Jeremy Clarke

Happy eating

A social leper informs you of his miserable existence

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To get to the nearest main road from here, you have to drive for five miles along a cow-shit-covered country lane. Two-thirds of the way along, where the lane is joined by a farm track, stands a wooden hutch on legs. More often than not, there are new-laid eggs inside. The eggs, lovely brown eggs marked with yellowy-green chicken-shit and bits of straw, sit neatly in rows of circular holes that have been jigsawed out of a sheet of plywood. A hand-written sign says the eggs are £1.20 a dozen and would you please put the money in the money-box, thank you. Beside the eggs is a haphazard pile of damp egg-boxes. You help yourself to as many eggs as you need, up to 36, which is the maximum capacity of the jigsawed sheet of plywood. If the egg-boxes are very damp, you have to be careful getting them to the car because they tend to fall apart.

Pinned at the back of the hutch is a curling photograph of some or possibly all of the hens. They are white hens. The photographer has captured about ten of them pecking about amongst some derelict farm machinery. A caption beside the photograph, hard to decipher because the rain has blown in and caused the felt-tip ink to run, says that the hens are 'Happy Hens'; happy because they are allowed to roam free. On first reading this, you peer again at the photograph and scrutinise the hens for signs of happiness. They are very clean, very white hens, to be sure. And all of them are in motion, suggesting energy and motivation. But ultimately, you conclude, you'll have to take the farmer's word for it.

I heard ex-Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew speaking on the radio the other day. When he first came to Britain the thing that most astonished him was the sight of an unmanned newspaper stand, with people putting their money in the box and helping themselves. 'My God!', he'd said to himself when he saw it, 'This is a civilised country.' As I post my silver in the metal slot, I experience a similar utopian sentiment.

And what's more, the eggs I pay for on trust in this way are of a higher quality and better value for money than anything else I buy. The yolks, always the test of a good egg, are the colour of an asphalter's fluorescent jacket and stand proud in the frying-pan. Having said that, however, a farming uncle of mine resolutely claims that the colour of a chicken egg yolk has got nothing whatsoever to do with whether the hen has been grubbing for insects in a farmyard or standing in a metal cage all day. It is determined by the shade of orange the farmer chooses from a printed colour chart supplied by the chicken-feed company. And as free-range egg-producing hens require the same manufactured food as battery hens, so the resulting yolks are similarly of a faked colour. In fact, says my uncle, the yolk of an egg laid by a hen that has eaten only what it can scavenge from a farmyard would be a very anaemic, unappetising looking thing indeed. Give him battery eggs any day, says my uncle. They are more hygienic, for one thing.

Well anyway, the Happy Hens' proprietor couldn't have chosen a more aesthetically pleasing shade of orange for his Happy Hens' yolks. And the eggs taste out of this world. One, lightly boiled for tea, is the best ten pence-worth you could possibly spend. Of course, there are those who grudge paying even that and steal them. Now and again, particularly in summer when the holidaymakers are about, a handwritten notice appears in the hutch. The Happy Hens have to be fed, it says. The food costs money. If the eggs are stolen, the Happy Hens' owner loses both money and eggs. So please, it says, don't take the eggs without leaving the right money. If people persist in taking the eggs without paying for them, the box will have to close. Thank you.

The other day the box was robbed again, but for once the thief was seen driving away and his registration number recorded. The police were called. Now it just so happens that my brother, a large policeman, is currently supervising sergeant at the call centre at the regional police headquarters. One of his jobs is to monitor incoming calls and prioritise them. When he saw the report on his computer screen, he immediately recognised the description of the honesty box, having purchased eggs there himself on numerous occasions. Incensed, as any civilised man would be, by this pathetic crime, he ordered an extensive man-hunt, and the thief was apprehended, with the eggs, outside his home. If they ever get to hear about it, the happiness of the Happy Hens will, I'm sure, be even greater than before.