MR BROWN GOES TO MISSISSIPPI

This man is a chicken farmer from Little Clacton, Essex. In Britain, he is an unknown. But in the American south he is a star. Why?
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A WARM spring morning in Jackson, Mississippi, and in the marbled Senate room beneath the stained-glass dome of the New Capitol building, there's serious business to be done. The state's 52 senators are assembling to discuss pay levels for public employees and there's a restrained hubbub as they take their seats for what promises to be a fiery debate.

But first there's another matter to be taken care of, and this concerns the bespectacled 65-year-old gentleman standing in the wings wearing a slightly ill-fitting pin-stripe suit. The man's name is Bill Brown and he's a chicken farmer from Little Clacton in Essex. He's wringing his hands behind his back, demonstrating the nerves he feels about what is to come.

"I'm sweating like a pig 'ere," he says to nobody in particular in a broad Cockney twang. Then he turns to the Sergeant-at-Arms, who has an air of Samuel L Jackson about him and whose job it is to see that all runs smoothly on the floor of the Senate.

"Should I call them 'senators' or 'ladies and gentlemen'?" he asks.

"How 'bout 'ladies and gentlemen of the senate'?" comes the suave reply.

And then the moment arrives. Senate resolution number 27 is introduced by Senator Terry Burton of Scott County. He's a big, barrel-chested man with a deep, gravelly voice and he tells his fellow senators of "a man who's become infatuated with Mississippi - and we've become infatuated with him". The resolution is read out. It lists the achievements of Bill Brown and states solemnly that: "It is with great pride that we recognise and honour this radio personality and ambassador from England, who truly loves Mississippi and its people, and is an adopted resident of our great state".

The members of the senate applaud as Bill steps forward to address them.

This is a historic moment - no Englishman has addressed the Mississippi Senate before. There's silence as he begins to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the senate," he begins confidently, the nerves suddenly gone. "My association with Mississippi goes back seven years. I fell in love with this state the moment I arrived. I thought southern hospitality was just something that was in the film Gone With the Wind, but it's real, and that is one of your biggest assets - your people. I have a message from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. It says: 'To the Governor and the people of Mississippi - I would like to send my greetings and best wishes. Tony Blair.' I won't take up too much of your time, because I know you are very busy, but I would like to say thank you for this honour and I appreciate it. Because everything I've ever done has been done for the benefit of Mississippi and Mississippians. Thank you very much."

The senate rises as one to acclaim him. But who is this man who has done so much for Missis- sippi? And why is an Essex chicken farmer bringing greetings from his prime minister to the American people?

In a way, the senate's applause is fitting, for it brings down the final curtain on the story of Bill Brown, whose life was changed by an extraordinary chain of circumstances and who changed the lives of many who crossed his path.

IT'S A central tenet of chaos theory that the simple flapping of a butterfly's wings can set off a chain of reactions which one day may result in a raging hurricane on the other side of the world. In the case of Bill Brown, it's uncertain when the butterfly's wings first fluttered. Perhaps it was during the Second World War, when, as a small boy, he was evacuated from his home in the East End of London to a cottage in Cambridgeshire. The countryside had a profound effect on him. He felt an affinity with it somehow, and determined that one day he would have his very own farm. "What, an East End boy? Don't be silly!" people would say to him. But Bill wouldn't be deterred.

After the war, he returned to London. He was a barrow-boy for a while, then he moved out into Essex - buying shops, doing them up and moving on. He bought a few chickens to provide eggs for his family; perhaps a butterfly stirred on the day that he had a few eggs left over and put a sign up outside his house advertising them for sale. He'd practically sold them all by the time he got back to his front door. It made him think: there could be money to be made in this egg business ...

And so it was that eight years ago Bill Brown came to build his own chicken farm at Thorpe Road in Little Clacton. His childhood dream finally realised, he moved into his new mock-Tudor house next to his chicken houses, which today are home to around 8,000 hens. This isn't just any old chicken farm. Bill's birds are free to roam and they're fed only on organic feed. And when their laying days are done, instead of being swiftly slaughtered, they're pensioned off into a nearby field to enjoy the rest of their natural lifespan.

But a snake was lurking in this garden of Eden. The first Bill knew of it was one morning shortly after the Gulf War, when three RAF Tornado fighters blasted over his farm a mere 250ft above the ground. Bill's birds "went up in the air like flamingoes", as he puts it each time he tells the story - and it's a story he's told many times since. What he hadn't realised when he built his farm was that the land lies directly beneath a Ministry of Defence flightpath used by military aircraft. In the following weeks and months, the appearance of Tornadoes and Chinooks was to become a fairly regular occurrence.

The thing is that Bill could probably have lived with the noise if it hadn't been for the effect that it had on his hens. Shortly after those three Tornadoes first flew over his farm, he discovered that two or three hundred of his birds had laid strangely misshapen eggs. He had eggs as small as peas and eggs as big as tennis balls. Some were oddly wrinkled like walnuts and there was even one shaped like a banana. Stress was the cause and Bill complained to the Ministry of Defence, but without much success.

The story of the chicken farmer and his strangely shaped eggs was picked up by the local press in Essex; Bill was even featured briefly on the television news. And there the story would have ended, had the Reuters news agency not picked up on it and put it on their wire service. That's how Scott Mateer came to hear of it. Mateer was a breakfast-show DJ on the MISS103 radio station in Jackson, Mississippi, and it struck him as a nice little item, bearing in mind that chickens and eggs are Mississippi's main commodity. So he tracked Bill down and set up a telephone interview with him.

