The question I am asked time and again, “Why Jerry Chicken, its not your real name after all ?” to which there is a two part answer so lets get it out of the way right here and now by taking you back to Leeds in June 1977 with the young me sitting in the surveying office of a local electrical contractor where I am gainfully employed as, a surveyor (without qualifications, this was 1977 after all).
Mike Melling my Bristol born boss who always speaks like a pirate walks in…
“Now then my fine young dandy, would ‘ee like to work in thar Newcastle office for a short while then, eh Jim lad ?”
And I say “Yes, that will be fine” and so I seal my fate for in agreeing to be seconded to our newly established office in Newcastle-u-Tyne for a period not exceeding two weeks in duration, just long enough for the Newcastle office manager to interview and appoint someone more local to do the surveying job, I unwittingly signed up for a ten year term, a marriage, a mortgage and everything.
I am one week and three days into my two week sojourn in Newcastle when the office manager Derek Armstrong, a pipe smoking Geordie with a bark far, far worse than his bite in fact he has no bite at all just a bark, says he wants a word with me…
“Whey noo listen hey-are bonny lad, ah’ve got some bad news for yees”
And he tells me that on that very morning a team of lawyers and accountants flew up from the head office in Bristol to our Leeds office and made all 70 staff redundant, told them to clear their desks in five minutes and locked up the office for good, you could do that in the 1970s, remember I told you it was 1977 ?
“But what about me ?” I asked of the mustachioed pipe smoking Geordie boss sitting across the desk.
“Aye well, “ he started, “you see, they haven’t said owt about yeez like, man”
And so we agreed, he would not interview anyone for the job that I was seconded to do for him and in return I would continue to travel north every Monday morning, stay in some shocking digs, and drive back home every Friday evening, for as long as our head office continued to forget that one member of the Leeds office and his Leeds company van had escaped the cull by means of being in a different office on the day of the long knives.
And so it began, and so it continued, and every month Derek Armstrong would send my expenses down to head office and every month they would reimburse him as if they’d all forgotten about me, and every month they would pay my salary as if I was a Newcastle employee except I wasn’t because I never appeared on Derek Armstrong’s ledger printouts (we were computerised, in 1977, yes, amazing wasn’t it, actually the whole Group of 100 or more companies leased some time on someone else’s computer to do the accounts), we never found out who’s payroll I appeared on and I never had a contract of employment after the Leeds office closed.
Why Jerry Chicken ?
Its very simple, its the Geordie’s fault.
Anyone who has ever traveled far enough north to mix among the residents of Newcastle-u-Tyne will know what I mean when I say that the Geordie accent is quite unique among accents in that it invents complete new words to use that no outsider could possibly understand, it still does that now but back in 1977 when the region was still very parochial I became a novelty as soon as I opened my mouth to speak.
“How man, weezz are yooz from then, like, man ?”
And I’d reply “Why I am from the fair city of Leeds my good chap and thank you for inquiring” and they’d stare at me for a while with a puzzled look on their face before asking a friend if they could understand what it was I’d just replied to them.
So it was that I was sent to lodge at a boarding house on Fern Road in Jesmond, these days a very trendy student-y part of the city of Newcastle, in 1977 it was street upon street of large bay-windowed terraced houses of Edwardian construction, large high ceilinged rooms, fancy plasterwork, a proper large entrance hall and lots of bedrooms, these were not working class terraced houses these were middle class grand residences and in 1977 those Geordies of middle class denomination (yes there were some) loved them and decorated them to within an inch of their lives at Habitat and John Lewis, not one single house in Fern Road was without a huge paper globe lampshade hanging in the front room for all to see from the street and woe betide you if your neighbours Habitat paper globe was bigger than yours for then it was war, paper globes and huge Swiss Cheese Plants in the bay window were the weapons of this middle class “better the neighbours” war.
