Flying home: a pigeon

The wonderful world of pigeon fancying

A new memoir is endlessly interesting and dazzlingly erudite
June 12, 2019

This new work of literary non-fiction from the author of the acclaimed Cyclogeography is an unusual beast: an examination of home making—and what it takes to want to stay there—disguised in the form of a pigeon fancying memoir.

Having moved with his wife and baby to the suburbs, Jon Day prepares for their happily-ever-after. But a series of distressing miscarriages follow, and Day feels his relationship under strain. So he reverts to a childhood fascination with pigeons, and—having built a loft in his back garden—purchases a small flock of racing pigeons.

“You never really own a pigeon,” an expert warns him: whenever you let them loose to exercise or race, they are free to leave. The challenge is creating a home they want to return to. It’s a beautiful metaphor for Day’s predicament, and over the subsequent year—as his own territory shrinks to his house and his workplace and the route in between—he discovers happiness in domesticity, as he travels further and further by proxy through his avian familiars.

His account offers fascinating insight into a peculiarly male obsession. Pigeon fancying first took off in the UK during the industrial revolution, and was described by Dickens as a sport of “release and escape” among factory workers who didn’t have the freedom to travel. Even now, some of Day’s fellow fanciers seem to live through their pigeons—one admits to having no passport, and little knowledge even of the London beyond his home neighbourhood—and Day makes interesting digressions into the link between parochialism and nationalism, under the spectre of Brexit.

But while the sport is in danger of dying out in the UK, it remains popular in Morocco and Poland. Immigrants bolster the clubs’ memberships and bring fresh enthusiasm to their ranks. Endlessly interesting and dazzlingly erudite, this wonderful book will make a home for itself in your heart.

Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return, by Jon Day (John Murray, £16.99)