19 December 2020


Diary - Sam Neill Starting from Scratch

I emerged from quarantine a week ago, stumbling, blinking and disoriented in the blinding Auckland light. Very much like a rescued chicken. I know this because we just adopted 10 rusty-coloured, half-bald chooks – ex-battery hens – about the same time.  It is really something to witness a bird that has no real knowledge of what the sky is, or grass, take its first halting steps into a bright new world.  They are clearly, at least in the beginning, freaked out. Trees, wind, starlings, roosters –these things are baffling and alarming. Even the idea of pecking food off the ground (which is pretty much all hens do) is a puzzle. Walking on grass more so. They look and learn off my veteran hens, who treat these newcomers with utter disdain, and nick their food. 

Nevertheless, they get better and healthier by the day, as well as more relaxed. It’s good to see an animal learn to be happy. The downside is that two of them are convinced I am their mother. Or Jesus. Every time they see me, they follow me like loved-up puppies – they’d move into the house given half a chance.  

There’s only so much adulation a chicken owner can take. My strategy is to provide a distraction – like throw some feed pellets upwind – and then sprint like hell for the nearest cover. Luckily, their concentration span is shorter than even mine, and they forget my messianic charisma in a blink. 

It was good to be in quarantine, but even better to be home among the chickens and vines. Yes, you read that right. I enjoyed my time in quarantine. Mostly because I was back in Aotearoa, snug and safe after a nine-month absence that ended with a few days in London. Soho was like a ghost town. The occasional unmasked zombie would pass you in the empty streets, but otherwise the rest was silence.  You could at least get good takeaway flat white coffee: the benign influence of expat Kiwis can be felt abroad, even at peak Covid.  

But here I was, sequestered in a very pleasant Auckland hotel, freed of all responsibility and well cared for. I was happy as a clam. The food was fine, I had The Undoing on TV, I could see some of the Waitematā Harbour even, and the staff – from the NZ Defence personnel to the nurses and those on the front desk – were unfailingly polite, caring and helpful. It’s a wonderful privilege as well to know it doesn’t matter a flying fig what time you get up.  Every negative test was like getting School Cert all over again, and just as heartening.  Why people want to actually escape these places eludes me – afterwards, I was tempted to escape back in.  

But then I was suddenly out and free, just like the disoriented chickens, and slightly freaked out, to be honest. Everywhere, people were hugging, kissing and hongi-ing. I’ve hardly been within 2m of an actual unmasked human since March, let alone been hugged by one. But freaked out in the best way. All this life – unthinkable anywhere but right here. What great good fortune. 

Of course, I know this comes at great sacrifice and, of course, I know the economy is in tatters, but what price freedom? Freedom from fear, from plague, from the utter ineptitude of so many other governments elsewhere. No, we are more than lucky – this is all utterly exceptional. This is not normal, people.  

So, the chickens and I are happy and safe at home, and blessed. Thank you, New Zealand.

Sam Neill is an actor, winemaker and chicken owner.

Andy Tristram

Listener Magazine