This year, we decided to keep chickens. Fowl Play is the terrible pullet pun titled tale of How the Coop Was Made, and the Chickens What Went In It.

Beginning

Here is a pic of the south-west corner of our back garden, taken at the beginning of summer.

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We’re quite lucky, really. I work at a boarding school. The college owns various properties, and we rent this one.

Waking up to this sort of view is a total privilege.

The field behind us is farmed. It was wheat this year, oats the year before that, but the bit you can see just over the fence is too small for tractors, so we have lots of nettles, and somewhere to tip the grass from the lawn. The tree is in the garden. It’s somewhat gnarly, but the apples are pretty good, as eaters and cookers.

We wanted to make the most of the space, so decided earlier in 2014 that we should get some chickens. And this summer holidays gone by was when it was Going to Happen.

Lay of the Land

The various fence posts you can see are the remnants of a previous occupant’s attempts at keeping hens. It didn’t really work out for them (the occupants or the fowls), and there was all sorts of junk behind the wire that was attached to the posts. They had a series of fires there (the occupants, not the fowls, although it’s an appealing image), getting rid of bottles, mattresses, all sorts of incongruous items. You can just about make out the fence post in the middle is charred, and there’s a bare spot on the ground just in front of that. This photo is after the initial clean-up. Getting rid of the giant thistles and Triffid-esque nettle network took quite a bit of slash and fork. I dug down a fair way, but the chickens now in place are still scratching up singed bits of battery, bolts, hooks, plastic toys.

Once I’d cleared out most of the debris and ill-placed flowers (aka weeds), the Grand Designs project was under way.

Material World

The intention was to try and build a shed from as near scratch as possible, and re-use as much material as possible. I wish I could tell you I’d kept an account of all the spending, but I’m just not that organised. I will give approximations, at least.

Starting from the base up… this large section of wood had been part of some sort of gazebo outhouse structure built along the fence, further up to the left from the view above. It was fixed to the perimeter fence with gigantic nails that took ages to prise out.
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So, free, but unwieldy. It sat in the garage for ages, awaiting sanding and painting…

… awaiting…

...later that summer...

…later that summer…

Our neighbour on the other side of the garden meanwhile offered eight of these sets of wooden panels. I think the panels didn’t pass the fire regulations wherever they used to be, and had to come out.

"...get it knocked together in an hour no bother..." - A Local Former Carpenter

“…get it knocked together in an hour no bother…” – A Local Former Carpenter

The neighbour, Brian, was a carpenter at the school for 50-odd years, so I had a fair bit of barracking and plane-speaking banter to put up with across the fence all summer. He was really sweet, actually, lending tools and offering hints when I asked… but he also took the piss quite a lot.

Taking the time to procure some A3 graph paper online, when that came I tried my best to measure and plan the whole thing. Informed by Brian’s suggestions (if unconvinced of his assertion that it could be completed in 60 minutes), I had a vague notion of making a sort of box out of the different bits, using one panel as a roof.

v rough sketch

 

I mean, I just bashed this pic out now rather than scanning the originals, but you get the idea. The process of measuring everything out properly, on the graph paper, with a ruler, was crucial. Clarifying the actual requirements into manageable sections, generating lists of other stuff we’d need to get, etc.

 The image above is sort of what ended up happening, with a few tweaks. I found a great deal of helpful info on various chicken keeper forums, and I’ll post some proper links to those later, but if you’re here looking for actual technical guidance, I must be honest and acknowledge that my construction skills are about on a par with my ‘free hand drawing in Paint using a knackered mouse pad’ abilities. Architecture and mathematics are not particularly my portfolio, as evidenced by some of the Escher-esque angles in the finished building.

It all really came into focus about halfway into July, at the start of the holidays. I heard some neighbours from down the lane were moving house and divesting themselves of all manner of stuff. I knew they had a coop in the garden. While I was too late for the fencing  – an earlier bird neighbour from the other way swooped faster – and knowing the family from school, I went round to see if I could “help their moving process” by taking any unwanted chicken fittings off their hands.
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As you may be able to discern, there was a nesting box, side panels, bits of mesh, doorways, and all sorts.  Despite me asking pointedly a number of times, all payment was turned down. I even managed to press gang the students into carrying the bits up the road to my house. Quite a result – thanks, former neighbours!

