JOHN CLEMENTS & JIM EMERTON
John & Jim are regular contributors to the pages of Elimar. Both have had a life-long love affair with racing pigeons (if not necessarily with all aspects of the sport) and here they bounce a few ideas around on various topics, their aim being to stimulate thought amongst other fanciers.
Jim: You know I accentuate the positive and decline the negative in an optimistic mind mode. However, there is a rampant and insidious malaise in our society, epitomised by the attitudes of some fanciers. I think it lies in the propaganda and negative perceptions of the messages in the media, and in response to some of the personalities who govern a quasi-democratic society. At the core of the endemic problem in the sport today is an unhappy synthesis of commercialism, jealousy, criticism and a decline in generous, spiritual and moral values due to the unhealthy rise of materialism as the base line entity of out of control capitalism. People demonstrate their instincts and emotions in a diversity of guises, and the obsessive will to win at all costs philosophy is contributing to a sport that has rejected balance, fun and enjoyment, in favour of exaggerated hype, self delusion, and illusion. Bring back the long distance master, poised in vibrant expectation for the arrival of his old favourites, in beautiful and kind surroundings.
John: Exactly - as always money is the problem. There are two languages here - two values - the language and value of money and the language and value of achievement. They are not the same but money constantly masquerades as achievement. Money is short term and as such its influence is short term - we can hardly remember a UK chancellor from 20 years ago - their influence is almost nil.
Jim: I recall my old university module ILLUSION AND REALITY. We hear and read of world champion wonder pigeons, particularly in the heightened world of publicity and commercialism. Ask a simple question: how good are they in reality, do they meet your critical requirements? For many years I sold pigeons and could guarantee only the good bloodlines of the breeding, since the real breeding or racing quality of each bird would vary, and in my long career with birds very few really good ones were bred! Behind the mask of hype and clever use of language, a sobering reality can be perceived by a shrewd eye of experience. We live in a fame driven society where the rich and famous carry weight. May I advise a little cool analysis and caution. I know circumstances where good birds are given and exchanged and that is how I prefer to operate.
John: What you have done by your ultimate conclusion is to take out the material trading aspect of the pigeon sport. The material trading aspect has some unfortunate consequences. One of those consequences is the belief that if a person has by dint of hard work or luck managed to climb in life and acquire lot of money often he takes it as a tangible sign that because of his wealth he has nothing else to learn and can if he so chooses turn to other disciplines and succeed in them also just by buying the necessary expertise. The oligarch or oil rich Sheik who buys a football team is an example of such thinking but choice is still necessary unless he once again relies on market value to make the choice for him. That, as we know, is almost always influenced by the fashion of the day or in pigeons, the strain of the day. The wise man knows all this so he admits to himself he does not know enough to embark on another discipline without help from an expert in that field. Although many do try to buy success, just as many fail.
Jim: We have to find a way, a level at which we can stimulate and add to the common and collective interest and knowledge of the sport. The people, on a global level make it what it is, a fascinating, thriving and absorbing activity. I like to push the boundaries of possibility, to set arduous standards for my birds and self in breeding and racing, under the spell and magic of the humble life form, the racing pigeon. My fanaticism has taken me to 52 countries and islands, witnessing exotic birds - in more ways than one. The diversity of human characters encountered frame my rich imagination with memorable images, and some have been the stars of my published interview series - I hope you have enjoyed reading about them on Elimar. Perhaps my unique and greatest contribution, as a consequence of insights and perceptions, has been penetrating findings on the psychological and physiological behaviours and needs to condition birds for marathon racing, epitomised and exemplified by the Barcelona International races. We are all humans in the great picture - what is your role in the intricate and complex web at the pulse of the sport?
