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Basketing Night




by John Ghent

"Wow!" I thought, I'd never seen so much organised chaos in all my life! The pigeon club that my Grandad had taken me to was located in the inner suburbs of the city, near to the old arches, formerly used for the railway line but now occupied by welding machines, oil canisters, blowtorches and pits of many back street garages. In an ironic twist we had driven under an old railway bridge which must have housed hundreds of pigeons, yet they were paupers compared to the 23 racers in the back of Grandad's Ford Escort. This bridge was the shanty town of the pigeon world, and well, we quite frankly had birds that were stopping in the Hilton by comparison!

The amount of people in the pub car park, which offered its facilities to the pigeon club, was pretty astonishing. Young, old, fathers, sons, grandsons, so many different combinations all with one thing bringing them together every Friday and Saturday throughout the Summer, the humble but extraordinary racing pigeon. The crates were stacked up like a Lego, around 15 down each side of the yard, and the noise was unbelievable! At an old table in front of the brick built outhouse which I was told was the "clock room", were two men, both with glasses on. One man had an old headmaster's look about him, spectacles poised on the end of his nose, with a lanyard around his neck, should they fall off the edge and tumble towards the wooden slats of the table. The other man was more brash, rings on every finger, there was badly any skin to be seen, and there was a leather jacket draped over the bench behind him! They were both shouting in unison at the men on the other side of the table:

"Blue cock"

"Red pied a minute! Bring that one back, it's not on the sheet........oh, there it is, sorry, red checker cock."

How on earth they managed to decipher what was going where and so forth I will never know! The men on the other side of the table were like ants, scurrying back and forth with different birds from a single wicker basket which had been placed next to them by a man in his 60s or 70s who was with his wife and looked a nice old man, he had on a green jumper and just seemed pleased to be there. The bird's legs were being placed into a metal contraption and for a minute I thought it was going to have its leg chopped off! Then I heard a quick ping and a rubber ring had been left on the leg ready for going into the crate. Whilst all this was happening the rest of the men all stood around, drinking various ales, comparing notes, discussing last weeks race, this weeks race, the latest vitamin supplement, or just having a chat about the weather. Pigeon men are always worried about the weather I have come to learn!

The atmosphere was great, so many different faces, different cars, different accents even, but again all with one thing in common. The light was fading and as the last bird went into the crate out came a set of pliers, I was transfixed by the evening's activities so far, everyone seemed to have a place and knew exactly what they were doing and when to do it! The pliers were used to put a metal seal around a piece of string, sealing each crate so they could not be tampered with. I made my way into the "clock-room" where my Grandad was stood, stooped over a work bench with Pat, fiddling with various pieces of metal in a big round..... biscuit tin I think?

"This is a clock," explained Pat. "Me and your Grandad have to set all 32 there ready for the race, we'll show you what we have to do to start the race in a bit."

They were like master jewellers, furiously working with nimble fingers to get all 32 clocks ready for the start of the race. The clocks were all of a similar ilk, big metal circles that dropped into a wooden box that had a hole in the top. The "clock-room" was like a little Aladdin's cave, it had everything you ever wanted, and quite a lot of stuff that you didn't! I could see reams and reams of race results, the oldest one I could find was from 1988, 7 years ago, they were all hung on a nail on the door to a cupboard were all the clocks were sat that were yet to be set. It was like a Doctors waiting room for the clocks, as they waited patiently whilst each clock was moved over to the workbench, one by one, to be worked on by Pat or my Grandad.

As I left the "clock-room" all the light had gone, I could hear the sound of the birds cooing, and you would sometimes hear a little scuffle in one of the crates, but it soon became very quiet. Even the pigeon men seemed to calm down, in conjunction with the birds, it's like they were in harmony together. I could see the men which were more worked up about it all, they seemed on edge, it was usually the younger folk but one or two of the elder statesmen still seemed to be "up for it". The crates were stacked and we awaited the arrival of the transporter to take the birds to the race.

Pat emerged from the "clock room" with a single bead of sweat running down his temple, onto his cheek, and it seemed to take an age before it dropped off his chin, onto a crate, creating a splatter mark as it hit the dust. He signalled for people to come and grab a clock and my Grandad then came out with a square metal clock. It was like he was some sort of Royalty; all the other pigeon men made a circle around him, gazing at him, yet conversation was still flowing between them all, across the circle. Some of the old men, one with a walking stick, had taken a seat behind the table which had earlier been used for the two men with the glasses, their legs not able to endure much standing around, it had turned quite cold now, I felt a shiver run up my spine, or was that excitement?

"ONE MINUTE!" I had never heard my Grandad so commanding. He was a placid man and whenever he told me off you knew he meant it. It had probably only happened twice in eleven years, so to hear that voice did make the hairs on my neck stand and my temperature dropped a couple of degrees! Still the pigeon men continued to talk, now in a frenzied manner, like they were running out of time, the voices going ten to the dozen. What was going to happen? Gulp, gulp, gulp as mouthfuls of ale went down and in an almost choreographed moment, as the pint glasses slammed back against the crate, the table or the floor which the glasses now called a temporary home, my Grandad spoke again....

"TEN....!" .........silence.....the change in the atmosphere was seismic. Gone were the alcohol fuelled conversations, no more drinking, no more eyes flickered across the circle, no more cooing even, just silence.....

"FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE.....UP!" And simultaneously all 32 clocks were struck. With one big clunk the chambers turned in the wooden boxes, and within half a second normality had returned. The beer was flowing and conversation now moved into discussions about tomorrow's race, and the clocks were all closed up and handed to their rightful owners, ready to be clock the eventual winner of the following morning's liberation.

That was my first encounter of the pigeon club from 1995. The venue was The Ship Inn, just off Sanvey Gate in Leicester. I walked past there today and it brought back great memories. Pat was otherwise known as Jim Lavery. The men behind the table were Ken Vesty and Mick Martin. The man handing over the wicker basket was Roy Stevens and the man with the walking stick was Derrick Jordan. I don't think racing will ever be the same as it was in 1995. I loved the moment when the clocks would get pulled up, especially at a big club. I'm not knocking the changes in the sport, it needs it, to get it into the 21st Century, but let's just remember what the sport was like though, and it didn't change much for nearly 100 years! We are blessed with a fantastic hobby which is slipping away from under us. If we are not careful it will be gone forever before I can be like Roy Stevens. Any infighting, conflict, stubbornness or anything to do with pigeon politics is bad for our sport. Think about this story and what your club used to be like 18 years ago. It may help you for the next 18 years.


83, Newport Street



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