Why I Hear Machine Music In My Head (1981)

This is a strange recollection, one that goes back to the very beginning.

In the summer of 1981 I was 16 and needed a holiday job to earn money for a motorbike. In Sussex, without wheels, your range was limited and I lived a long way from anywhere I wanted to go, which was mainly Brighton, to me a beacon of neon and vice dens.

“You want a pint of lager?” Asked my unreliable friend Mano in The Crocodile, Danehill’s only pub.
“Yeah. Cheers.” I accepted this rare gesture of generosity. “How’s the eye?”

Mano was sporting a cartoon perfect shiner. He 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. Reports of the combat varied, from Mano’s heroic account, demonstrated in full, with karate chops (“…as the third fucker came at me the two little fuckers were holding my arms, but one of the other fuckers…”), to more prosaic versions such as Dave Baker’s languid account; “Yes, Mano got pissed. Then 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. I looked around the country pub and as the alcohol hit my stomach everything glowed orange-gold.
“Now listen Mano,” I wheedled, “I’ve got to get some cash. And I can’t do fruit picking again. I just can’t. So tell me about this job.”
He looked smug. “Forty five quid a week.”
Forty five quid? Why, in six weeks I could have the bike and money to spare. “Mate, please…”
I paused, checked by an odd odour, faint but deathly, that pierced the cigar and sour beer atmosphere. Was it coming from Mano?
He cut across me, all businesslike.
“No worries. Uncle Mano’ll sort you out. Nice money. Chickens, man. Yeah. ”
“Yeah. You know.” He started clucking and waggling his elbows. “Up at the hatchery. Counting the eggs in. Counting the chicks out. Sweeping up chicken shit. I already got you the gig. Said you’d turn up on Monday.”

It sounded weird, but this was paid work. Mano seemed disinclined to elaborate further and beat the table with his palms in time to the music of the jukebox.
““We’re the Kids in America”. Dirty little strumpet. See her on Top of The Pops? I’d give her one though, eh? Eh? Eh? Leave it to uncle Mano. Here’s a quid, get another round in. I’ll stick some fuckin’ AC/DC on the jukebox.”

That first day, I rocked up (by bicycle). The Hatchery was hidden in dense Sussex woodland. It was a massive windowless concrete and breezeblock structure with a load-in bay. Opposite, flanking the bombed out gravel forecourt was the “works office”; a low wooden building with a corrugated iron roof containing a “canteen” with Formica tables and a hot drinks dispenser and a cloakroom with a 1960’s vintage punch-card clock-in machine. I immediately recognised that odd, burned, sour smell that I’d caught on Mano in the pub. It was sulphur and dead animals and something else. Burned hair? Burned 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 through a series of processes. We were a varied and hopeless crew. Two youngsters – Mano and me. 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 mother, and farmer-skinned Derek, the fork-lift truck driver. They are the ones I remember.

Every day lorries pulled up onto the forecourt and backed into the bay. Then by the thousand, we unloaded chicken eggs from Sussex farms, delivered on long, blue plastic racks, each egg held upright within a small hexagon. “Candling” was the first step in the process – manually sorting the fertilised eggs from the unfertilized. Two of you placed the racks on a special clear Perspex table. Powerful spotlights blazed through the eggs from underneath, with bulbs 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.

Chicken Hatchery

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 example Number 10 delivered excellent, clean batches of eggs, and 5’s and 7’s were not too bad. But eggs from Numbers 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 it first hit me, an uncontrollable bolt of yellow vomit rocketed up my throat and filled my mouth, squirting through my teeth, much to the amusement of my new colleagues.

The first few days were unbelievably unpleasant. The fluorescent lights, the never-ending roar of the giant fans, the heat and that smell, that hideous omnipresent smell. Many times, eggshells would explode at the slightest contact, spraying one with a fetid brown puree that stuck in your hair and eyes and fingernails and ears. It was impossible to be rid of the stink. You got used to it though: after four or five days the brain simply numbed the olfactory senses, and you could walk around without permanent dry retching.

