Life in the North East of England (45)

Rod Adams

My friend limps. When a crane falls on your leg and breaks it badly, you limp. All of your life you limp, and this man, not surprisingly, lurches to one side when he walks. What is a bit out of the ordinary though is that he has a bike that also limps! Back from his annual holiday in Turkey he has taken to riding a mountain bike. It is a spectacle worth watching. The bike leans regularly to one side when he rides it, exactly as he does when he walks. I’ve been watching him closely for a while now and trying to work it out. There is nothing wrong with his semi-circular canals, so it has to be the direct effect of his permanently damaged leg not applying as much power to the pedals as the good one does. I watch people walking, and pigeons flying, all the time, a legacy I guess of my bird-watching days where the “Jizz” of a bird, how it flies, fast or slow, high or low, direct or erratic, what shape it is etc. can identify it for you every bit as well as seeing it’s colours or hearing it call. No two pigeons fly exactly alike, just as no two people walk or run exactly the same. All you have to do is watch any athletics meeting.

Injury and disease of course can and do alter how we walk and how pigeons fly. A man with influenza will walk in a very similar fashion to one with a bad back, and a man with a leg like my friend will walk like my friend. So I watch birds flying all the time. The broken-winged flight of Jackdaws. Rooks labouring along with half their wing feathers missing but more importantly the batches of racing pigeons raking about the sky for most of the day. There is a lot of information there for the taking. Individual pigeons are not hard to pick out of a batch when they are flying, you can even look at some batches and say who they belong to and often pick out a particular man’s breed by the way that they fly. One well-known local fanciers birds were easy to identify, having a peculiar flat-winged style and another’s were bustling little powerhouse sprinters. There was no mistaking them. When you know what is normal you can identify the abnormal. Anything not flying as it should be, for whatever reason, whether it be an injury or an ailment affecting it, has no place in the race basket and when you think about it no place exercising with your race team either

The pigeon chat that night was, unusually, about Computers. More precisely, software for producing pedigrees. None of us are computer experts so a lot of the talk was absolute garbage, but what did come out of it was that pedigrees are only as good as the man producing them is honest. Whatever is put into a computer is exactly what comes out and even if the man responsible for drawing up a pedigree is honest, what about if he is mistaken or misguided? I still have a pedigree, drawn up for me by a man who I have known all my life. Who bred me a pigeon and gave it to me as a gift in the full knowledge it was of his best lines and genuinely wanting me to win with it. Now, I only asked him for a pedigree because I had other birds of his that were doing well and I wanted to sort out the relationships between those and the most recent arrival, but studying it one thing had stuck out like a sore thumb. By its ring number the pigeon was older than its father! Now this obviously can’t be so. Unless the pigeon had been rung with an old ring, which it hadn’t been as it had the correct ring on for the year it was bred.

The answer was, as usual, blindingly simple once you knew it. The cock listed on the pedigree as being its sire was in fact its uncle! When I asked my clubmate to explain to me how the son was older than its father he responded with “oh that” he replied nonchalantly, “that’s not the good cock’s ring number. He was killed hitting a lamp-post a while ago, that’s his brother. What difference does it make anyway; he’s exactly the same way bred”. So, either I had a bird off the right sire and the wrong ring number had been written down or I had a pigeon off the brother to the bird I thought it was off, with the real cock’s pedigree being used, as it had been, because, “he’s exactly the same way bred.” I never did work out which. One brother had a string of fine racing performances and the other, as I recall it, had never ever been raced! The English heavyweight boxer, Henry Cooper, was a champion.  His identical twin brother was not. You get the point? Pedigrees? You can keep them!

I’ve long been aware that you work much harder at what you want to do than at what you have to do.  Which probably accounts for the fact that an awful lot of hard work is put into racing pigeons by men who have always regarded manual labour as being the name of a Spaniard! I never lived for work myself. I worked to live. To pay my bills. To buy the things I wanted to buy. And to race my birds. So I was never the most motivated Laboratory Technician in The Medical School but I did work hard at the pigeons and that was because I wanted to. Most of my staff were the same I guess. They would always put their minds and their backs into something they wanted to do. Which wasn’t usually the same as what I wanted them to do!

Let me give you an example. One of my Junior Technicians was the butt of nearly all the practical jokes played by the other Technicians when they were bored. The boys found him one lunchtime hidden behind a pillar in the Preparation Room. Fast asleep. In a comfortable chair carefully placed so he couldn’t be seen by anyone entering the room. The noise of the door opening would wake him up and give him plenty of time to look busy before his boss (me) or anyone else got to where he was. His colleagues set to when he was away on holiday. Putting the chair exactly where the miscreant would have put it they pinned a life-size drawing of a face on the wall above the chair exactly where his head would rest. Then in the office next door they fitted up a large plastic syringe with about twenty feet of small bore polythene tubing. This was led into the cavity wall and up into the ceiling space. The whole apparatus being terminated with a wide gauge hypodermic needle angled through the polystyrene roof tiles right in front of where the sleeper slept.

After many hours of trials, paid for by the University of course, they got it spot on. A hard push on the syringe in one room, deposited a small amount of warm water right where the sleeper’s nose was on the drawing in the other room. They couldn’t wait for him to come back. I knew they were up to something but I didn’t know what. And they certainly weren’t going to tell me were they? It worked a treat. “Sleeping Beauty” would wake up with a start. Rub his wet nose with the backs of his hands like a cat cleaning it’s whiskers. Shake his head in a “I must be dreaming” manner and go back to sleep. They never overplayed it and the butt of the prank never figured it out. But I did!

When my technical staff weren’t working or playing cards in the tea room and were conspicuous by their absence they just had to be up to no good! In time I found them. Crowded into the office next to where their fellow Technician was. Wetting themselves with laughter. No, I didn’t reprimand them. Well not straight away. I had a go myself first. And then I gave them what for. Brilliant it was! Now if I could have got them to put that amount of effort into what they were supposed to be doing I would have had much more time to do what I really wanted to do. Race pigeons!

My wife and I have been drawing up our Wills. Now I don’t think she knows something that I don’t know, but she has had a Will made out for some time whilst I had never got around to doing anything about it. Her favourite technique, when she wants me to do something that I’m not keen on doing, is to recruit my best friend to lean on me. After I’ve had a few pints of beer! It’s something all three of us recognise is happening and doesn’t bother me at all, but I fancied giving my ears a break so I popped in to see my local Solicitor. He called round to the house that night and my good lady and I went through what we wanted written down. Legally, if you don’t know what you are doing, it’s a minefield, but my Solicitor does. Its how he makes a living isn’t it, and we got it all sorted out.

I was sat in the pub later explaining to a couple of local fanciers the ins and outs of being pre-deceased by your offspring. Avoiding inheritance tax. Naming your executor and so on. We somehow got around to specific bequests. I possess certain things that I want certain people to have, as does my wife. And I’ve always fancied leaving some money for the pigeon men to have a drink on me after I’m gone. So I had this written in to the Will. Someone has to be named to do this. I named my best friend George and of course I told him about it. “Right” said I, far too serious for my own good, “I’ve left £500 for the pigeon men to have a drink on me after my funeral, whenever that is, and you’re officially in charge of handling the money George.” “No problem” says he. “But who’s paying for the second round of drinks?”  Pigeon men– don’t you just love them!