No So Much A Hobby More A Way Of Life
I was in Patagonia gazing up at the Southern Cross trying hard to orientate myself in an immense place. No Plough, no North Star in that sky and no, I wasn’t lost. I was in the town of Calafate in Argentina; my hotel was in the next dusty street and I had my Silva compass with me. I had flown down from Buenos Aires, three and a half hours on a plane and I was still in the same country, having flown over Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire) and looked down upon the historic Beagle Channel, through which Charles Darwin sailed, and Magellan’s Strait before landing in Ushuaia the southernmost city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica, then turning north again to land in Rio Gallegos, the capital and largest settlement of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, at one time the main military airport from which the Falklands War, a mere four hundred miles offshore, was waged. Rio Gallegos is still very much a military city containing both army and air force bases.
Patagonia; Where Swift was said to have set his book “Gulliver’s Travels” because of its remoteness and it being known as “the land of giants,” as the natives were considerably bigger than the average Europeans of that time. Patagonia; Where there are said to be 5000 square metres of land available for every sheep, and there are lots of sheep! Is it any wonder that as I was gazing up at the night sky I was overcome by the immensity of the place and my insignificance in the greater scheme of things? I remember thinking “you’re a long way from home Adams,” (about 7000 miles), a grand title perhaps or maybe “a long way from Tay Street” would be better, for the book about my travels which I’ve never written and am now unlikely ever to do so.
I knew precisely why I was there. I had come primarily to see the Andean Condor and to listen to the music of the Andes and secondly for the pigeon racing. The TV programme “The Flight of the Condor” had planted the seed of going to Argentina in my mind and this had come pretty close to becoming an obsession, leading in time to me visiting South America for five or six successive years, but just how did I come to get there? What actually triggered the first visit off, and in turn, lead me to Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay (a frightening place where passports seemed to be neither here nor there and full Paraguayan citizenship, papers and all, was said to cost US$1000 and to be available the same day) Brazil, and almost into Bolivia, being put off by striking miners walking the streets carrying sticks of dynamite!
Well, like everything else in my life the answer lies in the world of pigeon racing. Mine has been a life lived in and around racing pigeons. Pigeons have made me what I am today, kept my feet on the ground and largely kept me sane in a barely understandable world. They have also led me to South Africa (to make a DVD on pigeon health with Dr Wim Peters) and even to Hong Kong where I went to watch the World Rugby Sevens competition at the instigation of an ex-rugby playing fancier friend of mine. The whole travelling thing began in Malta where I’d gone to see the pigeon scene there on my first ever flight, a means of transport which I’d assiduously avoided for years, being terrified of (and still not very keen on) the very idea of flying.
Joe had been invited to South America by telephone (whilst I was sat next to him in his home in Malta) in gratitude for his help and assistance in arranging things after the sudden death of the wife of an Argentinean pigeon fancier who was holidaying on the island. “But” he said to the caller, “I’ve got my friend, Rod from England, here with me right now.” “So bring him” said the voice. My wife would have loved that, me disappearing off into the far distance without any warning, so I took up the offer the year after, thanks entirely to my friend Joe.
South America is something else. Everything is different from what it is in the UK. The geography, the history, the customs, the people, the flora and fauna and as for the pigeon racing! Well, apart from the cocks being seemingly completely ineffective at racing and the hens doing all the winning, they have these “compass” races where you send four birds which go to four different races, all at the same distances, but one to each of the four compass directions, for simultaneous liberation, the winner being the person with the best average of the four timings. Any less than four being timed means that you are out!
As for long distance races, these abound at over 600 miles, north and south, but how about this. I watched a release from Brazil which shortly afterwards encountered a tropical storm, sheet lightening, torrential rain; the lot. Surprisingly one was timed the following morning and the owner got absolutely nothing! It was a two-bird race, you had to time in both birds – and nobody did! Incidentally racing north over the vast expanse of the pampas, where there is absolutely no cover, no hills, no trees, no windbreaks, just miles and miles of absolutely flat terrain, is not for the fainthearted! It is heads down and graft from dawn to dusk.
And if you think that kind of racing is strange I met a Namibian fancier in South Africa whose regular racing consisted of ringing up the only other three fanciers that he knew in that country (none of them closer to him than about 80 miles) every Friday night to decide what distance to go on the Saturday, Each then contacted a lorry driver and paid him to liberate his birds at an agreed distance, in whatever direction they happened to be going in, at an agreed time. The rest was simple, no clocks or anything, if you got a bird home you rang up the other three fanciers and if none of them had any birds back you won! As for the pooling system I have no idea about that. It’s a funny old world.
