How to hypnotise a chicken – A New Zealand adventure

The trouble with any long period away is that it includes such a variety and wide range of incidents, anecdotes, encounters and adventures that it’s nigh impossible to provide a short, cogent answer to a question as simple as ‘How did you find New Zealand?’ apart from the utterly banal (‘I liked it, thanks.’)

I attempted to make things more interesting by summarising my month and a half in New Zealand in a few sentences of Dickensian length and complexity, but since they’re a little too rhetorical to recite by heart, I mostly copy them into letters, Facebook statuses and blogs:

From the streets of Christchurch, where life and culture thrives even among the rubble and dead hulks of its earthquake-stricken centre; to the star-brilliant skies above the blackness of Lake Tekapo; to the mist-shrouded bulk of Mt Cook, waterfalls pouring down its cheeks in angry cataracts; all down the jagged line of the southern alps, past the icy lakes of Wanaka and Wakatipu and into the sheer mountains and impenetrable rainforests of Fiordland, bridged by a single stoney track beneath which the clear Routeburn flows through valley and gorge, I ventured; then turning northward along the dangerous, ever-sounding shores of the west coast, where the glaciers sink slowly backwards into the mountains and the sea foams and spouts like a tempestuous geyser among the tortured and labyrinthine rocks; to the golden sand of Abel Tasman, where western eyes first glimpsed the young country, and paths lead through waist-deep tidal bays to the farther shore; to the vine groves of Marlborough and thence to the verdurous pastures and rainbow-haunted skies of North Island: the snowy crater and steaming volcanic lake of Ruapehu; the redwood forests and bubbling mud pits of Rotorua, and the deep azure mineral pools in which ferns silver and decay; up past Hobbiton and the black water caves of Waitomo to the northern capes and islands where the country began; where the great kauri, taller even than redwoods, pierce the canopy; then south once more to volcano-spotted Auckland, spanning the peninsula from the Pacific to the Tasman Sea: such were my travels in New Zealand. I flew gliders higher and for longer than I ever had before, leaped from planes and the top of skyscrapers, guided kayaks over wide, deep lakes, ascended sheer walls of blue ice and pitted rock, and plunged gasping into lakes, oceans, rivers and waterfalls. And there were beers cooling in the stream, and the scent of wood shavings on the forest air, the geothermal pools were hot and the lakes were cold,there were kisses by moonlight, shooting stars and new constellations, seals swimming the the rivers and kea clowning for scraps, and a beautiful woman did a hula dance in an apartment by the sea.

In any case, I was complaining of this excess of anecdote to my friend Ffion recently, and she cut through my pontificating by asking me to tell her a story about a chicken.

‘Oh yes, we hypnotised one.’ I said, and realised this was a story that I’d neglected to write into my diary, never told anyone of, and completely forgotten until now.

With an archly raised eyebrow and a subtle bulging of the eye, Ffion invited me to go on.

This was in the midst of my coach tour from Queenstown to Auckland, just outside Abel Tasman National Park. Our coach driver, Vince, was brilliant, fearless – one of those people who can persuade with a grin and a quiet word where others would spent gales of breath and bluster failing to convince. He seemed to have a girl in every place we stopped, and tonight he’d come up with two – Cathy and Marie. I’d ended up joining them and a few more of the livelier members of the bus group in playing ‘Never have I ever’. Vince did a lot of drinking, and I haven’t felt like such an innocent since before my first kiss.

Over the course of a dozen-odd beers that evening, Vince happened to mention that he could hypnotise a chicken. It was at that stage of the evening when everything has to be tried, and accordingly we trooped outdoors to where the chickens were roosting in the trees. Vince would bend the branch down low enough for one of us to make a clumsy grab, and an extremely startled chicken would slip through our drunken fingers and make for the hills. This continued until all the chickens on the campsite had received a rude awakening, and then we started to hunt them through the bushes. Cathy eventually managed to catch one after we closed in on it in a threefold pincer movement.

