Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
A Very British Coop
By Mark Collings
Macmillan, 247 pp, 12.99 pounds
What do Walt Disney, Heinrich Himmler and Pablo Picasso have in common? According to Mark Collings in A Very British Coop, they were all keen pigeon fanciers.
Whether they raced their birds is not revealed, but Collings' engaging and witty book offers a glimpse into a sport that, like fishing, enjoys a huge following all over the world yet remains a bit of a mystery to nonparticipants.
Collings describes pigeon racing, which originated in Belgium in the 18th century, as "a potent mixture of defiance, skill and stupidity," though 5 million racers around the world might disagree with the final element of that description.
Collings' search for the meaning of the loft starts with the grandfather of an old school friend, who introduces him to the so-called Salford pigeon mafia, a group of four men from northwest England led by Les Green, a man with "a labourer's bulk...matched with a mouth like the inside of a cement mixer."
And while Green comes from "a long and fine tradition of Mancunians/Salfordians with mouths as filthy as the Irwell [River]," he is one of the most entertaining characters in the book and, as Collings says "bore no resemblance to the widely perceived 'flat cap and whippet' image of the pigeon racer [in Britain]."
For anyone whose knowledge of Columba livia--to give the birds their proper scientific name--extends little beyond the "feral" variety that gather in London's Trafalgar Square, A Very British Coop is a fascinating insight into the world of pigeon racing.
It is a world that has attracted boxer Mike Tyson, who has kept pigeons from the age of 9, and Collings' chapter on his attempts to interview Iron Mike when he visited Manchester for an after-dinner speaking engagement shows a side of Tyson's character that the public rarely sees, without becoming overly sentimental about a man who is, at the end of the day, a convicted rapist.
As he delves into the sport's origins, he meets The Racing Pigeon magazine contributor Michael Shepherd, one of the sport's historians, who tells Collings that the sport developed "from people using pigeons to carry messages in business," and that the term "pigeon hole" in offices comes from the place in a newspaper office where a pigeon would once have sat after delivering the football results.
These days, the nearest you are going to get to a pigeon in a newspaper office is the sound of someone's mobile phone ring tone.
Collings spends a chapter trying to solve the basic question that is never far from any mention of pigeon racing: How does a pigeon find its way home? After expounding on several theories, such as using the sun, magnetic fields, sense of smell or sight, Collings eventually agrees with the answer offered by Green, his trusty adviser, "'Don't have a f-----' clue,' said Les. 'And to be honest, I don't think anyone does know for sure.'"
Collings refers to the men (and pigeon racing appears to be a male-dominated world) he meets as having "a sense of decency, self respect and pride in what they did." A Manchester United-loving Irishman known as Moonie seems to embody these qualities, and the description of his funeral--complete with a wreath in the shape of a pigeon--sums up the close-knit community of the pigeon racing fraternity.
The final part of A Very British Coop focuses on Collings' involvement in The Sun City Million Dollar--the World Cup of pigeon racing--and as endearing as I found the Salford pigeon mafia and their associates, his adventure in South Africa adds an international touch that illustrates just how global the sport is.
Collings' brief sojourn in the world of pigeon racing allows the reader to discover that there's more to the sport than flat caps and whippets and, after reading A Very British Coop, your opinion of the humble Columba livia might never be quite the same again.
(Jul. 28, 2007)