John: In the UK, pigeon racing amongst most of those who do it and even most of those who direct policy and manage clubs and institutions is for the most part operated on a personal subjective basis as opposed to being done objectively. We see evidence of this subjective thinking all the time and because most thinking is intensely subjective and personal it is also pretty confrontational. Confrontational thinking generally leads to fanciers with a dominant personal manner rising to take the lead in clubs and institutions right to the very top of our sport but not taking the sport forward. While this situation exists evidence is ignored. The only type of information that gets a hearing is filtered evidence that further enhances the position of those already dominant and in charge. All other evidence - the general decline of the sport - the lack of democracy - aspects of how the sport is run in other countries etc. is ignored lest this type of evidence leads to a weakening of the existing subjective mode of thinking. Examples that come to mind are the co-operation between major clubs (almost no cooperation and always contentious); the apathy of the ordinary fancier when it comes to the RPRA; the macro economic changes in the sport (how we buy and sell pigeons). At one time pigeon auctions used to have as of rite 'Reference Birds' listed by the loft selling the pigeons. The existence of reference birds (birds of outstanding performance) served as a link between what was sold, racing performance, and what one could expect if you bought the birds. Today most of the selling is done from pedigree which is supposed to be a kind of authentication of breeding but in a lot of cases is not authentication at all but merely a piece of paper that in most cases cannot be checked. These pieces of paper, in a kind of way, replicate what is happening in the larger economy where money is now pieces of paper supposedly also to be trusted but in fact is only based for its value, not on GOLD or some objective commodity, but on debt and trust in the banks and their dealings. We may have got to this stage in pigeons where the reliance on the pedigree for selling is too big to fail - and if fanciers decided not to buy on pedigree but insisted on performance that could be checked then the whole edifice of pigeon journals, studs, and their relationship with the association would put the association itself under such economic threat the Royal association itself might not survive. Regardless of this doom laden scenario I still believe the sport has a future providing it gets back to regarding the kind of performance that is the most difficult to achieve and represents the best and most reliable pigeons. This of course means not merely winning prizes but breeding and conditioning pigeons that can reliably perform at the long distance for here we have a real objective measure (distance flown) to measure innate ability and not prizes won that may or may not measure ability but in a lot of cases are due to loft location or wind direction.
Jim: Deeply penetrating John and many thanks for your valuable comments. We both have the good of the hobby at heart.
Jim: I would like to begin this next part of our discussion with reference to heroes. Competitive people do not live in a vacuum - we have life influences who inspire us and set the benchmark of excellence. The pigeon sport has a society of fame, publicity and achievement generated by competition and the media. One man’s meat is another man’s poison in the who’s who of pigeon racing. Some of my personal iconic figures were Jo Warren of Lancashire Rose fame and Emiel Denys of Belgium as projected by Louella. The popular give an intensity and richness to history. These days I admire and respect Nicholas Harvey for his sheer character in pursuit of Barcelona International excellence. All can be criticised, yet some set real standards for others to emulate, reach and better, and I am of the belief that this process will continue in the wider sphere. I love Summer and Winter Olympics, most sports and mythical figures like the complex, charismatic and mystical Ayrton Senna, and the sublime boxing talents of Marvin Hagler. Each person has an individual story to tell.
John: We all need heroes just as much as we need religious belief or the belief in something outside of ourselves or bigger and better than ourselves. This kind of belief is a mark of the sane person because it asks questions. It may not get the answers but it continues to ask questions. Sanity is based on this kind of unanswered dialogue. In pigeons we ask the most pertinent question of our pigeons and of ourselves in that we ask what it takes to get a pigeon to fly 700 miles or more? Secondly, if we accomplish the first part, we then ask how can we do it consistently every time? None of us know the answer but all of us have faith that sometime in the future it may be possible to find out.
Jim: Some folk may have an inkling or sensory awareness of quality on occasions - we call it stock sense. To cut through the complexity of any selection theory criteria, opinions, or other human, subjective judgments, allow me to tell you how to find a good bird. In reality a child can do it - a good racer will perform to your satisfaction in actual races, and under each set of race conditions is a sure way of finding out. The purist fancier proves good birds by racing them. Hard fact results are the evidence, black, white, and beautifully easy. The corollary is that good breeders breed good pigeons. The essence of this simple and practical philosophy, is the management skill of the fancier. There is a system and formula for racing at all levels, and some people have cracked the modus operandi - how to do it. Behind the dreams, myths, imagination and the personalities of folklore, basic racing as an entity is simple. It intrigues me that the big race, Barcelona International, has never been won in the UK. It is possible, and may be done by men who aspire to conquer the near impossible. The mantra then is SEND EM.
