Helen Peters: Then there was my brother’s pet turkey, Gobbler…

I am so excited to be coming to Hay to talk about my new book, The Secret Hen House Theatre. The book is set on the Sussex farm where I grew up and the characters are based on my family and their animals. I’ll be showing you pictures of the farm and some of our crazier animals, as well as embarrassing childhood photos of my sisters and brother. (Without their knowledge or permission, of course, so if you know them, don’t breathe a word.)

One of the star characters in the book is an enormous tame sheep called Jasper, so fat that he most closely resembles a giant snowball. Jasper was my sister’s pet sheep; she bottle-fed him as an orphan lamb and he followed her devotedly around the farmyard for the rest of his life. He even had his own pet. I’m so happy that I’ve found a picture to show you of Jasper and his best friend, a duckling called Lucy who used to ride around the farm nestled into his back.

Then there was my brother’s pet turkey, Gobbler, who would let Mark carry him around in his arms like a baby. Not to mention his two goats who used to write me regular letters when I went away to university…

My dad has always totally encouraged the madness. In fact, he’s the instigator. He has a pet peacock called Percy, and has been known to drive to the greengrocer’s especially to buy Percy his favourite grapes. Percy has a nasty habit of pecking and scratching shiny blue cars in the springtime: he seems to see them as rivals. According to my dad, this is entirely the car owners’ fault: if they didn’t keep their cars so shiny, then Percy wouldn’t be threatened by them.

Life for the children in the book is a lot more dramatic than my childhood was. For one thing, their mother has died and their father barely even remembers they exist half the time. Their theatre in an old hen house has to be top secret because their dad has forbidden them to mess about in the farm buildings. And then they discover that the farm is in danger of being destroyed, and they have to hatch a top-secret plan to save it.

Our farm wasn’t in danger of being destroyed, luckily, but we did create a real theatre in a shed, complete with dressing room, stage and auditorium. I’ve dug out some pictures of the theatre to show you, too, including one of me in a rather fetching moustache. (It was part of the costume – I didn’t actually have a black moustache as a teenager. Honestly.)

I’m really looking forward to seeing you at 4pm on Saturday 9th June on the Starlight Stage. And if you happen to bump into my sisters or brother before then, please don’t tell them I’ll be showing you their embarrassing childhood photos.

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