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.

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