John: The trouble with Barcelona is that for the North of England it is too far to be practicable. So in reality we only have a part of the UK that can hope to record a pigeon within two days of liberation. This difficulty is compounded by the rules of the International organisation that runs the race. These rules state that below 800mpm, overfly or average speed from a theoretical place in Brussels is only allowed at 800 mpm. This means lofts that fly more than the Brussels distance can only get a true velocity (distance divided by time) if they manage speeds above 800 mpm. In most cases, birds flying to the north of the UK where the distance flown is above 800 miles are in fact penalised when compared to lofts that fly less than the distance to Brussels. The result of all this is that a high position in the International result is almost impossible for lofts that measure 800 miles or more to the UK. This difficulty is further compounded by the sea crossing the birds are forced to make in order to get home. To sum up, the race is inordinately difficult for UK birds even before they start. When we add to this difficulty the International rules imposed, the whole problem despite the attraction of big International fame becomes not worth it. In my opinion what the UK and the NFC should do is make a confident case for their Tarbes race producing high class birds but in the UK we seem unable to promote ourselves and our own races. We seem unable to have a wider view where we in the UK are able to compare our own races and the difficulty they pose with Continental races. This should in fact be simple because of the sea crossing and other hazards that do not exist on the continent but our parochial inward looking attitude does not prepare our minds well enough to sell ourselves to the wider world. The Belgians and the Dutch do it much better than we.
Jim: But I ask: 'what motivates people to dedicate themselves to years of specialised hard work with their feathered charges?' It helps if you have a dream, a vision of what you desire to achieve, or to win, perhaps against the odds. This may be suffused with an obsessive inclination towards perfectionism. A love of wildlife and birds is often key to the whole process. As you mature in your career, you may be intoxicated by one race as reward for years of effort, a test of the ability of your evolving family of birds - I regard this as the purist approach. At the setting of the sun the whole scenario is seated in personal satisfaction - a reward in itself. I still celebrate the traditional philosophy and waking dreams of men who wait in excited anticipation to feel the thrill of arrivals from great races and mind blowing distances, and now in my little world, the lonely pursuit is priceless. I like the spiritual quality, the lofty idealism of it all. Some of these principles may be inspirational, and are all beyond the material.
John: Nothing wrong with inspiration - nothing wrong with being anti-materialistic but there is everything wrong with painting a personal picture that encourages others to commit a kind of action that is so difficult the huge effort involved can be called suicide. I think hope is still valuable but going to the South Pole in winter without the proper equipment is taking hope too far. Having said that, I see a loft in the UK last year was 58th in the International from Barcelona - 680 miles. For my money this pigeon may be better than an actual International winner but in order to understand we have to get away from simple easy to understand concepts that are in fact childlike, and grow to the point where we can understand outside the human scale. The 58th open although not a winner is in fact a very good pigeon.
Jim: Yes John it was outstanding in those conditions that we raced, and may have been flying in the hours of darkness for a time. The magic of the race is that you are experiencing the unknown, alone with your own mind, until the reality of arrivals to your own loft as reward for years of research and dedication in an attempt to simplify, organise and master the demands of Barcelona International. Thanks my learned friend for your continued contributions in this fascinating discourse.
