Life in the North East of England (35)
The regular Friday night forum in “The Grey Horse” had a new member. New faces mean new questions and new points of view. Which are always welcome. The “be reasonable-see things my way” attitude does nobody any good. My friend has an ambition to succeed at sprint racing and raised two questions. How do you beat the top men in your area? And how do you really know how good you are, if and when you start winning? There is very little new under the sun and I posed these questions to myself when I was young and up against, amongst others, the legendary Tommy Burke, one of the best sprint merchants of his era. The answers were surprisingly simple. Putting them into practice was not. In a nutshell you acquire pigeons as good as or better than the top man. You keep as many as him or more. You train as hard as him or harder. And you adopt the same management practices as him or better. Then all, and it is a big all, you have to do is to hope he stands still whilst you acquire the know-how that he already has.
Knowing how good you are is far simpler. You are as good as the men you beat. You start with your club and after that your Federation. Then you seek to obtain a National reputation in, of course, the National races. One thing which, although I have never practised it myself, I firmly believe in as regarding sprint pigeons, is that they have to win prizes from day one. Anything that hasn’t been in the frame by the end of the yearling stage has no place in a sprint loft! If they take two seasons to mature as sprinters well, the way I look at it is that somebody has been taking your money off you for two years. And that’s not on. Sprinting is not a waiting game. Those pigeons have a short racing life–it has to be a productive one.
Eggs are fascinating things, which I guess most fanciers don’t consider all that much. Their birds lay them and they hatch or they don’t. But their successful development into the tiny chick that crawls out is a wonderful thing involving a physiological process all of it’s own. And very clever gas exchanges through the porous shell. It is when things go wrong that it helps to know what the normal process is. Some time ago I saw twins hatched from a single egg, a photograph of which is reproduced with this article. They died shortly after hatching but you can see quite clearly that they are sharing a common yolk sac. I have seen eggs laid singly. As big as a Bantam Hen’s egg. As small as a Sparrow’s egg. Eggs almost square. Chalky. Smooth. And ridged.
I have only one rule of thumb. If an incubated normal - seeming egg doesn’t hatch, I want to know why. Throwing it onto the manure heap does you no favours. Open it up. Is it fresh or addled? Was the youngster fully or partially developed? Did it start to chip out and then die in the shell? And if so, why? Did the down on its head stick to the inside of the shell so it couldn’t move? Was it a weakling or was the shell too thick? Did you write all over the egg with an Alcohol or Benzene-based felt pen? Was the nest so filthy that when the old birds had a bath the contents got wet and seeped through the porous shell and the bacteria they contained killed the embryo? Did you spray the nest material with an insecticide or anti-fungal agent and then give it to the parents when it was still wet and they were on eggs? Reasons. Always there are reasons for whatever happens. And if you have a bad hatch there will be reasons. There is no doubt about that! Now that you can see the origin of the phrase about not counting your chickens before they are hatched perhaps, like me, you will understand what a little miracle it is that so many do hatch out. And without any help at all from us!
I would like to put on record what a long distance win is all about. The satisfaction comes not from any monies or trophies won, but from the fact that you have won a race that you wanted to win and won it with the bird you wanted to win it with. That is the true essence of long distance pigeon racing. Recognising that, correctly used, you have the tool to do the job with. And then doing it. A friend of mine once won a 635 mile race with a re-settled six or seven year old that had flown the same race the year before, arriving just out of race time, but whose changed behaviour throughout the close season convinced him that he now had a different bird on his hands and that next time it could win. And it did. Well spotted to the fancier. And well done to the pigeon.
The late Colonel Hopas lived quite close to me when I was young and flew in one of the clubs in my Federation. He was a massive and influential presence in the Up North Combine. It was an era when all the officials within the sport were well-respected and often autocratic men. Who pushed the sport forward and who ought not to be forgotten. Unfortunately nowadays, despite the advent of computers and new methods of communication, it’s all too often a question of who will do the job. At one time, in the days of steam locomotion, train drivers were an elite band of proud, professional men and every little boy wanted to be an engine driver! Not now. Respect for age and authority has long gone. How times change.
Mae West (the woman not the old Royal Air Force life preserver worn around your chest and named after her because of its shape) was a lady ahead of her time. I was browsing through a tiny little book about the sayings of sassy women, such as Dorothy Parker, who on being told of the death of a particularly inarticulate American President said “how can they tell?” And Dolly Parton who on being told she was just a dumb blonde said, “I’m not dumb and I know that I’m not blonde” and even more memorably, “on the night of my honeymoon my husband took one look and said is all that for me?” The ones I liked best were, of course, by Mae West, who once asserted “I only like two kinds of men. Domestic and Foreign” and “between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” But top this one, if you can, for pure cynicism. It is by Dorothy Parker:-
“By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady make a note of this:
One of you is lying.”