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Life in The North East of England 50 03-04-17


Life in the North East of England (50)

Rod Adams

Despite these days of small clubs and falling memberships, we still have people, harping on about limits and closed boundaries. Limits solve nothing, the best fanciers still win and when limits are pressed to their extremes what happens is that the club sometimes gets into a position where it can’t pay its transport costs as the bigger fliers are stopped from sending their usual large numbers! Closing boundaries when the club has less than ten members is crazy, they should be joining the nearest club instead and the tiny Federations should be joining forces with the larger ones. Sadly, it is my opinion that given the intransigent nature of individual fanciers everywhere, this will never happen voluntarily but will have to be imposed.

I hate the thought of imposing anything on anybody but self-regulation never did work. Look all around you, and I don’t mean simply at the pigeon world! Nobody ever stopped, or tried to stop, old John bringing panniers full of pigeons to the clubhouse every Friday night. His horse and cart would be piled high with them. He never won you see, which made him “a good member.” Winning would have made him “a mob flier” overnight. It is not a subtle distinction at all, winning out of turn is a bad habit and being “a good loser” is very much to be admired if you believe the moaning and groaning component of our sport. I can only remember old John winning one race in his life. There are no prizes for guessing who he beat! And the race was from France!

Now that the season is over the fancy press is full of sales. The increasing commercialisation of our sport is a major concern for many. To buy or not to buy? Who and what is genuine. And who and what isn't? Nobody is forced to buy anything at all, but for those who choose to purchase, despite the Trades Description Act, how do you substantiate the claims that are being made? For the product. For the birds. And the performances? I have been around for a while and know ( roughly) how many beans make five. I am also a sceptic by nature but there are still a lot of fanciers about who take things at face value. I can never forget a well-known Continental fancier, now dead, stating in his own language to a Belgian friend of mine (also dead) in the actual presence of some English buyers that, “there is a fool borne every minute and it's my job to find him!” This attitude, I might add, is not found solely on the continent!

I recently watched a local television programme about pigeon racing. Part of a series about obsessions, it featured several fanciers I know from north of the river Tyne. It was very enjoyable and quite well done, as well as any twenty minute exposition of our sport can be I guess, but it was the use of the term “obsession” that got to me because that is exactly what it is! Try explaining your fascination with racing pigeons to someone who has never kept or even thought about pigeons.

I tried once. To my cantankerous old Workshop Chief Technician whose only real interest was fresh water fishing. The University Angling Club had the use of a flooded quarry which they stocked up regularly, thanks to the generosity of an excellent fancier who looked after, lived, and raced his pigeons beside some large reservoirs just outside the city limits. I used to donate several bags of deep litter each year to be tipped into the quarry to “improve the feeding in the water for the fish” and so got to watching my Workshop Chief angling there for whatever coarse fish were in it, which he always put back, and  fishing for Pike, which he always killed.

I was bored stiff every time and used to go bird-watching just for something to do! “Robert” I said to the man “how can you sit here all day just looking at the water and hoping something is going to happen, it’s like watching paint dry.” “Rod” he replied “what exactly do you do when you are racing your pigeons?” Full of enthusiasm, and keen to point out the differences between an exciting sport and what I saw as a boring one, I told him about the preparation and despatch of the birds to the races and of what actually happens on race days, the waiting, the nervousness and the excitement when you actually get one.

“So Rod” he said dryly, “you’re telling me you sit all day just looking up into an empty sky hoping you’ll see a pigeon that’s yours.” “Well, yes” I said beginning to feel a bit foolish, “that’s about it, but it is exciting.” “And what exactly” he said with the air of a man who knows he has just won an argument, “is the difference between looking all day at a piece of water and looking all day at a piece of sky?” Quite so. We never ever again discussed pigeon racing. Or fishing!

The period, from 1965 to 1970, was the only time in my life when I have been without pigeons. I gave them up (due to my father’s final illness and my own impending marriage) and resumed my second love, bird watching, although I kept closely in touch with what was going on in the pigeon world. It was then that I really got to know a Bacteriologist called Peter. We'd been at school together, but as he was a couple of years ahead of me I’d not really known him. Both his father, a headmaster who had taught my brother, and his uncle were mildly eccentric loners so Peter had the right pedigree to plough his own furrow. Which in due time he did.

He was a brilliant Bacteriologist. An excellent Ornithologist. An expert on Cacti. And he even turned his hand turned to catching and studying bats! He and I used to go netting Starlings and trapping and ringing birds of all kinds, but it was on our first trip abroad together that my eyes were really opened to his ways and to the fact that I now regard pigeon racing not as the be all and end all of my life.

The trip was to Falsterbo, at the southernmost tip of Sweden. To study the migration of the large birds of prey in the autumn, which can be best seen there, and to the bird observatory at Ottenby on the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea. We took all our food with us including five gallons of home brew in a used plastic dialysis container. This tasted so foul that the customs officials at the border took one sip and told us we could keep it! That didn't bother Peter at all, nor did the fact that the fat on the bacon went green after just a few days. He drank the beer with relish and simply snapped the green bits off the bacon before he ate it! Shaving and washing properly were never high priorities on his agenda for the full two weeks so it was there that he first grew his trademark beard! The eccentricities were beginning to show. Demonstrated early on by driving the vehicle to the coast most mornings  wearing only his vest and underpants. And wheeling our flat spare tyre into a duck pond in full view of a busload of jeering German school kids!

We saw and caught lots of birds, but it was Peter's approach to advance planning that tickled me. How, for example, did we end up on a NATO tank training range in Schleswig Holstein in the middle of an army exercise? Easy, Peter was using a ten year old ordnance survey map at the time! How were we held by armed soldiers at an army checkpoint whilst looking for White Storks in the nearby town Bergenhausen? Easy again, the army hadn't been there last time Peter was there! Which was when he had bought the map that landed us in trouble in the first place. And so it went on. Punctures every other day. In Sweden. Denmark. And Germany. And our jacks wouldn't lift the van without a lot of improvisation.

But it was a good trip. It whetted my, as yet still unsatisfied, appetite for further travel. Cemented an unusual “take it or leave it” kind of friendship. And in a way it brought me back into pigeon racing. For all that I was having a good time I missed the pigeon racing scene. Waking up in our vehicle and seeing Honey Buzzards pulling worms out of the ground just outside the window is a fine sight. And one which I would love to see again. But seeing your pigeon drop in late at night from Bourges to win after thirteen or fourteen hours on the wing is a far, far, better one! Bird watching, as I said earlier, is, and always will be, my second love!