Jim: A select few will dedicate their racing ambitions to the Barcelona objective. Nic and I, as long as we can continue, send all our 2 year olds to this task to find out in the cold light of reality how good they are. Our selection criterion is returns in race time. As a a simple plan we take latebreds off these birds for breeding, to aspire to a gene pool saturated with Barcelona International genes. The yearlings go up to around the 540 mark e.g. Agen International or NFC Tarbes. This plan is purely for experience and as a stamina test coupled with orientation/navigation ability. We breed and race around related birds which I have cultivated since 1976, as does Ghenty and some other friends. Barcelona race point, its glamour/prestige and onerous difficulty - an appeal greater than ourselves - is the attraction, a very great concept indeed. We are less motivated by the urge to beat people, being in love with an abstract concept of the mind. It is fun, Nic is a huge and entertaining character and it is what we do.
John: The building of a extreme distance family is a case of putting in at one end and hopefully getting out at the other. The 'putting in' is gradually building experience over shorter distances while at the same time ironing out those that are not suitable and never will be. This includes continual testing for respiratory conditions for unless a bird has absolute top breathing function it will never do well at the extreme distance. Many respiratory problems are sub clinical and unless the fancier is experienced and knows what to look for, breathing difficulties can go undetected, and if one is foolish these undetected individuals can breed their like. My answer to this problem is to inspect the whole colony each year for signs. The signs are a lack of an open slit in the roof of the mouth and/or signs of phlegm at the back of the throat but the real test and the real question is can such and such a bird fly 420+ miles from France on the day? Pigeons that can do this are almost certainly free of any sub clinical respiratory condition.
The whole of this type of condition is viral and is spread by a virus. It is not highly contagious but can be spread by hen birds kissing or cocks fighting but by far the main source of transmission is by parents feeding youngsters. Some birds by their nature and genetic make up are highly immune while some are very susceptible so it is imperative to attempt to promote immunity rather than to try to solve the problem with antibiotics. I would say most lofts have some birds in this condition in their lofts, albeit in a weak form but even in a weak form the problem becomes severe when the birds are put under stress.
With all this in mind the following rules are a good guide:
1. Go down the immunity route rather than the medicinal route.
2. Inspect throats on a regular basis.
3. Test birds at 420 miles or above.
4. Do not mix sprint birds with long bistance birds in the same loft.
5. Be prepared to cull birds that do not pass the above rules.
Jim: Thanks John for showing real practical insight and knowledge, and advice on some of the needs of a fancier and his birds - exactly what the fancy needs. Now let me change subject and address the concept of originality in pigeon racing. Where would we be without the innovators, creators and people of distinction in the rich complexity of the sport? Real progress in systems, science, technology and the ethos of the sport are all based in the psyche of individuals. The mainstream is formed by acceptance of eccentricity into the collective consciousness, and the pulse of popular society. To personify this abstract concept, who is making an impact now? The marathon men and the exemplars of international racing are laden with celebrity juice, and described in pigeon literature, where they inhabit folklore and perceived history. The early pioneering days of the BICC are now cemented in the masonry of a beautiful and thriving instituition of potential brilliance for purist international racing, orchestrated by the old guard of the collective committee. In the early 90s, I saw the early stages of the evolution of Barcelona International as a huge target and concept and, believe me, there is nothing in racing like timing out of a race which is greater than yourself.
John: Barcelona to my loft location does not appeal to me. OK, so there is a challenge and I am sure a great feeling to go with it but it is perhaps a vain attempt at glory. It reminds me of Scott or Shackleton attempting the South Pole. True British spirit but foolish.
Jim: A very sensible and sane outlook John - we know that Barcelona is for serious enthusiasts, yet rather like passing the MENSA test I find the necessary compulsion fascinating and irresistable. With modern publicity more and more people are setting a Barcelona International trend, and having flown all stages to Pau 735 miles and San Sebastian 737 miles with success, I felt that Barce Int at 879 miles completed my set of slightly mad, ambitious achievements. It is best suited to diehards who are stimulated by such a test. Many see the epitome of racing and their personal zenith as Tarbes, and the NFC interests us for yearlings, yet I feel the premier races in the club programme should be of an international nature, with much larger birdage, scope and radius. I base my ideas on having raced both Dax and Barcelona Internationals to Holtby, Yorkshire. I feel the essence of our continued discourse is one of individual personal expression, a quality common to the whole of humanity, and may your personality go with you.
