Gal­lop­ing about do­ing good

Wanted: an ex­pe­ri­enced eye

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Carla Carlisle

Carla Carlisle on the un­ex­pected pit­falls of help­ing oth­ers

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’s 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’.

These days how­ever, 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.’

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 (con­ceived 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.

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 has been shut up in the fruit cages since De­cem­ber, my sad­ness at its im­pris­on­ment is triv­ial com­pared to the sleep­less nights now en­dured by 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 longer, they will ex­press their dis­may 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.

‘I’m not a woman who’s only happy when she’s sad, but Larkin’s pes­simism cheers me up’

‘Praise be the cat who gal­lops about spread­ing hap­pi­ness and pros­per­ity’

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.