Putting these bits and pieces together with my existing supplies, the project was underway in earnest. A trip to B&Q for some lengths of 2×2 timber frame, sundry exterior paints and items, proved a decisive motion. After that, construction proceeded rapidly.

Well, construction of the frame started to be begun, at least. I wasn’t in a rush. I had a summer holiday to fill.

Next edition: Construction begins on “Mimi’s”: the Best Little Henhouse in Ryedale.

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Gentle reader, hello.

That’s a personalised opening gambit, although judging by my site traffic stats I may be, actually, just addressing one person. Hiya!

Well, it’s not that bad, but if people come looking for new content they will have been sorely tested this last month or so. A glance at the twatter twitter feed info on this site will suggest that I tend to microblog rather than long-form it during term time. Six school days a week – the boarding mysteries of loading and timetabling and post-school activities. Sporadic bursts of energy with regard to writing, especially blogging. Life’s events too busy like getting all up in my face and that (prior clause to be read in R.P. 1940s BBC voice) for me to feel the need to step back and catalogue them in a public forum.

M’colleague JCG over at 10 Minutes Hate just published an interesting article on writing wherein Geoff Dyer is quoted as talking about ‘levels of noticingness’, the act of switching on enough to write things down, and the mundane draggishness of this.

It is a weird aspect of a weird idea of writing as a discipline, in some ways. Having to notice stuff? You just notice stuff, don’t you? Then write about it. Or not. You need to have something to say. Forcing it seems a bit… well, keen. In an unhealthy way. You start writing terrible poems about puddles.

I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Couple that with ‘just because you can, you should…’ notions of instant publishing (the aforesaid Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Ello, etc, etc), an assumption that everything is of interest, even when it is not, and you definitely have a recipe for stress, rather than enjoyment.

These are, it might be argued, manifestations of the late capitalist notion that one is never doing enough. The act of creation and magic that writing is becomes yet another productivity measure in an Excel spreadsheet universe. One more flagged assessment for you to parse your personal progress. Self-flagellation and word count anxiety, and a failing grade from The Man by half term.

And I worry, I waver, I wonder, about the delusion of hope and progress implied in the idea of ‘late capitalism’.

Thusly, I was gratified (confirmation bias) to read Dyer’s concept of having ‘deprioritized the role of writing in my life’. Improve your focus on activities being undertaken, while making it much more fun to do the writing bit when you fancy. In this mode, it is much more valuable to no longer think of oneself as a ‘writer, interrupted,’ but as a being doing stuff who also, when opportunity knocks, likes to faff about with word strings. Puts down phone, watches gig.

These are, of course, notes from an amateur. Professional writers’s views vary: Dyer offers one, Warren Ellis synchronicitously publishes another, on being consumed by commercial writing.

Maybe that aspect of it is why I’ve always skirted the edges of professional writing. For my part, kicking off clag accumulated in the quagmires of faff (and what a choice phrase from JCG!), I note that I keep advertising a post about chickens. It never materialises. And which came first, the post ad or the idea for the post?

Reality clucks. I’ve been busy enjoying tending the flock, more occupied cleaning up the chicken shit to worry about feeling I have to write shit about chickens.

“…but we need the analogies!”

Now the fowl are in place and providing eggs as planned, though, I think I am due a bit of stepping back and cataloguing. Don’t cross the road, gentle reader! I’ll be just a moment.

