Life in the North East of England (44)
When we were kids we called him “The King Of Tay Street.” Mr Jackson, was his proper name. He and his family dressed well, none of them had pieces of cardboard over the holes in their shoes and his house had real curtains up at every window, so he was “The King Of Tay Street” wasn’t he? Even more impressive to us then was the fact that he “owned” a piece of land between the bottom of our playing field and the embankment of the mineral line running from the local pit down to the coal staithes. He kept hens there in little purpose- built triangular sheds with wire runs attached to them. The playing field was something else, nearly all bare soil and cinders and with the exposed concrete foundations of an air raid shelter or two. It had very little grass on it and sloped sideways down to Mr Jackson’s allotment and was separated from it by huge overgrown Hawthorns and a wooden fence of triangular palings. The other three sides the field backed onto the “backs” or back gardens of the houses surrounding it. Not much of a playing field, but it was always there, it was free and it was ours.
We guarded it jealously and used it for everything. Football, cricket, bonfires and all the other games that kids play. Eventually, as “The King” got old and his allotment ran into disrepair, the hen huts became our “camps”, then much later and I don’t know exactly how, (my best guess is they never rented the place but just “squatted” there), Bobby Lamb, “Spud Tate” and Cyril Brennan put up a loft of sorts to race against the rest of us kids who kept pigeons in our back gardens. A few years later when I left school I got a loft on the other side of the railway embankment some seventy or eighty yards in front of “The Kings” old place and across a road. And as “Spud” and the boys had moved on to other things, a “proper” pigeon man took over their garden, moved his old loft there and began racing from it.
A worse place to fly pigeons from would be hard to find. With a high embankment to the left, high trees to the right and in front, and with as promising bunch of young criminals as you were likely to find hanging around all day, me included, it was no paradise! This never fazed the new owner a bit. In all probability he couldn’t see it. He was called “Blind Bobby” in the pigeon club and if he wasn’t registered blind, he was as good as blind, making his slow and hesitant way to the loft every morning tapping his white stick and back home each night. He had two sons who flew with him and who did all the donkey work around the loft. It wasn’t long before I knew that I had a good pigeon man sat right behind me. I can still see his red and white hen passing me on my right hand side before sliding down the other side of the embankment to his loft from a very bad Lille race to win easily. And doing the same thing again a few weeks later!
That railway line was a highway for pigeons running in to their lofts at a site about half a mile behind me and sat alongside it. When “Ginger” Scott topped the Federation with his white cock and I was second I knew I was beat long before I got to the clubhouse. I saw the pigeon going down the line, on its own. Tired but determined. It’s head going from side to side as it passed me. That pigeon knew it hadn’t far to go and so did I. Railway lines seem always to have always been a part of my life. I live and fly beside one now, was brought up in a house backing on to one and flew as a boy next to one, so I hardly notice trains at all. They are just there. I guess that in an area where money was short, council housing the norm, and allotments really coveted, derelict or industrial waste land was one of the few places where people could keep pigeons. It was all that was available and all they could afford. It was a working mans sport then! Even now, all these years later, I still wonder where “The King Of Tay Street” got his money from and if that allotment really was legitimately his? Maybe he just got there before “Spud” Tate and the boys did!
A Common Frog, not so common these days I’m afraid, has stirred up a bit of interest amongst the regulars at my house. Mr Frog” is something else and has become a bit of a celebrity with the boys. He has taken to living in a bucket of water left by me in the long grass by one of the sheds ages ago, when I cleaned some brushes of wood preserver or whatever but it is full of rainwater now and has plenty of Mosquito larvae in it. The first time I saw the Frog I figured it had jumped into the bucket by accident and couldn’t escape, so I fished it out and let it go. It was back in the next morning and I fished it out again. After a week of this in and outing I figured that the bucket was where it wanted to be when it was hot and dry so I quit
interfering with it.
One of my club mates however was most concerned that it maybe it couldn’t come and go as it pleased so he hunted around under the loft, found some wood, and built it a “bridge.” Jamming it firmly in the bucket. The first thing he does now, whenever he comes to the loft, is to check the bucket and it really made his day when he found it sitting on his “bridge”, clear of the water and ready to jump out. Even if I’m in the loft when he comes I know he’s there and that “Mr Frog” is in the bucket, because you can hear him quietly saying to it, “Dive, Dive, Dive!” and stuff like that. It makes a nice change from Ladybirds. He is so proud of that little bridge and helping the Frog to survive that I haven’t had the heart to tell him that I have seen “Mr Frog” on more than one occasion leap clean out of the water clearing the bucket easily. What self-respecting Frog ever needed a bridge?
He had brought with him a pigeon that had suffered truly horrific injuries a couple of weeks earlier, so I could see how it was progressing, and I was amazed. I knew when I originally saw the bird that there wasn’t much I could do as the injuries were a couple of days old even then. The breast muscles were largely exposed and the covering skin gone completely so there was no chance at all of sewing it up. The best that I could do was to apply some wound powder and advise him to sit tight. It was a bird he badly wanted to keep or I have no doubt at all it would have been put down there and then. The muscles at the top of its leg were also exposed and there were skin flaps, which would need to be removed eventually, but I thought it best not to do this for now, so he took it away and we crossed our fingers.
Two weeks later and what a transformation. Largely due not to me, but to a very efficient set of Maggots. He had been horrified when he had first seen them seemingly crawling all over the wound, but had enough sense to realise that they only feed off dead tissue so he left them and in time they fell off. The wound is now well on the way to healing, the dead breast muscle is lifting off like a piece of old leather and the bird will survive. The replacement muscle will never be as good as the original was and the bird might never ever fly normally again but it’s genes will be intact and that was the whole point of the exercise. Much maligned things Maggots!
My closest friend wants faster pigeons. Or wants to make the ones he already does have faster. Or wants to win the shorter Classics with the same birds he uses for the longer ones. Or wants to win the longer ones in faster times. I’m not that sure. Either of what he wants, or how he plans to do it. But there are limits as to what is possible and what isn’t. Development has it’s limits. The four minute mile was once a major barrier but it was overcome and the times got better but the three minute mile is an impossibility and that is what I mean by a limit! Ruling out keeping a separate team of “stretched” sprinters for the shorter Classics, the question of making those birds that excel at over 500 miles better at the shorter distances comes down to a straight choice of either A) Management changes , feeding, training etc. or B) the crossing in of faster birds into the existing line. This could be dangerous and seriously weaken the pure distance birds which maybe haven’t reached their limits yet, if they are approaching them and even that may not be so.
It would be easy to fall between two stools because of a competitive and enthusiastic nature such as my friend has. There will be faster birds around than those any fancier has, at whatever the distance, but when you are successful at what you are already doing, faster birds than yours seem few and far between. Injecting more speed into your line from birds that are beating you at your chosen distance is hard to do because if you were being beaten that often by birds that much faster you wouldn’t be successful at what you were doing would you? So my friend is looking at the “sprinters” as a means of speeding up basic distance birds and as I find this concept difficult to accept, this is what animated our conversation in the cricket club last night. The young girls on our left simply ignored us but we got some strong complaints from the veterans on our right, who complained vociferously of “being up to their knees in pigeon muck all night!”