Diary

Andrew O’Hagan

Babies and old people have so much in common. They have similar hair and teeth for a start, and they don’t like food too hot. You can’t leave them out in the sun for long; they don’t remember big numbers; they sometimes need help into their chair; they often get sick in the car. They also have a common skill, which is to turn themselves into the image of the thing they love. Someone pointed out to me the other day that the old geezer behind the bar looked like an egg. After some pretty detailed enquiries I discovered that the gentleman was, in fact – and had been for years – a great lover of pickled eggs. There is an old lady hot dog seller in the Strand who looks just like a hot dog, with onions for ear-rings. There was the bloke I met in Durham Cathedral two months ago who looked like the stone gargoyles he professed to adore, and in Strathclyde I know any number of old folk whose faces resemble nothing so much as a full and hearty tumbler of Grouse whisky. Children are much the same. They can look like their toy rattle – all blue and bumpy – or their teddy bear. I once knew a boy who looked like his bike. His ears were like handle-bars, his nose was a saddle, his eyes turned around like wheels. He would sit on his doorstep oiling and tightening and stroking until the long day was done. And one morning he awoke to discover he looked like his Raleigh Chopper. He later joined the Royal Air Force, and now he flies over the land, quite happy it seems, with his adult nose pressed against the window of his bomber. Unfortunately, most young children expend this mimic genius in coming to look like their mothers or, even worse, their fathers, and most elderly people use it up in the act of becoming their children.

Colin Osman is a retired gentleman who lives in Cockfosters. His plumage is white and grey; his eyes are fast-moving; and his body is wonderfully puffed-up and proud. Mr Osman has devoted much of his life to the sport of pigeon-racing, just as his father did, and as his grandfather did before that. It used to be the most popular participatory sport in Britain. He walks down the back garden early in the morning, whistling and calling to his birds, which spin over the neighbouring rooftops, or balance on the telephone wires – those same wires which so recently upstaged the homing birds in the communicative hearts of the people. In ones and twos they fly into the loft as he calls them down. He gives them their trays of peas and beans, or wheat and barley. If there’s a race coming up, he might give them ‘speed cake’ – Pearson’s Old Formula, one of the favourites, includes hemp, rape, millet, eggs, and a cup of sherry – and he’ll talk to the birds as if they were people. They even have people’s names.

If any of this seems strange, it’s only because our times are strange. Pigeon-racing was one of the things open to the working boy or man – and woman if she pushed for it – in a Britain no longer here. It was a place and a time where leisure pursuits were important; they made good use of those small pockets of the day, or the weekend, involving light or freedom or fresh air, between the dark borders of work and sleep. The whole idea of leisure changed with the coming of television, rock ’n’ roll, package holidays and worklessness, but at one point people in this country were obsessive about the value of free time. Most of the activities were communal and physical – football, rugby, brass bands, dances, bowling – or to do with self-improvement: evening classes in drawing, politics, local history, literature. The ethos was philanthropic and optimistic. Working men’s clubs, institutes, social and recreation clubs; all were built to answer the general call for the good and uncostly use of free time, and to answer the call for get-togethers, where old men would meet young men out of work, and where young men could meet young women, who were often out of sight, if seldom out of mind, during the daytime hours. The club was also a decent place to take your wife. The good ones contained libraries, and functioned well enough as the labour exchanges of their time.

It was a bit of a man’s world, of course, but it would take a more sophisticated generation to point that out. The British kitchen-sink drama was all about sexy young things trying to break out of this very world, or trying to make their own sort of place inside it, a place that was also a platform – for cynicism, derision, exclusivity, parent-taunting, and for angry pronouncements about how such a modern self as yourself was much less content to be nothing much. Sexual intercourse may have started in 1963, with the Beatles’ first LP and so on, but intercourse of many another sort was at the same time starting to stop. Drinking and dancing went on, but in a different way – the clubs stopped being places where young and old of a similar class would join forces. Many of the sports dwindled, musicians disbanded, evening classes were often dropped by institutes for lack of interest. You can’t complain, really. Bach generation wants to burn down the churches of its parents. There’s nothing wrong with that, though there’s nothing so monumentally right about it either.