Closer, gentle reader. Spring creeps upon us… for the last week or so, little clusters of ghoulishness have lurked among the buds. It started with a trip to Crystal Palace, with its fascinating remnants of the collection, and little folk tales of ghost trains entombed beneath the ruins. As I type this it is Easter Saturday, which seems an appropriate point to pause to detail some of these things passed… (“on the second day of the long weekend off, they rose late again and had boiled eggs, for it was raining heavily”). Here is a taxonomy of some of the roots clutching from out of the stony rubbish… Let us feel what ghastly backdraughts might waft from the tombs as rocks are rolled away…

[FX: Vincent Price-ish echoey laughter]

… Our story begins on an ordinary Monday, not long ago. In the morning press, my eye fell upon an intriguing history, relating the strange case of The Gorbals Vampire. In 1954, I read, a mania had fallen upon hundreds of children. The tartan tinies, convinced that an iron-fanged fiend stalked their midst, descended upon Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis bearing stakes, mallets and crucifixes, massing mob-handed to seek the villainous vampire and do for him…

[Breezy reportage voiceover] The reaction from some parents seems to have been in the no-nonsense Glaswegian mode:
“Mammie, ah seen a vampire!”
“Aye, you’ll be seeing stars now – get tae bed!” [FX: Clout!] But, the story suggested, a more sinisterer agenda was then furthered. The panic escalated, as they are so wont, to draw in the alleged malign influence of American comics, such as the legendary Tales from the Crypt, on the youth of Scotland. This led to the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955, which forbade

the sale of magazines and comics portraying “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors.

Let us leave aside for a moment the superb-because-true allegorical undertones – well, overtones, in fact – of the tale of a giant vampire with iron teeth stealing the kids of Glasgow, the beast dwelling in the Necropolis by the ironworks, the admixture of sensational American pulp turning the weans’ impressionable heids… Let us turn from this part of our little peep into the sepulchre and move on. For, gentle reader, Mr Sanderson’s recountage of that little episode bade me cast back my mind, back… back to adventures from my own childhood…

[80s synth version of ‘Lollipop’ under montage sequence]
About four or five of us, of varying ages between six and 10, were out playing in the woods at the end of our road. The Woods, as they were more properly known, were (then) a horseshoe of old trees, yews, oaks and the like, planted around an older quarry. There was a fence closing off the top ends of the cliffs from above, but it was open at the bottom end, and well-frequented by dog walkers, drinkers and of course gangs of feral youths (known as kids playing about at that time).

Here is the view from google’s roving spy vehicle:

Doesn’t it look laden with aeons of Lovecraftian dread? Anyway, between those verdant boughs were craggy slopes, so plentiful climbing of both rock and branch to do. Many happy hours were whiled away running about, playing Block 1-2-3 (like Hide and Seek, with extra running and counting), doing the tree walk (a line of about twenty-odd trees you could go from one end to the other without touching the ground on), hacking through nettles with sticks, throwing crab apples, digging up clay and chucking it about, trying to start fires, finding abandoned dirty magazines, etc, etc.

Yet. At the top end of The Woods were a particularly sinister set of early-Edwardian era buildings. I had a dim awareness they were something to do with the Council (now known to be Planning and Highways). At that time, Councillors were notoriously sinister and corrupt, always selling off land housing priceless pirate treasures, building bypasses through fields and kidnapping children, which of course I recognise now as naive, the product of a vivid imagination exacerbated by over-exposure to The Goonies, the Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys. Real Councillors would never do any of that kind of thing.

However, back then it seemed perfectly plausible that in the basement of the building, behind the cobwebbed window on a door that had not been opened in years, there lay a body. Oh yes, a body – dessicated and horrid – watched over by a mad caretaker – who would happily permanently close any prying eyes with some sort of caretakering implement…

… so there we were, hacking through the trees with sticks, doing the nettle walk, chucking crab apples, but all the time gravitating inexorably to the little concrete staircase that led to this portal of the damned…

…eventually, we clustered at the head of the stairs, bunched, and crept as one body down the short flight. Darren (I think) was oldest and shushed us as we whispered, lest we disturb the caretaker. Down we edged, sneaking with our backs against the wall to avoid being seen. (There were actually only about three stairs, so please imagine those two sentences as a tightly-edited movie sequence, making it look like we’re on some endless Dante-esque descent before the pull-back and reveal, five lads of descending size in a Madness Nutty Train, moving incredibly slowly a distance of about two feet).

