I never had a sense of humour. What started me in a theatrical direction was finding at a very early age that I had a talent. In fact, not so much a talent as a disability: I could impersonate chickens. I was a chicken. I said to people, ‘I will imitate a chicken for you,’ and this pleased them. I don’t know why. It did. Therefore I became extremely observant of the minute dialect of chickens.
For example, I became very interested in this double thing they have: it starts off with ‘buk, buk, buk, buk’, and then ‘bacagh’ follows. I noticed that some of the cruder impersonators of chickens, and there were competitors at school, never understood that there was a rather subtle variation of ‘buk, buk, buk’ for every ‘bacagh’. They used to think it was absolutely regular. But I noticed, and this was really a big breakthrough in chicken linguistics, that chickens liked to lead you up the garden path. They would lead you to expect that for every four or five ‘buk’ there would be a ‘bacagh’; so people, the bad chicken impersonators, the unobservant ones, would go as follows: ‘Buk, buk, buk, buk, bacagh, buk, buk, buk, buk, bacagh, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, bacagh.’ What I noticed, after prolonged examination, was an entirely different pattern of chicken speech behaviour. Thus: ‘Buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, bacagh, buk, buk, bacagh, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk … BACAGH, buk, buk …’
I conducted this examination during the war, when food was short and we used to get food parcels from the United States, which for some reason always took the form of cling peaches. I don’t know what the Americans thought we were suffering from – massive cling peach deficiency presumably. And one of the ways my own family was digging for victory was to rear chickens. We moved around a lot, following my father from one military hospital to another, not because he was a patient, but because he was a military psychiatrist and was often shifted from one nuthouse to the next. Everywhere we went, we took a trailer behind the car, filled with hens. They would be kept in a camp at the bottom of the garden, like displaced persons. I watched these creatures for hours on end. They tormented me.