This is a weird one and it just gets weirder, so maybe we should start at the beginning. Bill Brown grew up in the East End of London and during the War he was evacuated to the countryside, which he grew to love. "I used to say, 'One day I'm going to have a farm'," says Bill, who's now a sprightly 65. "And people would say, 'What, an East End boy? Don't be silly'." He was a barrow boy in London for a while, then he moved out to Essex. He'd buy shops, do them up and make them a success, then sell them. Finally, five years ago, he achieved his ambition when he started his very own chicken farm just outside Clacton.

But it wasn't long before Bill realised that he had a bit of a problem. The first he knew of it was one morning when three RAF Tornado fighters blasted over his farm 250ft above the ground. "My hens went up in the air like flamingoes," he says in his broad Cockney twang. "We've got 6,500 birds and 900 of them ended up in the road."

Bill's problem, as he was later to discover, was that he'd built his chicken houses directly in line with a Ministry of Defence flightpath used by military aircraft. "Only last week we had a couple of those big Chinooks fly over and they don't half make a bloody noise," says Bill, who could probably live with the noise if it wasn't for the effect that it has on his hens' eggs.

Shortly after those three Tornadoes first flew over his farm, Bill discovered that two or three hundred of his hens had laid strangely misshapen eggs. "We get eggs as small as peas and we also get enormous ones, bigger than tennis balls, and they're all wrinkled. It's due to stress," says Bill, who's complained to the Ministry of Defence about this situation without much success.

When it first happened, the story of Bill's eggs was reported by the local press. Then the Reuters news service picked up on it and it went round the world. Which is how Scott Mateer, the presenter of a morning show at the MIS 103 radio station in Jackson, Mississippi, came to hear of it. He thought it was a nice, quirky little tale, so he did a telephone interview with Bill. He had no idea of the forces he was about to unleash.

"I thought it was just going to be a one-shot interview," says Scott, who now works in the Sheriff's Department in Jackson. "But after measuring the audience response and feeling his charisma over the phone, I thought, 'This guy's a star'. So we brought him over here. And everywhere we went we had thousands of people show up to meet him. They loved him."

A star had indeed been born in Mississippi. And how. Since then, Bill's been back 14 times. He does radio phone-ins, makes appearances at schools, visits sick children in hospital, raises money for charity, opens supermarkets. They call him "Uncle Bill" and he's feted wherever he goes. Bill told me that the last time he went over, there were 2,500 people at the airport to meet him, including the state governor. "That's not uncommon at all," says Scott. "They have to have extra security out there when he comes. If you walk down the street with him, it takes about 60 seconds for someone to say, 'Hey! Bill!' He could easily run for public office and win. It's a phenomenon like I've never seen before."

"It's been phenomenal," Bill agrees. "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 one 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."

But Bill seems to have struck a chord with the inhabitants of Mississippi. He told me how he came out of his hotel one day and was approached by a man whose 19-year-old son had been killed in Vietnam. He was holding his son's medals and the flag that had covered his coffin. "He said, 'Uncle Bill, I want you to have these, because you're the only one that talks to us'," says Bill. "I had a lump in me throat when he said that."

I asked Scott Mateer if he could explain the Bill Brown phenomenon. "He's very honest with people, he's very lovable, he's kind," he replied. "I think he's a father figure to a lot of people. There's also a lot of affection for people from England in this part of the world and a certain novelty about them. So when you have an Englishman as generous and kind as Bill, it's the recipe for success and instant affection."

And now, it seems, the Bill Brown Effect may be about to take hold in Britain. Last Sunday morning, Bill and his wife Joan appeared on the Radio 4 programme On Your Farm, reminiscing about their lives. The response was, as Bill puts it, "astronomical". He's had more than 200 letters and phonecalls from people saying it was the best thing they've ever heard and now there's a chance the BBC will give him his own chatshow. "I would love to sit down with my own little show and reminisce and talk to people in their own language," says Bill.

Scott Mateer is unsurprised by this latest development. "If I could give anybody any advice, it would be to put him on television for two weeks and you'll have a hit show," he says. "Or put him on the radio and just let him take calls. Or just print his picture on the front of your paper every week. He's a star."


Looking for Jennifer

"WHAT you have to hammer home to them is the reality of the job, that thing of driving home at three o'clock on a Sunday morning from a private dance in Hampshire," says Harpers & Queen editor Fiona Macpherson, talking about the candidates she's been interviewing for the job of writing the magazine's Jennifer's Diary social column.

The soon-to-be-vacant post is one of the most exclusive in magazine journalism, having been held by only three people. From some time around the early Middle Ages until her retirement in 1991, the column was written by the redoubtable Betty Kenward, who was known respectfully as "Mrs Kenward". Then Sue Crewe, now editor of House & Garden, took it over briefly, and for the past five years it's been compiled by Lady Celestria Noel. Now she's off and the job is up for grabs. Naturally I wondered if I might be in with a shout.

"You're cut out for it entirely, Tim," said Fiona, who knows me well enough to know that I'm not cut out for it at all. But could a man do the job? "I don't see why not," she said. "As long as he doesn't mind being referred to as Jennifer." The successful candidate will have to attend between 20 and 30 social events every month and must possess stamina, strong legs (that's me definitely out of the running, then), a liking for people and an interest in a wide range of subjects. "Everybody who's anybody in the business of diaries has applied for it," Fiona said. "You can put that in if you want. It'll definitely put a few cats amongst the pigeons."


For what they are about to receive

ONE of my earliest TV memories is of a series called The Champions, which starred Alexandra Bastedo, William Gaunt and Stuart Damon and was first screened at the end of the Sixties. The three of them battled wrong- doing with the help of special powers they'd developed following a plane crash. The one image that's always stuck in my mind is the title sequence, which featured our heroes standing in front of the fountain in Geneva. On my one and only trip to the city some years ago, I'd hoped to emulate this historic scene, but sadly the old jet d'eau was switched off when I got there. It was a crushing disappointment.

I was reminded of all this last week when I spoke to Alexandra Bastedo, who's the author, together with Jeannie Kerrmitzer, of a new book, Canine Care & Cuisine, which is largely a collection of recipes for dogs (meals for dogs, that is, not dogs as ingredients). The project stemmed from her long-held belief that many prepared dog foods are full of all sorts of dubious constituents. "If you examine the small print, they say things like 'contains 4 per cent chicken'," she says. "So what's the other 96 per cent? And a lot of these products have a lot of colourants and sugars and additives in them too. As dogs get older, they just can't cope with that sort of thing."

Alexandra's recipes, on the other hand, feature fresh meat and vegetables and I have to admit that her dogs' dinners are probably considerably better than my own. I was even tempted to try a couple of the meals myself and Alexandra confirmed that the meals are perfectly suitable for humans. I asked if she had a favourite and she reckoned it was the birthday cake with liver icing. "Probably a human wouldn't eat that one," she said.


You say stupid, I say splendid

FOLLOWING the piece I wrote last week about my excitement at playing the new computer game, Riven, I was interested to read a review of it in PC Gamer magazine. "Riven exhibits a wilful neglect of the most elementary gameplay fundamentals," it said, going on to describe the game as "a big fat stupid lumbering overblown disappointment." Oh well. I suppose there are a lot of people who think Four Weddings and a Funeral is the funniest film ever made. Each to his own, I reckon. The game goes on.