Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson
When I cycle down the busy west London thoroughfare near my home, I occasionally spot a shop undergoing refurbishment.
I allow myself a little thrill of excitement. Will it be an artisanal bakery or a Neapolitan pizza place? The answer is always no. Because it is always, always a new fried-chicken outlet.
Between my house and the tube station – a third of a mile away – you will find Rooster’s Grill, Chicken Village, Chicken Cottage, Sammy’s Chicken, Crispy Chicken and the more upmarket Nando’s. Further down the street, you will find Chicken Kitchen and a KFC, formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken, the one that started the whole trend.
Everyone loves chicken. These places are all halal and popular with Muslims. Chicken soup is the Jewish remedy for misery, and poultry is loved by our Christian brethren and the Hindus. The chicken is a mightily successful creation – poor thing.
I wonder just how many chickens are slaughtered each day to feed this little stretch of Shepherd’s Bush, and what sort of lives they lead. I doubt they peck at grain in Exmoor farmyards.
My research reveals they are likely to come from the five massive companies that supply the 17.5 million chickens sold in supermarkets and fried-chicken shops each week.
The story of the chicken mirrors the changes in society since the Second World War. Chicken hasn’t always been a cheap source of protein for the people. In the 1950s, my mother’s mother served chicken only once a year, at Christmas.
Then, also in the 1950s, a man called Antony Fisher started a business called Buxted Chickens in East Sussex. It was Britain’s first battery-farming operation. The price of chickens plummeted, and when the business floated in 1962 Fisher made a fortune. He used this money to launch the first-ever think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA was a PR firm for ideas: it promoted the libertarian ideology that would eventually be taken up by Thatcher and Reagan.
And by the 1970s, chickens had become normal fare. In 1979 Buxted even produced a collection of recipes, called The Buxted Poultry Cookbook.
Fisher’s granddaughter Rachel Whetstone has continued in the family’s amoral, libertarian traditions: she is a top PR who has worked as a spin doctor for Uber and Google and is now a vicepresident at Facebook. She began working in Conservative Central Office as an adviser to Michael Howard, then the Home Secretary, and is now married to David Cameron’s political guru, Steve Hilton.
Without battery farming, you could argue we would have had no 1980s and no ‘greed is good’ attitude. And we would probably have had no Silicon Valley. As former Tory MP Oliver Letwin has written, ‘Without Fisher, no IEA; without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer!’
My parents, and many like them reared on battery chickens, left home, went to university and bought a house.
And my parents earned so much money in Fleet Street that they were able to buy a house by the river in Richmond and send their children to private schools. I went to Westminster School. We used to eat chicken fairly regularly until my parents woke up to the cruelties of Sir Antony’s battery-farming system and turned vegetarian.
When my children were small, I went backwards. We moved to the country and kept our own chickens, some of which I killed myself. I used a book as my guide, like poor tragic townsman Gerard Depardieu in Jean de Florette. One year, we bought a load of ex-battery hens and watched them slowly come back to life. They would flutter and cluck ridiculously if the dog chased them but then, as a friend remarked at the time, chickens are not renowned for their courage.
If we ever bought chickens, we would get expensive, free-range, organic birds.
And now we are back in London, my children are at state schools because I can’t afford Westminster – though we did manage to buy a house in London in the 1990s.
My children may never be able to afford to buy a house, but they are very happy ordering takeaway food via their mobile phones. And despite the vast array of choices available to them, the meal they choose tends to be … chicken. They are not alone: Deliveroo claims that chicken is their most popular takeaway in Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol.
As the chicken has journeyed from an expensive, highly valued, once-a-year luxury to mass-produced daily grub, so three generations of Town Mice have changed, too.
Which generation is the winner? My parents, with their large house, generous Fleet Street pay packets and limited retail choices? I myself with my expensive education, one of the last generation able to buy a London house? Or my children, priced out of the housing market, with all the cut-price chicken in the world to munch on?