The telephone rang and it was Mark Amory, literary editor of this magazine. You could have knocked me down with a feather when he asked me to review Beautiful Chickens. I said yes at once. I already had a copy of the book, given me by the staff at Heywood Hill as a Christmas present, so I knew the fun I was letting myself in for.
The chickens are beautiful indeed. The Frizzle, for instance — a spoilt lady coming out of the hairdressers where they have forgotten to comb out her curls — is truly surreal. But not as surreal as what I overheard a woman telling a friend at the Reading Poultry Show many years ago, long before political correctness had been invented: ‘I put my little Japs in the bath’. She was staying in a hotel, so what the chambermaid must have thought I cannot imagine. Obviously her Japanese Bantams had to be in pristine shape before they went in front of the judge. The fragility of their tails, which are longer than their bodies by miles, must cause anxiety to their owners.
Some of the birds appear to be in fancy dress. The long-legged Modern Game, standing proudly on stilt-like legs, looks for all the world like M. de Beistegui, who gave the ball of the century in Venice in 1953. So as to be easily recognised as the host, he stood on stilts to greet the onrushing convives. The feathers of the Sebright can be gold or silver, set off by a brilliant red wattle and comb. There you have Jacques Fath, the ultimate couturier, whose extravagant costume for the ball was lavishly embroidered with silver and gold.
Another in fancy dress is the Rumpless Tufted Araucana, whose claws are awesome. Her shocked expression makes me wonder if her tail has been plucked out by a rival in the fashion stakes. The black and brown Faverolles is a smart French lady guest and the Scots Dumpy, short in the leg and heavy in the crop, is a kilted friend of mine. A bit of a frump, her stubby legs, with no ankles, go straight into her feet.
The photographs in the book are fantastic and the poetic descriptions, eloquently written by a poultry expert, are instructive and repay careful reading. I would have liked even more about the chickens’ varied personalities Each one has its human counterpart. Welsummers are so shy they disappear into the corners of the poultry yard. But their eggs, dark brown like the tweed made from Black Welsh Mountain sheep, make them well worth the trouble.
Not illustrated in the book are my favourites, the despised crossbred Warrens. They make charming companions, lay an egg nearly every day and are the friendliest, cleverest birds you could ever wish for. There is no such thing as equality in the feathered world and Warrens are perfect examples of the pecking order. When the new, point-of-lay pullets arrive the best and most beautiful of them immediately establishes herself as chairman of the lowly Warrens and never relinquishes her post. She is always first at the trough and remains there until her crop is full to bursting. This self-appointed leader clings to her post for life. I know several of her human counterparts who seem to have done just that.
I would like to add to the description of the Appenzeller Spitzhauben. I think I was the first importer of this decorative Swiss bird, which flies like a pheasant and wears an Ascot hat. In the mid-1970s, my sister Pam came back from Switzerland to live in England and wanted to bring some of these intriguing creatures with her. I wrote three times on her behalf to the Ministry of Agriculture, as it then was, to get permission to import some hatching eggs. I never received an answer so took the law into my own hands and brought a dozen back with me after a visit to Pam. I stopped on the way home to stay with my sister Diana in Paris, where her matchless cook spied the eggs in my luggage and unpacked them for an omelette. I rescued them just in time, put them into my incubator when I got home and delivered them to Pam when the chickens were old enough to live happily without a warming lamp.
The last few pages of the book show scenes from the National Poultry Shows at Stoneleigh and Lanark. In close-up some of the birds look more like hawks than hens and remind me of the old men who haunt the tables at Monte Carlo. With their furious eyes and terrifying beaks, they seem ready to grab the chips and hoard them under their wings until the croupier calls faites vos jeux once more.
In contrast to the meticulously coiffed birds, photographed as though they were supermodels, the exhibitors look like the real experts they are. Totally focused on their beloved show birds, they are highly competitive and as delighted with success as if they had won the Derby. Some of the trophies are almost as splendid as those from the racecourse.
I used my strongest magnifying glass to scrutinise the beautiful birds illustrated in this beautiful book. It has been an honour and a pleasure to review it.