Next, the unfertilised eggs were washed, placed in into egg boxes and thence sent to the breakfast tables of Sussex. The fertilised were taken for “turning” – placed in a series of enclosed steel corridors, each sealed with a heavy metal door, deep in the factory, the ceiling no higher than two metres and maintained internally at the temperature of a female chicken’s body. Mid-way during this part of the cycle the eggs needed to be revolved, by hand, through 180 degrees, a time consuming and monotonous process. Yet I found the process of “turning” to be a strangely comforting ritual. They locked you inside the 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”, to lie loose on perforated metal trays with sides four inches deep. Then, on the appointed day there rose a new sound in the hatchery, one that masked even the roar of the ovens. It was the birth of a new batch: the noise of tens of thousands of tiny yellow Easter chicks, all of them the orphans of mass production. Now then, one solitary baby bird made an insignificant cheep. But in myriad legions their voices squealing for their mothers became a shattering scream of insanity that fell and rose. And no mother called back, unless you counted the factory herself, the monotonous drone of her fans and ovens.

We packed the tiny birds into cardboard boxes, counting rapidly in fours – one miniature neck between the finger gaps of each hand. 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28…. Boxed by the many dozen I suppose they went to batteries and back to the farms that fed us the eggs in the first place. The cycle of life.

Some chicks had been crushed by others, or were injured or deformed. These rejects were isolated, classified as inferior and placed in a special tray. Then they were taken out and gassed in a small chamber. For some reason the job was always performed by quiet, motherly Deidre. I stood by while she did this a few times but. I never liked hearing the little voices fading away inside the chamber as the gas hissed and took effect. The specks of life had barely existed at all. But every other day the factory received again and birthed again. The mother of life.

Weeks went by. My family was away on the summer vacation so I had the house to myself. I didn’t go out. I was too tired to speak. I smelled of shit and incineration and was by now nearly crazy. But every now and then a voice intruded.

I trudged home from the hatchery one day.

“Marcus, are you on your way home? Want a lift?”

It was Elaine, a girl I liked at college. She had recently passed her driving test and proudly pulled up alongside me in her new car. I slid unthinkingly into the passenger seat. What a stroke of luck! Ten minutes talking to Elaine – and in her car: how sexy.

But as we drove off, a nameless sensation spread throughout the vehicle. Elaine’s pretty nostrils quivered. In agricultural Sussex, one was accustomed to the pungent affronts of silage and manure, the warm scent of stables and cowpats. But this was different, an emanation of death that came off me in waves and hung in the air like some incontinent hobo ghast. I tried to make conversation but there was no denying that satanic pong. Grimly, Elaine put her foot to the accelerator. Once or twice she swallowed back nausea but she was too well-bred to say anything. Even then I knew that provoking the gag reflex was not a hopeful signal with a girl. It was a brief enough journey but, no doubt for us both, seemed to last an age. It was with profound relief that Elaine finally dropped me on the lane outside my house. She sped off, unwinding the car windows as she went. I stood in the roadside watching her go as a handful of bluebottles settled upon me.

I wonder why the hatchery affected me so much. It was only a six week holiday job after all. But the heat. The rhythmic throb and roar blasting your senses. The stink penetrating your clothes, your hair, your mind. Isolated in the anechoic corridors of never-ending embryos, I heard noises that turned in my head into rhythms and pulses. It was around this time that I decided I was going to start a band. I don’t think this was coincidental. It occurs to me that ever after, perhaps I’ve been trying to recreate the patterns and frequencies imprinted inside the hatchery. Perhaps all that explains the industrial music, the disembodied pleasure I felt from the noise.

Of course one could identify deeper currents. My adoption. That other lost mother I have never known. Perhaps my fascination was not after all about the factory but more about those thousands of orphans I packed into boxes. But even now, as I write, I can hear the mother-machine. Her semi-regular throb, ever-present, all surrounding.

(First published in November 2010).