I lodged at the imaginatively named Fern Guest House for almost two years and during that time the young couple who owned it – she had bright ginger hair, the palest face I have ever seen, and a startling propensity to use fire engine red as her only choice of eye, cheek and lip make-up – would occasionally sell out all of the rooms in their ten roomed boarding house but because I was a trustee and long term resident, because I had a track record of not getting pissed every night and wetting the bed (it happened to some), then I would be allowed to go and stay at her parents house four doors down the street, same house, same ten bedrooms, two old people and a small dog, old furniture and hundreds of toby jugs arranged around a high shelf that ran around the perimeter of the lounge – it was the old lady who named me “Chicken”.
You thought we’d never get here didn’t you ?
The very first time I was sent down the street to stay at her mothers house I tapped on the door and the sweetest little old lady opened it from within, the sort of old lady that you’d draw as a cartoon, Little Red Riding Hoods mother for instance, the granny who gets eaten by the wolf, yes her, a dear little old cartoon lady wearing a pinny, smelling of lavender and bath salts, knitting needles in her hair, that sort of old lady, and she looked me up and down, smiled and said,
“Yooz must be Mr Chicken then ?”
Lets pause here while I explain that my family name is actually Kitchen, so please, those who are genuinely called Chicken can stop sending me the requests to be included on their family trees (yes I get them), my surname is Kitchen, which is unusual in itself, but hey, its nothing like Chicken unless you are 78 years old and a bit hard of hearing and speak only in broad Geordie so that when you daughter tells you that Mr Kitchen is coming to stay for the week it sounds like she’s said “Mr Chicken is coming for the week”.
Now at times like this you normally have about ten seconds in which to correct the other party, a simple “Ah, well actually its Kitchen, not Chicken” would do in moments like this, correction made you can then go forward, it may cause a few seconds embarrassment to the other party, the other party may chuckle behind their hand and apologise for calling you Chicken, but then you both forget it and carry on with the rest of your lives.
That would be one way to handle the situation certainly, but the other way to handle the situation is to do nothing and pretend that you didn’t hear the other party just get your name wrong, by a long chalk, the other way to handle it would be to accept that this barmy old lady is now going to call you Mr Chicken for the rest of her life and when she tells her husband then so is he – this is the route that I decided to take.
And so every time the Fern Guest House was fully booked and I’d be sent down the road to stay at her mothers house I’d have a week of being called Mr Chicken, the old couple were so sweet that I never corrected them once and so formal were they to their guest that they never asked for my Christian name preferring to address me as “Mr Chicken” on a permanent basis, maybe I was the first Mr Chicken they’d ever met and wanted to prolong the novelty of referring to someone as a fowl, it was like living in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
And what of the Jerry part you all ask in unison ?
Well, it happened in just the same way.
Part of my job was to attend weekly site meetings at all the building sites that the company were employed upon and it came to pass shortly after the Mr Chicken affair that I arrived at a brand new site in South Shields for the introductory site meeting where all of the contractors sit around a table, drink tea, talk about Newcastle Utd and introduce themselves to each other in a “this is who you’re going to be fighting with for the next eighteen months style”.
A pleasant enough site agent opened the site cabin door to my knock (site agents were not generally pleasant, the job isn’t pleasant and neither are they), he held out his hand and introduced himself with “Ah you must be Jerry ?”
Lets pause here again while I explain that my real name is not Jerry, its Gary, close I admit, but its not Jerry and never has been, until that moment. Once again you have ten seconds in which to correct the other party, laugh behind your hand and move on, once again I chose the path of not correcting the other party and consigning myself to being called Jerry whenever I visited that site.
Yes, it really happened this way, I spent years wandering around the north east mis-understanding 50% of every conversation I heard and being mis-understood the other 50% of the time by the resident Geordie population, I would probably have been better understood, and far quicker, if I had been moved to an office in Peking instead, although I certainly would not have gained the name Jerry Chicken to use when I am signing in to hotels and in a belligerent mood these days, Jerry Gai Gung, it could have been worse I suppose…