Colin Osman’s grandfather is regarded as the person who founded pigeon-racing as a sport in this country. He was born in Bromley-by-Bow in 1864. He became a solicitor’s clerk, but spent as much time as he could in the gathering and training of pigeons. On Wanstead Flats he would conduct ‘flapping races’ between two pigeons only, which would cover little more than a mile. Sometimes they would be encouraged to race down a long street, rather than over a grassy field, and the relative nimbleness of the birds became the subject of fast and furious debating, and of course betting. The long distances that pigeons would later be expected to cover – capitalising on their strange homing instinct – did not figure in the sport’s early days. The whole thing was rough and ready (and even slightly frowned on). The pigeons were kept in wooden Tate and Lyle sugar boxes nailed to the wall.

Mr Osman’s grandfather built a loft in the backyard. He had great affection for the creatures, and he would write articles about them, arguing for their nobility and beauty. He wanted to make them respectable. He founded the federation of pigeon clubs; he founded the Racing Pigeon; he founded the regulatory body for the sport. In time he would organise British pigeons for a task that would endear them even to the most reluctant. He was in charge of the pigeon service during the First World War. Pigeons were important in the two world wars: it used to be the stuff of boys’ adventure stories. Reuters news agency was founded on pigeons; the siege of Paris had depended on them; and they had for centuries played a part in wartime and peacetime emergencies. But it was Alfred Osman who was responsible for the setting up of the Army and Navy Pigeon Service.

The first big loft was set up in the 1890s, on Whale Island, in the Portsmouth dockyard. In these days before radio, all the ships carried pigeons, and many of the first fighter planes did too. They were known to save lives. In the trenches of Flanders, the lofts were often made out of old double-decker buses. There are stories of boys sending desperate pleas and farewells on the backs of these birds, and wishing for all the world they could fly home too. Alfred Osman took things quietly towards the end of his life; he looked in at other people’s pigeons; he went into the offices of the Racing Pigeon now and then to look over the paper; and he went off quietly to take the cure at Harrogate. He died in 1930.

Second World War walkie-talkie messages could be intercepted without any trouble. So carrier pigeons stayed on, and some of them flew into glory, winning Dicken ‘medals’ for bravery. Some of the heroic pigeons – like the one who saved a battalion from certain death at Monte Cassino – went on to have grand careers in the British races of the Fifties. But it was in British wars that they excelled, and triumphed, and became loved for staying on, like the Royal Family. Decline was sure to follow, and it did, but not for a good while after the war. Colin Osman’s father, William Hibbs Osman, who had run the Army Pigeon Service in his turn, continued to edit the paper, and he continued to finesse the practicalities of breeding and racing his birds. People say he was the best pigeon-racer of his time, which may mean of all time. He tried another job only once: he worked for Methuen as a rep, and he was happy to take the credit for the success of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. But he homed back to the pigeons soon enough. ‘There was nothing else in his life,’ says his son. ‘He wouldn’t go on holiday. He’d just meet up with a gang of fanciers, and they would sit in a living-room all day, talking pigeons.’ His family later found out he had something of a secret life, reading Trollope, exercising his deep baritone on popular songs. But on the surface he was all pigeons. William’s life was over by 1963.

Colin was born in West London in 1926, and when very young he moved to Welwyn Garden City, the first of the New Towns. Even the pigeon lofts had to be passed by local designers, just to ensure they blended in. He grew up with pigeons – and with the legendary stuff surrounding them – and took over editing the Racing Pigeon when his father stepped aside. ‘If you’ve been around pigeons all your life,’ he says, ‘there’s no beginning and there’s no end. There has always been pigeons.’ It has always been the family business, too, and, you might say, the family obsession. He helped out at the paper as a schoolboy, on his holidays, and he made his way into the job proper after a spell in the navy and in college. He and his wife Grace used to live above the office in Doughty Street, and London was a different city then. During the Blitz it seemed small, and in some ways almost parochial. Colin would come and go to Canonbury Square then, which was, in the years just before and after the last war, the centre of pigeon-racing in Central London. The area is fairly posh now, but it was different then: the small houses were occupied by workers and some of the big ones by foremen. There were always pigeons flying overhead.