The window was slightly above head height, and our excitement reached a fever pitch as Darren stood on tiptoes… he peered around for a few seconds, acclimatising to the gloom… we drew in closer… “There’s something there,’ he said. An intake of breath in unison, held. “What, what’s there?” “It’s…”

Our hearts thudded in our throats. Our suspicions were true. A body. The corpse of the last unfortunate to come prying in this dungeon of despair, of the Good Councillor who tried to oppose…

“IT’S MOVING!!!”

In films like The Goonies, young kids often yell in unison before running around pell-mell at warp speed. So we yelled and ran, bundling up the stairs pushing each other, stumbling and maybe already laughing with excitement as we bombed back through The Woods, down the hill, burst out and along the road.

Of course there was no body, and the caretaker was probably just a paedophile, not a murderer. The story of the collective van Helsing delusion in Glasgow was the same, albeit on an industrial scale. Kids make up their own little scary narratives from what they’ve acquired culturally, creative sparks coming from these little clouds of artistic endeavour and locale to galvanise, bring forth new life, etc, etc.

Nipping it in the bud, such mini-adventures also often followed in short order by the Authorities, trying to stop people thinking and restore ORDER. Legislating the imagination… after comics in 1950s Scotland, our tale from The Woods took place in the early 1980s, northern England, a time when video had just started its ascendancy. Against a backdrop of the threat of the The Bomb, in the UK we had the ‘Video Nasty’ scare. One could suggest this was maybe an atavistic response to baffling new technological paradigms, and there’s probably some sort of thesis somewhere in extending that notion to discuss the massive surge of irrationalism, religious crisis and fear, dark matter, accompanying the birth and rapid growth of the interweb, if one could possibly be arsed thinking it made any sort of difference talking about that kind of thing.

Ahem. Returning to the body in the cellar, there was no banning of comics arguably directly linked to the Corpse in the Cellar Adventure, but it was definitely round about that mid-1980s time when other people’s unconscious horrors were bubbling up and being silenced,or at least attemptedly so. It’s funny how these cultural riptides and countercurrents happen (‘Ha ha!’ – Newton). There’s a big thing about vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like going on… which is probably something to do with a climate of fear, nukes or terrorists. ‘In the day’, we had the cereal Weetabix giving away these glow-in-the-dark Scary Stickers when I was younger. Banned, of course – political correctness gone mad, I ask you, although looking back, pictures of radioactive spiders were actually pretty terrifying artefacts to shake out into your breakfast bowl (I know you don’t shake out Weetabix, but bear with me). Thanks to the powerful magic of the internet, I was able to revisit them via this ace blog, The Cobwebbed Room, which linked to them from the also ace Peter Gray cartoons and comics blog.

Oh, oh, OH! And look at this: The ill-fated yet magnificent comic SCREAM!, available to read online! SCREAM! was awesome, after the Beano one of the big influences on me having an abiding interest in comics as culturally significant media. Not banned, I think SCREAM! was cancelled for economic reasons… more images in the crack’d mirror…

Have I a point in these reflections, dear reader? Probably only that sometimes we maybe (I definitely) do not tend to immediately think “scientifically” about things. Humans in general do seem to respond to representations a lot more easily, the primal chill of vampires some kind of reaffirmation of blood and flesh reality against airy and sometimes incomprehensible theories of dialectical materialism, ‘market forces’, or Large Hadron Collisional physics… where perhaps we don’t know what will happen, but let’s bang the little rocks together anyway and see what manifests. Then chuck crab apples at it.

Maybe it all goes together in some way, severed hand in glove, stitched on to homunculus by scientists using string. On which lurching to its feet note, there we go. The Easter weekend passes, my brain ceases to spark my fingers into pushing buttons, and we turn expectantly to witness whatever stumbles from the cave… Perhaps an animated feature: “Wes Craven presents Mary Shelley’s ‘Schrodinger’s Messiah’.”

It’s actually quite sunny out now.

[Hands burst through the plaster and clutch me as I rise from the chair]