We all have our reasons for keeping pigeons in the first place and taking to racing them thereafter. My reason was quite simple. To escape what to me then was a depressing, unhappy, and overcrowded home in a run-down area; one where too many people stepped daily upon each other’s toes and feelings. I wanted out. I wanted something to call my own, that I didn’t have to share. I wanted space to think and space to rest. You try sleeping four to a bedroom, three boys and an uncle in two beds, one double, one single and I had the single!
Pigeons gave me a way out, first down the back garden, then to an allotment which rapidly became my second home. In retrospect my parents did their best in extremely difficult circumstances. At the time though I hated my home life and lacked any understanding at all of the problems my parents themselves had: Only my own mattered. I was not a dutiful son or a pleasant person to be with and far too introspective for my own good.
When I began racing proper and joined a real pigeon club the older fanciers, miners, shipyard and heavy industry workers and such like, became my family, my surrogate parents if you will. They undoubtedly helped me overcome my then sense of inferiority and inadequacy. They gave me not just pigeons and advice on how to fly them but much, much more than that. These men taught me all about life itself. Their friendship was unconditional. They cared nothing about the area where I lived, who my parents were, and even less about where I worked. I was who I was and that did them. It was not so much a hobby to them but more a way of life, and for a long time it was the only kind of life that I had too.
I consider myself fortunate indeed to have lived through what I consider to be the best years of conventional pigeon racing, the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and to have been tutored by and linked with some of the finest of men, for whom the sport was not the numbers game that it is now and who cared little about money, not all of them I admit, there were some small scale dealers even then, but money was not the be all and end all as it is in today’s world of one-loft and futurity racing that the sport appears to be turning into. These were traditional fanciers racing the time-honoured way, they were brilliant with it and I have long felt that I owe it to them to put something on record.
Taking off my rose-tinted glasses, which I admit to wearing now and then, this brings me to the motivation for my admittedly often nostalgic writings. In the absence of any central organised archive or website collection (apart from some published historic material, handbooks and various assorted records plus writings on the internet) it seems to me to be important that future generations be aware of these men, their pigeons and the often heroic performances of their birds. These men left their mark. Future generations must know who they were; that they existed as a force for life, and what they were about and this is one of the things that drive me to write. As J P Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country – they do things differently there.”The sport as my generation knew it is rapidly disappearing and needs to be remembered, which leads me rather nicely to my own efforts, for which you can blame Jane Asher, well her father Richard really.
Jane Asher was a rather attractive long-haired redhead (to this day I remain wary of redheads and still carry the mental scars from a close encounter with one in my youth, but that is another story) who was Paul Mc Cartney’s girl friend in the early sixties, until she allegedly caught him in bed with someone else, but it was her father Dr Richard Asher who really intrigued me, despite my then predilection for long-haired redheads! A haematologist and endocrinologist (with private consultancy rooms in Wimpole Street above where the family lived) he was also the physician in charge of a mental ward and described and named, amongst other things, the condition now known as Munchausen’s Syndrome. He was considered one of the foremost medical thinkers of his time and a quite brilliant writer of medical articles.
I used to sneak into the medical library at work when I was a very junior Laboratory Technician to read his articles in the foremost medical magazines of that time, such as “The Lancet” and “The British Medical Journal.” Articles that I struggled to understand and which required the use of a medical dictionary, but persevered with because of their logic and the quality of the writing. However it was an article that Richard Asher wrote on writing itself, “Aren’t I Lucky? I Can Write” which stuck, and remains still, in my mind.
In it his cardinal advice to aspiring writers was to write about what you know best. I know myself best of all which is why I write mostly about myself and my life, which, in effect, means writing about and around pigeons. Dr Asher outlined how to go about producing a finished article and not spoiling it by introducing change for changes sake, an easy thing to do. His advice was to draft an article out, amend it where necessary, then to polish it up and edit it until you were happy with it. After that he recommended throwing it into a drawer (this was in the pre-computer days) and forgetting about it for a few weeks. If upon re-reading it still seemed good to you then to go ahead and publish it. This is also what I try to do, but there is no drawer involved, just a computer file.
He reportedly died by his own hand aged 57 in 1969 after virtually retiring from active medical practice in 1964, deeply affronted when it was decreed by the powers that be that a qualified psychiatrist should assume responsibility for the mental observation ward that he had overseen for many years, and he suffered from depression in later life. I recently managed to obtain a rather battered second-hand copy of an anthology of his articles entitled “Talking Sense” and it was everything that I hoped it would be, even better for my understanding of its contents now being much greater than what it was when I first read the articles it contains. Everything comes to he who waits!