The Wikipedia page on chicken hypnosis is absolutely fascinating. First described in 1654 by Athanasius Kircher, it is mentioned by Nietzsche (“the streak of chalk bewitcheth the hen”) and the article includes tips on technique by a German Chancellor and a U.S. Vice President. Vince’s method was simple and classical. His lovely assistant, Cathy the chicken wrangler, held the chicken at chest height, facing Vince, who held out a piece of chalk at the chicken’s eye level. Slowly the two squatted down to floor level, when Vince drew a long straight line of chalk running away from the chicken and between his legs. Both of them stepped away, and the chicken continued staring fixedly at the line of chalk, completely hypnotised. Only when someone disturbed it by a shove or a loud noise would it snap back into life.

Having proved it was indeed possible to hypnotise a chicken, we left it in the tent of an unsuspecting Dutch woman and went back to our drinks. It would have been the highlight of another weeks diary, but in the midst of all the adventures it passed entirely unrecorded.

Looping the loop

mf_airfield_lOn Pocklington airfield the early cloud had broken away, and the sun came out as the afternoon lingered, offering the occasional bit of thermal lift for the adventurous pilot. I’d already had my three flights for the day, and was satisfied. There were plenty of people about to hold the wing, do control checks and keep the flying logs, so my presence wasn’t really necessary. I had been thinking of returning home and getting to work on the first chapter of my dissertation, but it came to me suddenly that I had a vaguely relevant book, a seat in the sunshine, and the occasional diversion of watching gliders taking off, whereas all my room could offer me was a blank screen and a sense of claustrophobia.

I was deeply into an account of David Garrick’s stage practice when the words ‘does anyone want to do a loop-the-loop?’ drifted through my ears. The book flew from my lap as I sprang to my feet instantly, but too late. Marit, a Norwegian girl on her first visit to the airfield had raised her hand before me, and the flight was hers. Jealousy overwhelmed me.

‘I’ve been here for months, and I’ve never got to do a loop-the-loop!’ I hissed to her instructor. Tony was a bearded Yorkshireman in the most eye-achingly awful flat-peaked cap anyone has ever invented. Foul Fashions, the label said, and didn’t lie.

‘I’ll take you up next if you like.’ he said.

‘Oh. Thanks.’ I said, nonplussed, my rancour swiftly deflating.

Five minutes later they were off, shooting upwards at 45 degrees on a winch cable. Some thousand feet of ascent later, they detached, and we watched attentively as they turned left, dove for speed, then looped back on themselves in a smooth, easy, beautiful loop.

‘We used to do those all the time in the bad old days.’ one of the duty pilots reminisced. ‘Loop-the-loop, chandelle, and a beat-up.’

A chandelle I knew – it was a turn so steep the glider seemed to stand upon its wing. ‘What’s a beat-up?’

‘It’s where we used to turn back towards the airfield, and buzz past without landing.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘We used to hold up scorecards as they passed, like diving judges. Six, seven, eight point five. But health and safety put paid to that, of course.’

I had seen a beat-up once, on a frosty morning, when ice had begun to form on the glider’s wing on the first flight up, and the pilot had brought it low and fast across the airfield, in the hope of shaking it off. Flying had been delayed for hours.

Something other than glider aerobatics now caught the attention of those on the airfield. A few miles away at Elvington, a Vulcan bomber had taken off, its distinctive delta-winged silhouette clearly visible as it engaged in turns and stunts similar to our own. It was only just visible above the tree-line and the industrial estate, but a large crowd gathered to speculate about its fuel consumption, swap plane facts, and watch in envy. Our attention was briefly drawn back to our own airspace a few minutes later, when Chris and Alexis went up to fly aerobatics.

‘Do you suppose they’re making Vulcan noises as they do that?’ someone asked, as the K21 went through some incredible loops and turns. No-one would put it past them. For all that the advertising material goes on about the joys of silent flight, there’s a fair bit of nneeeooowww braka-braka-braka that goes on – in people’s heads, if nowhere else.

Finally, it was my turn to go up. Clipped into my parachute, strapped into my seat as tightly as possible, I watched in excitement as the winch cable, lazy as a grass snake, slithered its way to tautness.

‘All out!’ someone shouted, and in five seconds we were flying. All through the thirty second ascent, usually so entertaining, my eyes were riveted to the altimeter. A poor launch, and we would have to abandon the aerobatics and do a circuit, and my dreams of looping-the-loop would be on hold till next time. I watched with baited breath as the needle swung around. 900 feet – 1000 – 1200…

The winch cut off. The cable detached with a clunk.

