Why don’t you write something cheerful for this gloomy old world?’ beseeched my grandmother after reading the meditations I wrote with grim determination every summer. From the age of seven, my topics were family troubles, death (especially of beloved dogs), alcoholics (a southern way of life), misery in general. I had an ear tuned in to grown-up talk, a talent for making myself unobtrusive, and an itch to put it all down on paper.
Now, like my grandmother, I hanker after something cheerful to lift me out of my deep gloom. Some days it feels like I’m sinking in an emotional quicksand of war, hurricanes, earthquakes, idiots running the world, falling farm prices, suicide bombers and melting ice caps. Each disaster seems greater than the last, each tragedy eclipsed by revelations even more devastating.
Like my ancestors, I’ve always found the glass at twilight a useful form of medication. I enjoy my tonic in the company of chickens, peacocks, call ducks, guinea fowl and the newcomers, the Norfolk Black turkeys, as they mosey back to their sleeping quarters in old fruit cages now converted into a fox-proof palais des poulets. My attachment to these heavenly creatures passeth all understanding, especially the understanding of my husband who has long accepted that the birds he refers to as ‘domestic fowl’ tether me to a farm in Suffolk more powerfully than the bonds of matrimony and motherhood.
But now my evening ritual, a tumbler of Pinot Noir-and poetic conversations with a turkey who looks like W. H. Auden-is filled with grief and apocalyptic visions of confinement or slaughter. Planted in my brain are the words of Sir Liam Donaldson, on the Today programme: ‘The whole world is vulnerable’.
Where to begin when the whole world is vulnerable? I start by following the advice of the chief veterinary officer and introduce a new word-‘biosecurity’-to my feathered kingdom. My birds roam free all day, driving Simon, our head gardener, mad as they nip every tender bud, but enchanting garden visitors when they catch sight of six guinea fowl crossing the croquet lawn looking like the little girls in Bemelman’s Madeline ‘in two straight lines’. The Dark Brahmas in fluffy trousers produce eggs with yolks the colour of saffron. And then the majestic bird of Hera, the peacocks, reign over the bird kingdom. Now I feed them all inside the fruit cage, a biosecure Guantanamo Bay designed to keep their food from the migratory birds who may bring doom to this bird paradise.
I do not confess to my husband that I went online to order Tamiflu from Canada at $90 a course. I think of our neighbours who built a bomb shelter in the 1950s. My father was sceptical-‘They’ll need a shotgun to keep out their friends’-and I know he would disapprove of my desire to have a small private stash. It’s no good saying that my job is to protect my family. If I can.
Every evening as I lock up my birds, my ritual refrain comes from The Cider House Rules: ‘Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England’. It’s my way of assuring them they can rest in peace. But tonight all I think of is the opening sentence of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘This is the saddest story ever told’. I’ll try to write the cheerful something next time.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on October 20, 2005.