The Racing Pigeon grew in size under Colin Osman. At one time it was 96 pages a week. But it has never been a cheap thing to produce. Paper was the last stuff in Britain to come off rationing, and the price doubled. But although the circulation has gone steadily down, and the sport, or the audience for it, has grown a little remote with the years, the traditions of the sport (as well as the traditions behind it) still mean a lot to the Osmans. Colin wrote a book in 1957, Racing Pigeons, which is still the most comprehensive and charming of all the guides. It has just been reissued by Faber.[*] ‘Colin’s son Richard is now editor of the Racing Pigeon.

‘The people who used to be into pigeon-fancying have changed altogether,’ says Colin, taking tea in Cockfosters. ‘They used to go down mines, or work in iron foundries, or spend their days in dark factories. They wanted fresh air. They went up to their lofts, fed their pigeons, and let them go. The birds came back to them because they loved them. Oh, yes. You could play it on a violin. It was, in the purest sense, a release. The need for it died out with the old sort of working class. That’s the way it goes. But there’s still a good few of us left.’

The New Southgate and Friern Barnet Social Club gets busy on a Friday night. A pint of lager is 80 pence. The seats are all red and plush; strips of tinsel are hung round the sides of the main room, and men are gathered round a large satellite television set which stands in the corner nearest the dancefloor. The place used to be a church. It was made into a social club in 1893, and then jazzed up in the Sixties. There are some women in the downstairs lounge watching Coronation Street. There are three bored teenagers wrapped around a fruit machine. A man in a fluffy cardigan sits behind a table marked ‘Loan Club’. And up the back, huddled around a couple of formica tables, surrounded by boards listing the names of past trophy winners, are the men of the pigeon club. There are ten of them. Three of them are builders, some are retired, one or two do this and that, and Bob, the chairman, owns a little factory. Eventually, after a deal of slagging and small beers, they retire to a committee room through the back.

At the last meeting they discussed the case of a man who was disqualified because of a dodgy clock. What happens in a race is that all the pigeons are taken to a point far distant – sometimes over in another county, sometimes in another country. They each have bands on their feet, and all the birds are let go by an adjudicator. The pigeons race back – navigating God knows how – and when they reach their home lofts the respective fanciers will take off the band and punch them into a special clock, which registers the time of arrival. The one with the shortest time wins. The ten men discuss the evidence of the bad clock like lawyers. Each of them has a different style of argument, a different attention span, a different beak. But they all join in on the jokes.

The chairman is firm. When someone comes in selling lottery tickets he allows the main business to be sacrificed to the general hilarity for a moment, then he tells the salesman to leave them alone. ‘Yeh, piss off and clean your windows,’ says the comedian. They try to make plans for their annual prize-giving, which might take place in the ‘Apollo Suite’ of a local restaurant. They are having trouble getting numbers now, and last year the place was more than half empty. ‘It’s a struggle,’ says a quiet one, ‘when you’ve got to beg people to come to a dinner and dance. We’ll end up having it in the back of a pub somewhere.’ They check over the club’s accounts.

‘It says flowers on here. Somebody died, I suppose.’

‘There was 25 fliers in my street at One time,’ says the comedian. ‘Now I’m the only one.’

‘That’s right,’ says Colin Osman, ‘look at how the clubs have disappeared. East Finchley. Gone. Potter’s Bar, Gone. New Barnet. Closed.’

‘That’s the way of it,’ says the chairman, ‘they all want to be on the Internet now. Flying on the Internet. No outdoor stuff – all screens. The youngest fanciers are now in their forties.’

Out in the foyer the women begin to arrive in their perfume. Deep inside the main room, someone is testing a snare drum. The walls nearest to the street are covered with pictures. Special visits, dances, fundraisings. A Coronation party on the road outside the club, 1952. Men in long shorts, shoulder to shoulder, with a ball at their feet, 1938. Girls in gowns, with soft shoes and a silver trophy, 1960. Boys with cigarettes, brown uniforms, along the wall outside, 1945. And orange-coloured polaroids of dancers and winners in all the years since.

Colin Osman and the others close the meeting for another month. Most of them won’t be staying for the band and bingo. Their business is done, and each is in a hurry to get back home.

[*] 272 pp., £7.99, 22 July, 0 571 17814 6.