Jim: I would now like to turn our discussion to the idea of ‘convention’. With a long career publishing in many media, including 15 mensa special interest groups, I never align myself with traditional patterns of thought and common knowledge unless I happen to find it agreeable and useful. Many of my personal advances in the management of racing pigeons and accumulated knowledge have been the result of experimentation and insights - it is like putting science and art into the melting pot and seeing what surfaces. Some of the discoveries were crucial to strain building and marathon flying e.g. the benefits of close inbreeding in my family, combinations of Chevita liquid feeding supplementation, and endurance training of birds. My advice is think for yourself, do not necessarily follow conventional systems, and try and hit on little things that will make your birds go faster/longer/better. To do this you may feel vulnerable by stepping outside the box. If so, you may be wise to stick to the perceived norm.
John: This is a kind of creative thinking and creative thinking always threatens. In Shakespeare speak "It threatens those who create as well as those who receive". Lately I have studied the creative thinker, artists, scientists, or writers who make a huge contribution and then dry up - examples of this type are Salenger, Heller, Wilde, and others in other disciplines. My observations are that the true creative thinker is able to change mid stream - keep alive - then do other things in different directions. Shakespeare is an obvious example of this type of creative thinker - he did comedy, tragedy and mythical stuff as well as keeping a hold on the politics of his day. There are fewer of these than those who have a big creative surge then dry up. This dry up type can also exist in pigeons - we all must constantly renew ourselves with both technical ideas and strategy in order to keep fresh and viable. Above all we must never think we know it all.
Jim: It is amazing what we are conditioned to believe is it not? The ancestry of racing pigeons is so old and complex, that the racing potential of any bird is difficult to predict even with intuitive leaps or logical analysis of the flock. Apples may fall far from the tree, which feeds the uncertainty of results, and that is the beauty of the game, since with absolute knowledge we would not engage in the activity. Show me a pure selection theorist prior to the race lib who has become a racing icon. In association with birds for 62 years I know little other than my own enthusiasm. Natural birds, contrary to widowhood myth, are still, with clever management, excelling in races, which demands a rethink of why? The sport, contrary to the popular stereotype, although in numerical decline is thriving, especially in the hands of fanatics and purists, and I do feel that in the UK the BICC heads the field, mainly due to its organisation of international participation, and diverse national programme. Myths are formed via persuasive and iconic people in the pigeon popular culture, when my nature is to believe only what I prove to myself, a little like cogito ergo sum I think therfore I am. The moral of the story is a search for truth behind commonly held beliefs and myths.
John: I am sure you have a deep spiritual dimension and it is probably this dimension that fuels your passion. In the wider world the Cureghem Centre, the organisation that first established international racing, must command our attention for not only for making the first cross border international pigeon race possible but also for making it successful. The achievement must be further celebrated when we take into account the two world wars that held their country captive and made pigeon racing of any kind impossible. In the UK the BICC has had its ups and downs - lately it is on the up and I think largely because of my friend Russell Bradford taking the accounts in hand as treasurer. I know accounts and money is not a spiritual concept but in the world we live in most fanciers are without the same spiritual dimension you enjoy and for this reason we have to pay due heed to that which is Ceaser’s while at the same time still benefitting from the spiritual enthusiasm you enjoy. What we must never do is to geographically limit our minds only to our own country for as you quite rightly point out - the heritage of pigeons goes way back even to Noah perhaps and with this in mind and your Belgian Stichlebaut pigeons being Belgian we should perhaps widen our terms of enquiry to get the full impact of what international racing is all about in its essense.
Jim: Thank you John and how perceptive of my sprituality, which is at the heart of my personality. John, we are now reaching the nature of the essence of ourselves in relation to the history, human value and cultural significance of the sport in the popular psyche, and we are enjoying our conscious efforts in mutual exchanges. It’s looking good, for the evolution of penetrating and large ideas and concepts.
To be continued...
Elimar - August 2014