessing is some kind of basic skill then I am semi-skilled.

This is an incredibly round about way of opening my posting about chickens.  What do they have to do with social class?  Well, like camping, they seem to be something which might have been seen as a working class activity now being colonised by the middle class.  Whilst I do not have the income or clothes or groceries of the middle class, due to being a graduate and my interests, I do tend to see things very much through a middle class perspective and have aspirations to be, some time in the future, someone who can afford once again to go on a foreign holiday and buy the cultural items like books and movies that I associate with being middle class.  I guess the point about groceries above, should have brought this home: that the middle class have the luxury of worrying about the future, whilst those of us who are slipping from the class, no longer can:  I cannot afford insurance and certainly know the child who lives in my house will never go to university; I have no idea even where I will get a car from when the current one dies.  For me expenditure is simply paying the bills this month and hoping I can next month, nothing longer term than that.  The middle class, in contrast still can think about their children's higher education and their own retirement.

Sorry, I must get back to these chickens.  So keeping chickens has in recent years, become a middle class hobby, well, in the UK.  In Belgium it has been something that everyone seems to have been doing for ever and even so they still not seemed to have grasped that cockerels living in the suburbs will crow at 01.30 because they think the street lights are daybreak.  Once it became clear that we would not be compelled to sell this house, the woman who lives in it with me and her son, decided she needed to have chickens.  To some degree this was sensible, because while I was unemployed, between the three of us we were consuming 20 eggs per week.  In five days she had relocated the compost, levelled and stripped a patch of ground in the garden, bought on eBay and erected a chicken house and then constructed a wire fence and gate (cunningly made from a picture frame, the cheapest way it seems to get a hardwood frame as discount 'fancy goods' stores sell them cheaper than buying the wood from DIY stores).  I was brought in to bring home the chickens, 4 for £10 each and their straw, corn and 'grit' which seems to be a high calcium thing to help with shell production.

Within the space of a week we had gone from being a non-chicken owning house to one with four breeds of chicken: a New Hampshire Red (which looks like the classic protrayal of a chicken with brownish feathers), A Sussex (white with black flecks around the neck), a Bluebell (subtle shades of grey) and a Black Rock (with green-black and flame brown plumage; I can see why people 'show' chickens).  They seem to settle in quickly and eat a wide diet, so fewer of our scraps are going to the compost and now instead go to the chickens.  In return though, chicken droppings are supposed to be a really good source of fertiliser.  The chickens came to us at 17 weeks and within 3-4 weeks were laying regularly and so we now get 4 eggs almost every day, enough to generate a surplus.  Though the eggs are equivalent to the 'small' size you buy in the shops, we know that there are no growth hormones in them and the chickens have a good quality of life, though I have been designated the slaughterman if any come to the end of that life, though saying that the woman in my house has become so attached to them that I think she would rather have a chicken retirement home with hens too old to lay. Having spoken to another very middle class man from Wales about his, he only got former battery hen chickens as one might take in a rescued cat or a retired racing greyhound.  Apparently battery hens are retired after only 18 months of laying, though this can be only half way through their full laying period. 

I had anticipated the eggs coming out with shells of a variety of colours, but the four breeds we own all produce medium brown eggs just the shade of the ones you find in the shop.  You can find breeds that produce pale or speckled or even pale blue eggs, I have seen these at other people's houses but they are not from the varieties we have.  The eggs are of the size that would be deemed 'small' in the shops, so I have had to use more as I am used to 'large' eggs in my cooking.  One thing about our eggs and, in fact, all home grown ones is the taste, it is so much better than the ones you get from the shops, you have to try it.  The yolks are far yellower, sometimes even orange and your omlettes and scrambled eggs come out with a very bright colour, which ironically looks 'artificial'.  Interestingly in the first touch of the cooked egg on your tongue you get more flavour than in a shop bought egg, but that flavour tends to fade faster.  This may have to do with the youth of the chickens and that apparently the whites are more watery.

The chickens have proven quite easy to tend especially as they have got to know the woman in my house and her 9-year old son.  It is fascinating how they so quickly have come to resemble rural paintings from the 19th century, having intuitively adopted the use of slender sticks to herd the chickens back into their run from free range in the garden and then into their coop.  The other thing I had not anticipated is how quickly they become like pets.  Having each chicken a different breed (which could have selected from among a further four breeds at the farm we bought them from) helps with identification, but even so you would soon be able to tell them apart even if they all looked the same as they behave differently. 

We have encountered some illness from our chickens.  They are prone both to internal parasites like worms and external ones such as red mite.  We had to take the New Hampshire Red to the vet as she seemed underweight and we feared that she had worms.  I have only been in a vet's once before and forgot that they call out the name of the animal to go into the consulting room and often append the owner's surname on the end.  It was quite comic taking the poor hen in the car in a box with her head protruding from one end and her tail from the other, with her looking out the window at passersby.  She was pretty well behaved in the surgery only flapping up twice and she was very patient being weighed.  Given the fact that my brother, his mother-in-law, my aunt, my girlfriend's sister's friend and friends of the boy in my house all own chickens, I had expected our vet, even though he is urban rather than rural, to have more familiarity with them (one of his receptionists keeps them too).  I think maybe we should have gone beyond the town limits to a more rural vet.  However, he was game and I guess his knowledge of poultry is increasing.  It was a little funny, because as with human patients, the woman in my house went in with as much information gleaned from online discussion forums as she was going to get from the physician.  Anyway, the hen was less ill than we thought which was good.  We did stock up on medicine to be on the sure side.

The woman who lives in my house has read about their societies and whilst I knew about the 'pecking order', this does not seem to remain static in our coop.  There is sometimes some feather-wrenching pecking when they are bored.  However, rubbing Vick's decongestant on the areas liable to be attacked has proven as effective warding off attacks as we were advised.  Apparently, being an all-female community it can become a little like a women's prison (and the group dynamics shown in the movie 'Chicken Run' (2000) seem to make much more sense to me now) with sometimes one taking on a 'male' role and even crowing.  Their laying time also gets in step, just like the periods of a group of women living together will become synchronised over time. Watching the 'ladies' as the woman in my house calls them, pecking around and hearing them 'sing', that kind of rising note rather than a cluck is amazingly soothing.  We are learning the different sounds they make: the distinctive laying 'cluck' which alerts us to the arrival of a new egg; the alert but not alarmed cluck when a hen is taken into new surroundings and a warning one, fortunately at this stage only 'black special' (as per the UK's BIKINI levels of alert for terrorism) as a dog was sensed two gardens away, rather than the 'amber' alert of a fox in the vicinity.

As with all pets, we will need a sitter if we ever go away even for a day, because of the need to get the chickens in and out for exercise and to replenish food and water; they drink a great deal.  Apparently you can hire chicken sitters.  Unfortunately being in a road which is more than four-sevenths occupied by students, there are no neighbours with sufficient expertise that we can ask even in exchange for free eggs.  I guess we will have to move into a more middle class area where others have chickens.  So far we are a long way from recouping the £240 spent on getting the chickens set up, plus £44 for medication and I guess that is why this is a middle class activity, not a proletarian one.  It was the woman in my house's money rather than mine and there are clear non-monetary benefits for her in terms of a real sense of achievement, an affinity with her 'ladies' and the soothing effect just watching them go about their business has.  The next plan is for bees...

No comments: