Carla Carlisle: Poetry, bird flu, and galloping about doing good

Carla Carlisle talks about how poetry inspired her to do good deeds – and how one deed in particular now seems perilously close to backfiring.


Despite the new gospel of sleep as salvation, my alarm is set for Farming Today. This would be a sensible way to begin the day if I kept farmers’ hours. I don’t. I’m still up at 11.30pm, so I rarely miss Poetry Please. Roger McGough is like an old friend; his soft voice is as peaceful and exciting as a well-aged Pauillac. He’s been especially on song lately, what with an evening of ‘Poems for Dark Days’ followed by a whole evening of Philip Larkin. I’m not a woman who’s only happy when she is sad, but Larkin’s pessimism cheers me up.

I was surprised when This be the Verse was read with nary a bleep the other night. True, it was midnight and listeners were forewarned of ‘strong language’, but it was a relief to hear the poem we know by heart read without being censored. Another poem everyone knows almost by heart is Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning. It feels timely, as a lot of us are discovering we are much ‘further out than we thought’.

The poetry of Smith of Palmers Green was a revelation after years of reading Sylvia Plath (who wrote that she was ‘hooked on Smith’s poetry’) and the equally troubled Robert Lowell, who turned to Smith on grey days to enjoy ‘her unique and cheerfully gruesome voice’.

In fact, these days the Smith poem I can’t get out of my head is The Galloping Cat. It begins: ‘Oh I am a cat that likes to/Gallop about doing good.’ Alas, the cat creates havoc and then blames the unpleasant results on irritating angels: ‘What’s the good of galloping about doing good/When angels stand in the path/And do not do as they should.’

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I know the feeling. I too like to gallop about doing good. My notion of ‘good’ is not tenderly caring for the sick and the poor; it’s closer to the Thatcherite doctrine (polished long before I’d heard of Thatcher) that everyone is happier if they have something of their own. Even in my days of Tolstoyan dreaminess, I never believed that collective farming would make people as happy as ploughing their own furrow. As soon as I landed on a significant plot of my own (by marriage), I began galloping about putting my good intentions into practice.

Ten years ago, when farming was going through a tricky period, I proposed to Will, who farms our land, that he might supplement his income with an egg-laying business. I offered the five-acre field next to woodland, a paradise for free-range chickens. The restaurant would buy his eggs and the rest could be sold in our weekly farmer’s market. His wife, Emma, designed chicken houses that looked like shepherd’s huts and, together, they created a thriving business. A couple of years later, they bought a 30-acre field three miles away and created a more viable free-range egg farm.

“I hate to think that I may have led Will and Emma into a business that could be devastating”

When Will’s assistant manager Kris wanted to start an asparagus business, I was delighted. We rented him a field and, last year, the first crop of his Wyken asparagus was served in restaurants throughout Suffolk. Charles, our vineyard manager, has a business selling ‘trees for gardens’, which surround the old bull pen and enhance the farmyard car park.

Praise be the cat who gallops about spreading happiness and prosperity. Except, as the cat points out: ‘Galloping about doing good Is a full-time job/That needs/An experienced eye of earthly Sharpness.’

My earthly sharpness did not foresee that something called H5N8 virus – bird flu – would invade this happy utopia on the wings of a dove and on wings of ducks and geese from Siberia. Although my own mixed choir of chickens, turkeys, peacocks and guinea fowl have been shut up in the fruit cages since December, my sadness at their imprisonment is trivial compared to the sleepless nights facing Will and Emma.

I have 12 hens; they have 12,000 free-range birds. My hens, peace-loving Dark Brahmas who lay only when the spirit moves them, contribute to my pleasure, but not my livelihood. Will and Emma’s birds represent their life savings and a decade of hard work. So far, their birds have accepted their confinement with grace, but, as the days grow warmer and longer, they will express their displeasure by laying less. Supermarkets are already dropping the premium for free-range eggs and insisting on paying the ‘barn egg’ price, although the enhanced welfare for confined birds is eating into the farmer’s income.

Just as we were hoping that the birds would resume their free-range lives, a seventh case of bird flu was confirmed, in Redgrave, Suffolk, 10 miles from Will and Emma’s farm. Some birds died and the remaining 23,000 were culled. You could say that the Redgrave farm was a sitting target. It’s a stone’s throw from Redgrave Fen, a nature reserve that attracts wild birds on their migratory journeys from Siberia. Or you might have thought ‘what an idyllic setting for free-range chickens who help provide the nicest of the 34 million eggs a day that we eat in Britain’.

I hate to think that I may have led Will and Emma into a business that could be devastating, I would advise fellow cats galloping about doing good that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I should add that the ‘Dark Days’ of Poetry Please referred to winter, not political or moral times. But that’s what I love about poetry: double meanings. It’s worth clicking onto iPlayer if you missed it. The poem by Emily Dickinson might reassure: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.’ Hope. Feathers. Galloping about doing good. Poetry. Please.

Carla Carlisle