According to Lord Rosenheim (President of the Royal College of Physicians and Fellow of the Royal Society) Asher was “an eccentric in a world that was becoming increasingly uniform; he revelled in the clinical paradox and the unusual; delighted in poking fun at authority and pomposity; a modern Don Quixote.” Henry Miller, the Dean of Medicine and later Vice Chancellor at Newcastle University where I worked in the Medical School, a man that I was in absolute awe of (he was God to me) wrote about the “Talking Sense” book referring to it as “this valuable and continuously enjoyable anthology.” How could I have avoided being an out and out admirer of Dr Asher? And, of course, his daughter!
His article “The Dangers of Going to Bed” (challenging the value of excessive bed rest following treatment) was influential in changing the thinking prevailing at that time and “Is Your Prescription Really Necessary” still demands an answer.“Diseases Caused by Doctors” with its last line “if you can’t cure the patient of his disease. Give him another disease and cure that” (there is undoubtedly a partial truth in those words) is clear evidence of his willingness “to slaughter the sacred cows of medicine.” “Talking Sense” is a brilliant read – even after all these years. Here was a man who thought that medical writing should provide "useful, understandable, and practical knowledge” instead of “allotov-words-2-obscure-4-any-1-2-succidin-understanding-them” Such men always were, and always will be, thin on the ground.
Alfred Alexander Harper
Generations of bored medical students had turned the wooden lecture benches into something infinitely more interesting to read than the diagrams on the roller blackboards. Being at that time bottom of the heap I had the yearly job of cleaning the said benches with an abrasive pad otherwise, as my old Chief Technician used to say, “next year’s lot will have nowhere to write!”
Professor Alfred Alexander Harper, the first Professor that I ever worked for, was an autocrat of the old school. He was a tall, immaculately dressed, austere, and aloof man. When he said jump you jumped, and quickly, absolutely no ifs and buts! The entry in the bound edition of “Who’s Who” prominently displayed on his bookshelf listed him as “the man who discovered the enzymes Pancreozymin and Cholecystokinin .” The benches in Lecture Theatre No 3 told a different story. “And Alfred said let there be Pz/Cck and lo, there was Pz/Cck!”
Regardless of how those enzymes came to be discovered he employed me as a Junior Technician in December 1954 and when he was eventually put out to grass as an Emeritus Professor of Physiology I was his Chief Technician, thanks entirely to his good offices. His word was law. If he said he would promote you, you got promoted. No messing about with the University Finance Dept. for him.
A lifelong bachelor he lived in a crumbling old mansion house just outside Newcastle city centre and was looked after by a fearsome housekeeper. A truly formidable woman who had driven heavy lorries in the Second World War and who had once cooked for Winston Churchill! I am still waiting for my first cup of tea from her, and as for being made comfortable when I arrived at the Prof’s house; I never got past the hallway.
Prof Harper had no time for any sporting activities, especially cricket. “Saw this Bradman chap once, playing in a test match. Cricket is an awfully boring game. Slept on the grass for most of the afternoon” and could never understand why I kept and raced pigeons. In his book they were only of interest when served up on a plate! He taught me how to extract Pz from pig intestines which “we”, the royal “we,” as he never ever entered the abattoir, that we used to collect our source material from. It was in fact the local slaughterhouse to which we went every Monday.
My extracts never worked as well as his. To this day it is my firm belief that this was due, not to any superior technique or extensive experience on his part, but to the ash from his ever present cheroot which regularly dropped into the extract as he coughed his way through the various procedures, which took about a week, and yielded only milligram amounts of enzyme! To him, in the beginning, I was his “lab boy”, to me he was God.
He would sweep regally, fully gowned, tasselled mortar board firmly on his head, into Lecture Theatre No.3 (he would use no other) precisely on the stroke of the hour and finish exactly sixty minutes later. Students arriving after him were not allowed in, it was my job to keep them out, and questions were never asked of him when he finished. Nobody dared!
Even the power cuts of the early seventies weren’t allowed to interfere with his lectures. In walks “Fred” as the medics called him, but never within earshot, looming over a candle-holder. A hundred students huffed and puffed as one to try and blow it out. It was a fine sight! Unperturbed, he droned away in his peculiar nasal voice discovering, only when the lights finally came on that all the students, bar the front row which he could just see, had silently filed out of the back door well before he finished.
The man wasn’t without humour. He simply didn’t show it that often. “Where did you come from boy” he demanded of a latecomer to one of his lectures as the lad stood there frozen to the spot, only too aware of his fellow students relishing his obvious embarrassment “Norway” the confused lad replied. “A long way” said Fred kindly “do sit down.”
