I predicted disorder. This is a strange recollection, one that goes back to the very beginning.
In the summer of 1981 I was 16 and I needed a holiday job to earn money to buy a motorbike. Without wheels my range was limited. I lived in rural isolation, miles from anywhere I wanted to go, which was mainly Brighton, a beacon of neon and vice dens.
“You want a pint of lager?” Asked my unreliable friend Andrew Manso, a.k.a. Mano.
“Yeah. Cheers.” I accepted this rare gesture with gratitude. “How’s the black eye?”.
Mano had sustained the injury in a fight with skinheads at the Greeting No. 4 gig in Lewes, which because of my lack of mobility, I had been unable to attend. Accounts of the combat varied, from Mano’s heroic account, demonstrated in full, with karate chops (“… as the third one came at me, big spotty fucker, two little ones were holding my arms, but one of the others …”), to more prosaic versions. e.g. Dave Baker’s languid account; “Yes, Mano got pissed. He started shouting at some skinheads. Then they beat him up, slightly”.
Mano touched the side of his face and his brow darkened.
”No bother. They won’t be smiling anytime soon.”
“Cheers for the beer.” I said, slurping gratefully. I looked around the country pub as the alcohol hit my stomach, the beaten brass bar glowing orange-gold.
“Now listen Mano,” I wheedled, “You said you’d got a job. Tell me. Tell me where I can…”
I paused, checked by a faint but deathly smell that pierced the cigar and sour beer pub atmosphere.
Mano cut across me, businesslike.
“You need a temp job for the summer? Old uncle Mano’ll sort you out. Nice money. Up at the hatchery. Chickens, man. Yeah. ”
It sounded weird, but I was pretty dumb about everything and this was like, paid work.
““We’re the Kids in America”. Dirty little strumpet. I’d give ‘er one though, eh? Eh? Eh? Pffwhoar. Leave it to old uncle Mano. I’ll stick some fuckin’ AC/DC on the jukebox.”
The Hatchery was hidden in dense woodland off a forgotten Sussex lane. Flanking a bombed out gravel forecourt was a massive concrete and breezeblock structure, almost windowless, with a lorry load-in bay. Opposite was a low wooden building with a corrugated iron roof. Here was a rough cloakroom with a punch-card clock-in machine and a “canteen” with Formica tables and a hot drinks machine.
The first day, I rocked up (by bicycle) and I immediately recognised that odd, burned, sour smell that I’d caught on Manno in the pub. It was shit, and sulphur and dead animals and something else – hair? Burned hair? Burning hair, or feathers.
So here’s what happened in the hatchery. The factory of life.
There were perhaps ten of us that worked the machinery. We were a varied and hopeless crew. Mano, of course. Then, an old character called Dougie, the wit of the gang, with the gummy charisma of Popeye, who had worked at the hatchery for 25 years. Then Karen, a simple but fearsomely strong lesbian, Deidre, a sad and gentle 45 year-old mum, and farmer-skinned Derek, the fork-lift truck driver. They are the ones I remember.
Every day lorries from local farms pulled up onto the forecourt and backed up into the load-in bay. Then by the thousand, we unloaded eggs. They were delivered on long, flat blue frame-trays, each egg held upright within a small hexagon. Then we “candled” every tray. “Candling” was the process of manually sorting fertilised eggs from the unfertilised. Two of you placed the trays on a special clear-topped table. Powerful spotlights blazed through the eggs from underneath, so bright that you could see right though the shells and identify the embryos, their little shadow-shapes suspended in the yolk that glowed dull orange in the glare.
The farms and batteries that delivered the eggs were identified only from a corresponding number. You got to know the varying levels of quality of each farm, so that for instance number 10 delivered excellent, clean batches of eggs, and 5’s were not too bad. But eggs from 36, 4 and 3 were frequently rotten and would sometimes be covered in a green-brown, pussy substance with a smell of such primeval repulsion that when first encountered, a bolt of yellow vomit uncontrollably rocketed up your throat and filled your mouth. Many times, shells would explode furiously at the slightest contact, spraying one with a fetid brown puree that stuck in your hair and eyes and fingernails and ears.
The unfertilised eggs went into boxes and thence to breakfast tables. We kept the fertilised.
The first few days inside the hatchery were unbelievably unpleasant. Fluorescent strip lights, the never-ending roar of the giant fans and heaters, the sweltering heat and that smell, that hideous omnipresent smell. Yet after four or five days the brain simply numbed all senses, and one found that one could walk wound the vast building without permanent dry retching.
The fertilised eggs were taken into a series of enclosed steel corridors, each sealed with a heavy metal door, deep in the factory, no higher that six feet in height and kept internally at the temperature of a female chicken’s body. Hot. Mid-way during this part of the cycle the eggs needed to be revolved, by hand, through 180 degrees, an enormously time consuming and monotonous process. Yet I found “turning” inside the corridors a strangely comforting ritual. They locked you in a corridor alone for several hours, enclosed utterly by the heat and warped steel. Deep inside the vast machine, you felt the pulse of the mother, the metal womb, caring for its children.
On the last days before hatching, the eggs were taken out of the frames and transferred into vast “ovens” on perforated metal trays with sides four inches deep. And every other day in the factory there rose a new wave of noise that masked even the roar of the ovens – the sound of a huge new batch of chicks – tens of thousands of tiny yellow Easter chicks. A solitary chick made an insignificant cheep. Joined as many legions their voices became a maddened, shattering scream that fell and rose in patterns of insanity.
We packed the chicks into cardboard boxes, counting in fours – one tiny neck between each finger gap of each hand. 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28…. Boxed by the many dozen I suppose they went back to the farms and batteries that fed us the eggs in the first place. The cycle of life.
Some chicks had been crushed by others, or were injured of deformed. These were isolated, classified as inferior and placed in a special tray, a tray of rejects. These chicks were then taken out and gassed in a small chamber. I stood by while they did this a few times but for some reason the job was always performed by quiet, motherly Deidre. I never liked hearing their little voices fading away inside the chamber as the gas hissed and took effect. But every other day the factory received again and birthed again. The mother of life.
The rhythmic throb and roar of the heaters. The heat and the stink and the shit blasting your senses. The stink penetrating you clothes, your hair, your mind. I lost track of time. Isolated in the anechoic corridors of never-ending embryos, I heard noises that turned in my head into rhythms and pulses. Weeks went by. I spent the nights alone. I had the house to myself for the summer and I didn’t go out. I was too tired to speak and I smelled of shit and burning hair and was by now nearly crazy anyway.
So after the summer I bought a motorbike and a drum machine. Then I started a band. That’s another story, rich with comedy. But it occurs to me that ever after, perhaps I’ve been trying to recreate the patterns and frequencies imprinted inside the hatchery.
Of course one could identify deeper motivations. My adoption. That other lost mother I have never known. Perhaps all that explains the industrial music, the disembodied pleasure I feel from the noise. But even now, as I write, I can hear the mother-machine. Her semi-regular throb, ever-present, all surrounding.