"I thought it was just going to be a one-shot interview," Mateer recalls. "But after measuring the audience response and feeling his charisma over the phone, I thought, 'This guy's a star'."

The one-shot interview turned into a daily spot. Bill was christened "Uncle Bill" - and such was the response to his cheeky Cockney humour and homespun wisdom that a month later he was flown over to Jackson, courtesy of one of the station's sponsors, a supermarket chain called Jitney Jungle.

THE HURRICANE was by now in full force, When he arrived at Jackson airport, Bill was greeted by a crowd of over a thousand well- wishers clutching flowers and balloons. Even the state governor's wife was there. Bill knelt down and kissed the ground like the Pope. It was the first time he'd been to America and he was overwhelmed by his reception. In the days that followed, he was treated like a star. "Everywhere we went, we had thousands of people show up to meet him. They loved him," says Mateer, who puts the reason for Bill's popularity down to his "honesty and kindness" and the fact that in the American South there's a certain affection for people from England, as well as a novelty about them. "So when you have an Englishman as generous and kind as Bill, it's a recipe for success and instant affection," he says.

"It's phenomenal," Bill told me a few months ago when I first spoke to him. "I've done things you only ever dream of. I've spoken to Jon Voight, Dolly Parton, Mrs Bush - Mrs Bush told me how to make an apple pie! I opened a supermarket and they had a stretch limousine for me and I swear it was 60ft long. We had two outriders at the front and two at the back. It's amazing! I'm nobody, I'm only a chicken farmer."

Somehow Bill had struck a chord with the people of Mississippi. At his home in Little Clacton, he has an American flag and a set of medals. The medals belonged to a young man who fought in Vietnam and the flag was draped on his coffin the day they buried him. The flag and the med-als were given to Bill by the young man's fath- er. "He said, 'Uncle Bill, I want you to have these, because you're the only one that talks to us'," Bill told me. "I had a lump in me throat when he said that."

And then there were the letters. In his loft, Bill has bin-bags stuffed with over 7,000 letters, written by people of all ages and from all walks of life in Mississippi. Typical of those who wrote to him is Jean Sanders, now 49, who works in the state department of finance in Jackson. She heard Bill on the radio, and sat down and wrote a very personal letter to him about her life and family. "I felt immediately very close to him, he just seemed so genuine," she says. "The best way I can put it is that he made my heart stop."

Bill wrote back and a correspondence ensued, with the result that Jean and her husband Rod, who works in the department of agriculture, are now among his closest friends. "He's changed my life. It's really hard to put into words how he touched people," says Rod. "He made 'em laugh," says Jean simply. "I made 'em laugh and I brought friendship," says Bill.

After that first visit, Bill returned a couple of times in the years that followed and took his wife Joan (affectionately known as "Bossy Boots") with him. Much of what he did involved charity work - raising money, visiting sick children in hospital, that kind of thing. His star burnt brightly, and such was his fame that the American documentary series Inside Edition even did a programme about him. And all this time he remained unknown in his home country, outside his circle of family and friends and the customers who came to Thorpe Road chicken farm to buy his eggs.

When Bill arrived in Jackson in March, it was his first visit in four years. He'd come to receive his vote of thanks from the Senate and to do a little charity work - he planned to hand out Cadbury's Creme Eggs to the children at a local hospital. But this time there were no cheering crowds at the airport to greet him, just a small group of friends, and a representative from the Governor's office who'd come to collect the letter of goodwill from Tony Blair that Bill was carrying. (The result of Bill writing a letter to Downing Street and enclosing his cuttings.)

Scott Mateer, the DJ who launched Bill's career, is now long gone from the radio station; the hurricane seems to have blown itself out. I'd arrived in Mississippi the day before Bill and had asked everyone I'd met the same question: "Have you heard of a guy called Uncle Bill?" Blank incomprehension was the normal response, although a few made plucky guesses. "Is he a blues singer?" asked a cab driver. "Oh sure," said a waitress in a bar. "The Play-Doh guy, right?" It turned out she'd mistaken him for "Mister Bill", a Plasticine figure on Saturday Night Live. Fame can be fickle sometimes.

Bill was having a certain amount of trouble coming to tenns with the end of Uncle Bill-mania. "lt's obviously nowhere near what it was. It gradually died. I suppose I've had a good run," he told me one night after dinner, before adding poignantly: "You know, if they just put me on the radio again for a week, I'd be back where I was before."

But maybe it isn't all over for Bill Brown. Maybe there's an epitaph yet to be written. Even a whole new chapter. Last November he appeared on the Radio 4 programme, On Your Farm. He and his wife Joan reminisced about their early lives and talked about their Mississippi adventure. And the wind began to stir once more. "We had a massive response," says Alasdair Cross, who produced the programme. "It was the biggest we've ever had, in my memory at any rate." The programme received about a hundred letters and 30 or 40 phonecalls; 80 listeners were prepared to cough up a fiver for a tape of the show. Cross thinks the reason for this response is Bill's "down-to-earth sense of humour".

Bill is now convinced that he has a future on Radio 4 and dreams of having his own show. "He's a great character and we'd be keen to use him on something else," says Cross. "When we got this massive response, we pondered ways of using him, but nothing has come up yet. I think he'd be a brilliant local radio phone-in host. He's so good with people. He puts people at their ease so quickly and they respond to that. He's a great character."

"I would love to sit down with my own little show and reminisce and talk to people in their own language," says Bill. "The things that I've done, it's a tragedy I had to go all that way to do them. I'd love to do it in England."

Batten down the hatches. Bill-mania could be heading your way soon.

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