‘Oh no!’ the instructor cried, as the glider’s nose plunged and we began to hurtle towards the ground.

I wasn’t fooled for a minute – not for more than half a second of giddy terror. Then the stick came hard back, and the sky, the horizon, and open fields began to whirl in front of me. The g-force pressed me down into the seat, my nose beginning to run with the sheer strength of it. Then, with a whoop, we turned into a chandelle, levelled, and began another loop-the-loop.

I would have thought I would be frightened, or a bit sick, or at least giddy, but it was nothing like the edgy, out-of-control sense a roller-coaster cultivates. You could feel that the pilot knew what he was doing, the glider was well within its limits, and all that remained was the adrenalin rush, the g-force, and the sheer sensation of looping-the-loop. Now I’m properly hooked.

A-roving by the light of the moon

moon_20020517

It was a brisk February night and I was camping out in the Lake District with my mountaineering friends. I had been hoping to get a spell of stargazing in, and things looked pretty good as I dismounted from the minibus, with Orion above the mountains, and the usually faint constellation of Lepus (the hare) clear beneath his feet. Unfortunately by the time we’d put our tents up a high light cloud had swept in across the sky like a veil, hiding everything except the waning crescent of the moon, to which it gave a diffuse and lovely lustre. My hopes of stellar observations were evidently thwarted. It was time we gave up and headed for the pub.

Yet as my friends pulled their head torches over their foreheads, and brilliant white diodes illuminated the road ahead in their wavering glare, the poet in me rebelled, and I hung back. The moon gave enough light to walk by, and I was keen to enjoy the night on its own terms. If I couldn’t admire the beauty of the heavens, this was the next best thing.

It took my friends a long time to pass me, and they would keep turning back for some parting comment on my eccentricity, and inadvertently dazzling me by the glare of their head torches. Finally, the last of them turned the corner, and I was alone on the unlighted road. The moon was behind me as I walked, and my eyes fed upon the darkness, slowly weaning themselves from the light. From the first I could make out the lines of the mountains that surrounded the valley, stark against the skies – then the trees overhanging the road – then the stones in the dry stone walls, and the sheep in the fields beyond them. A puzzling fork in the road turned out to be the twin arches of a bridge beneath which the river roared unseen.

Surprisingly, I find tarmac is one of the hardest things to walk on at night simply because it’s so featureless, so black and so even. The eye can’t pick out its texture, and each step is a battle against the half-conscious suspicion that a yawning pit is about to open beneath my feet and swallow me. In the woods, by contrast, the very roughness ground makes me swifter and more sure of myself. This added a new frisson to the fine chill February night, which already had more than a touch of the Gothic about it for those of us wandering beneath the moonlight. It was such a night as Coleridge describes:

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly but not dark.
The thin grey cloud is shed on high;
It covers, but not hides, the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is grey.

I half expected to glimpse Christabel kneeling beside an old oak tree as I passed by. There were no electric lights in sight now, and I had become an anonymous traveller in the anonymous, timeless night.

In the eighteenth century, to travel at night and by moonlight was common. Country balls would be held at the full moon, so as to give enough light for the coaches to drive home when the evening wound to its close. In the great comic novels of Henry Fielding, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, the heroes travel as much by night as they do by day, frequently striking out from unfriendly inns at unlikely hours. They would have relied solely on their night vision. Only in the big cities would you have linkboys with flaming torches to guide late night drinkers from door to door.

Today it seems hard to imagine. My mountaineering friends had a gorgeous story of how they had arrived in Snowdonia on a brilliantly clear night, and decided on a whim to forsake their tents and climb Snowdon by starlight – but I had little doubt they’d done it all with their head torches shining out before them. In these days of constant lamplight and pocket torches, the darkness beyond has become more sinister, peopled with God knows what. It requires a real effort of will to step into it, to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and resign yourself to the fact that each footfall is a leap of faith.

I turned a corner, and the electric lights of the pub dazzled me. The night vision I’d acquired over the course of half an hour was gone in a flash. My thoughts turned from Coleridge and Fielding to those famous lines of Byron:

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.