He had the only carpeted room in the building and despaired of the mess that the pigeon muck from my shoes made each time I entered. I rapidly became a dab hand with a vacuum cleaner. It was that or my job! Formal dress was the order of the day. Jeans were taboo. I must have been the best dressed pigeon man in South Shields. I normally went straight from the loft to work in a dark suit, white shirt and tie complete with furled umbrella and briefcase. And wearing my best shoes, with well polished uppers, the soles of course always with their full with a full complement of pigeon droppings.
There were no half measures with “Fred.” The last of a dying breed of autocratic University Professors it was a privilege to work for him. He surprised me by presenting me with a book when he retired, a book which I still have. The dedication on the flyleaf was addressed to his “Bird-man.” It was signed “Professor A. A. Harper.” I never, ever, called him anything but that. Only one man in the whole building did.
Dr Nolan Wynne taught pharmacology in the days before a pharmacology department existed. I adored that little stubby man, with the sad moustache and his disrespectable ways with other academics, especially Prof. Harper. “I’d like a word, are you busy Nolan” said the Prof. peering in the door as Dr Wynne and I hunched over the operating table? Dr Wynne looked up at him over his half-moon spectacles, “what do you think I’m doing Fred” he snorted “riding a bloody bike!” He was the only member of staff who ever spoke to the Prof. in the way that he did. I never understood how he got away with it, but it was great fun to see him do so and he fast became a hero of mine.
When, as promised, Prof. Harper made me Chief Technician at the age of 26, I inherited the recently retired old Chief’s room, a short walk down the corridor from the inner sanctum from which the Prof. as Head of Department ruled the Physiology Department with an iron rod. No detail was too trivial for him not to want to involve himself, as I soon was to find out, big style! He personally queried and signed every order that I had written out, no matter how insignificant the amount, be it chemicals or electronic components, scientific glassware or departmental repair bills.
I soon realised that there were things that he knew nothing about, such as electronics and used to tell him the first thing that came in to my head whenever, as he often did, he queried what a particular catalogue number was. He never looked up from the order book. A grunt and it was signed. Our relationship soon became formalised. I knew precisely what to expect from him and exactly where I stood. I was still his “lab-boy” and that had to change. My predecessor had been just that, one of the old school who had come up through the ranks largely untaught and had come to accept his status in the Prof’s eyes as a “lab-boy” made good, even though he was the Chief Technician. That was just not on. I had a point to make.
The opportunity soon presented itself. Prof. Harper had a push-button on the side of his desk which he pressed whenever he wanted Albert, my predecessor. A bell would ring in the room now occupied by me and Albert would drop whatever he was doing and literally run to the Prof’s room. I wasn’t prepared to subject myself to the degree of unspoken ridicule that this reaction of Albert’s duly received from all and sundry.
You cannot imagine how unreliable that push-button system became. The number of unexplained failures it suffered, short circuits, transformer failure, broken wires, and even a loose clapper on the bell itself. My workshop technicians, whom I got on very well with, were in on my scheme and offered up all manner of excuses as to why the bell had failed whenever the Prof. asked them to fix it.
Finally I stuffed the bell casing with cotton wool and asked the boys to report this act of sabotage to the Professor. Of course I knew nothing about it and the Prof. and I eventually arrived at an unspoken agreement. If the Prof. wanted me he would use the telephone. He knew what was going on and he knew that I knew that he knew. Of such manoeuvrings are working relationships forged.
Fred “Basher” Grey was an inspirational schoolteacher who came into my young life when I was a little over 10 years old. In retrospect he was best thing that ever happened to me. He was my English teacher at Grammar School, the man who instilled into me my love of birds, literature, poetry, the English language, music, and life. It still fills me with great pride that nearly 30 years later, at the wedding of Fred’s youngest daughter my own two daughters were bridesmaids, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Almost the first thing I did outside the school curriculum was join the Bird Club run by Fred. During the oiled sea-bird surveys of the early fifties, at Fred’s instigation, I pounded the beaches, on a regular basis each and every weekend. My first encounter with Mr Grey, as I then called him, came when he lined us all up in two lines on the sports field, matched opposite each other on our heights and weight, and taught us how to rugby tackle each other. I can still recall his words “If you tackle anyone correctly, below the knees, no matter how big they are, they’ll go down.”
Fred, you see, had been a notable rugby player as well as a keen boxer, and had the nose to prove it! Combine that with his physique (we used to watch him working out in the gym) and his clipped military-style moustache and it is easy to see how he got the nickname “Basher” though I never once saw him dish out any corporal punishment. Many years later he was to tell me, in regard to young teachers having trouble controlling their pupils that “if you can’t control them by your presence alone then you’re in the wrong job.” Fred wasn’t!
