When I first set foot in East Cleveland, some 50 years or so ago, I began by sussing out the local pubs. The ideal mixture would be a pub that has not been “modernised” throughput, served real ale (a beer under real threat at that time) and wasn’t a “posers paradise” – i.e. it still had its working class roots in the local community.
A small number of pubs fitted this template neatly enough, but then I came across the first minor mystery. A lot of them on an early weekday evening, had a taciturn group of men hogging the corner of the pub room – and all of them seemed to have a small suitcase. They were not in for a meeting of a local Masons’ Lodge or the Masons’ downmarket working class imitators, the Buffaloes. The reason? The first set wouldn’t be seen dead in a pub, whilst the second tended to basically live in their set-aside private pub rooms. A third oddity was that whatever pub you were in, you seemed to see the same men in different venues.
The Pigeon Men
The mystery was quickly solved for me – they were the legendary “Pigeon Men” and those storage boxes contained their timing equipment which, it seemed, had to be regularly checked by their compatriots for accuracy, “They kept themselves to themselves” (in the oldest cliché known to the local press); known regulars such as me tended to get a nod, but that was as much as seemed to be demanded or, indeed, needed to be given.
If there was one unchanging element in working class life, it was the pigeon men, with their regional alliances and clubs, their communally purchased lorries for the big races and their magazines with slabs of grey typeface reports and an unvarying picture of a local guy hugging his bird to his chest, seem not to have changed since the 1930s.
So you all know what I’m coming to. Yes. What the sociologist would call the “gradual bourgeoisification” of the pigeon world. As a process this goes far deeper than a simple “tarting up” of a neighbourhood, and the equivalent for the pigeon men is becoming used to a process that not only tarts up the meeting room, but tarts up the mind as well.
A new film about the Pigeon Men
To preserve this world for posterity, a new film, Pigeon Men based on a group of pigeon racers from Redcar has been shot by Teesside based independent filmmakers, headed by local director/producer Daniel-John Williams and Nova Mundi and will be on release soon.
In advance of the films screening, Daniel-John Williams told local media that it goes beyond a simple sport; Pigeon Homing (a better word than just racing) allows you to step into folklore. You project onto these birds the relationship you want from them and what they give you, you want to give back. How do they come home is one question, but “why do they come home?” was my second question? It just fascinates me – it totally blew me away:
“There are pigeon lofts all over the UK but that pigeon will not go to the wrong loft. There’s something really symbolic about that I think – you become more worldly and you evolve and mature and then you just want to come home.”
It’s how pigeons, and not their breeders, learn to hone their birds’ innate skills. such as how to give pigeons just enough food to sustain them on their journey and yet leave them hungry enough to head straight home. Or how to train them to break from the pack at the right time – a racing pigeon, like a cyclist in a peloton, flies more efficiently in a flock.
Charles Darwin and pigeons
There is no greyness in that greyest of birds, mind. It is black or white. You either love pigeons or loathe them. I learned that Charles Darwin bred pigeons and used them as evidence for his theory of evolution. I did not know that one of his publisher’s readers for On the Origin of Species, a cleric named Whitwell Elwin, dismissed it as “a wild & foolish piece of imagination” and advised the author to cut anything in it that wasn’t to do with pigeons.
“Everybody is interested in pigeons,” Elwin wrote, trying to be helpful.
Everybody isn’t. The pigeon is not a glamorous bird. Ted Hughes, as London pigeon breeder and writer Jon Day points out, could never have written a poem called “The Pigeon in the Rain” – hawks however, were a different matter. Day thus joins other nature writers, such as Mark Cocker (crows) and Tim Dee (gulls), in lavishing attention on an unloved and sometimes reviled bird. Like rooks and gulls, pigeons are what biologists called synanthropes: animals that live alongside humans. Day comes to admire their resilience, the “cocky, parasitic chanciness” that allows them to thrive cheek-by-jowl with us.
So see this film if it’s shown near you. Watch and enjoy before the world of the pigeon men goes to the great mental imagery oubliette of “clocking-in”, ships hooters and factory sirens, the sound of typewriters in back offices and the double ring of the “ducs buzzer” on a bus.