He had a weakness for Toblerone chocolate and regularly extracted me out of one of his colleague’s maths classes, “I need a word with young Adams. Now if you don’t mind”, to nip down to the shops for some. I could move quite fast in those days, and besides he also gave me enough money to buy something for myself. Money was something that my parents were invariably a bit short of. In passing I got top marks in English language and literature but failed maths miserably!
It was Fred who volunteered to “deal with young Adams” when the headmaster received a complaint from a nearby resident about the theft of apples from his back garden, adjacent to the sports field. To this day I don’t know who grassed on me. Fred had me on the carpet in the staff room but merely said. “My house, tonight at 6pm, and bring your haversack with you, here’s the address.”
He took me into his back garden and told me to take all the apples that I could carry and when I’d filled my haversack and saddlebag he put his hand on my shoulder and said kindly, “See Rod, there’s really no need to steal at all.”It was the first time he’d ever addressed me as Rod. From that day on I was a regular visitor to his home. I was even allowed to sit his youngest daughter on my knee and amuse her when he was busy with other matters. She now lives in a house just up the road from me.
Fred taught me many things, in his gentle, wise way, usually in practical terms. Once on a school outing to Alnmouth to do some sea watching he loaned me his old brass Broadhurst and Clarkson telescope to look at a far away Red Throated Diver and asked if I could see it clearly enough. To save face I said yes but in fact I couldn’t see anything at all. He leaned over and said in a voice that my classmates couldn’t hear, “Its better Rod if you take the lens cap off.” It was.
After leaving school I drifted away from bird-watching and concentrated on the pigeons, returning to my ornithological roots after I got married, but I had kept in touch with Fred by letter. Each of my letters was a work of art, checked and double checked for spelling and grammar. It was almost like doing my homework as a boy, and I half expected them back marked “6/10. See me!” Fred’s replies were notes, almost in shorthand. Many years later I raised the subject with him. His reply was short and to the point “I’m old enough” he said “not to have to practice what I preach if and when I feel like it.”
I remember that on one of our outings, where I was the climber-in-chief for all nests above his reach, he asked me to “loup ower that fence Rod” and being hugely amused when he saw me staring at him, and him a teacher of English! Of course to me, long after I’d left school, he was still Mr Grey. “How long have we known each other Rod” he asked. We were sleeping rough in a disused farmhouse down in Norfolk at the time and he was standing before me in his vest and non too clean bird-watching trousers, “about 20 years” I said, he nodded and said “don’t you think you should call me Fred by now.” My reply was automatic “right Mr Grey.” I never really got used to addressing him as Fred.
I came back into Fred’s sphere of influence when I joined a Workers Educational Association ornithology class that he ran shortly after I got married. It was if I’d never been away. The bird- watching clicked smoothly back into place and has never left me, my dual hobbies slotting nicely into place with each other. Autumn, winter and early spring was for the birds and late spring and summer was for the pigeons.
Fred, besides being a gifted teacher and an excellent bird watcher, wrote a weekly column in the local newspaper and was an excellent speaker who could communicate easily with people at all levels of society. We were on a trip down to Peter Scott’s Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge on the Severn Estuary, when the camper van we were using broke down in Coventry. It was a cold, rainy morning as we emptied the important stuff out of the van in readiness for our journey home by rail, so we took cover in a bus shelter. Fred got out the camping stove and proceeded to cook breakfast for the three of us.
Local commuters started arriving for the bus. They must have smelled the bacon well before they got to the shelter to be greeted most cordially by this well spoken man wielding the frying pan whilst his two cohorts stood nearby munching on their bacon sandwiches “Good morning” Fred would say to each new arrival. “Do come in. Would you like a bacon sandwich?” Being English the locals crammed into one corner of the shelter and pretended we weren’t there. All except one young lad who I last saw on board the bus, sandwich in hand and waving furiously to us as it turned a corner. I can still smell that bacon.
Fred taught at the Grammar School for 38 years, for most of that time as Head of the English Department. Upon retiring he moved to the outskirts of the town and led a full and active life until his death at the age of 86. Generations of boys have had cause to consider themselves lucky to have been taught by him and a group of ex-pupils from all over the UK gathered together to celebrate the life of this most remarkable of men. I didn’t go, although I really wanted to be there. I felt that I couldn’t do him justice. He mattered more to me than my father ever did and that says it all. I wasn’t going to make any speeches about that.
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