I don’t have to tell you that 2020 was an annus horribilis. In May, a few weeks or so after the first lockdown in the UK, I was sitting in my garden, contemplating the suffering that the year had inflicted on me, and anticipating the torments to come. I had just finished a year of gruelling treatments for my prostate cancer. The hormone treatment and radiotherapy were accepted with abounding good cheer but the indignity of colonoscopy – or what my nurse described as ‘camera up your back passage’ – was too much. During my first examination, the surgeon, who turned out to be Turkish, repeatedly urged me to ‘relax, relax’. After his umpteenth exhortation, I couldn’t help exclaim: ‘how can I relax? You have got an iron rod up my arse!’. He managed to control his laughter so as not to disturb the procedure. ‘If you put it that way’, he said, ‘then don’t relax’. At the beginning of the year, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. It was in my genes I discovered. And if this wasn’t enough, I have, as a Robbie Williams song has it, bags under my eyes and am getting on a bit. As we know, Coronaviruses are ageist. As such, our pestiferous government classified me as ‘vulnerable’ and decreed that I should be ‘shielding’.
So, there I was, ‘shielding’ in my garden, self-flagellating myself, even though I am not Shia, self-isolating from the rest of humanity, when a flock of pigeons landed right in front of me. It was much, much larger than the usual number that grace my patch. They jumped, they flapped, and flew around the garden in circular formations. A feeding frenzy occurred when I threw a handful of seeds; it triggered a couple of memories. My memory, a source of pride for me in my heyday, is not what it used to be. Nowadays, it is prompted by certain observations or events. But before I could begin my reminiscence, my elder son scolded me. ‘Stop feeding the pigeons, Dad’, he shouted. ‘They are vermin. Like rats and cockroaches. They will leave their droppings all over the place’. I said nothing and quietly returned to my swing seat.
It is, I think, a calumny to describe pigeons as vermin. Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories branded them ‘rats with wings’. A colossal injustice. Vermin, by definition, spread diseases, cause harm to crops and livestock, and can actually kill people. Who has ever heard of death by pigeon? Pigeons are in fact delightful creatures. As John McEwen points out in The Oldie, a rag I am devoted to, pigeons ‘can be radiantly plumaged and are wonderful flyers. They clean the streets of takeaway scraps and are a perpetual amusement: in London they travel by tube and stop the traffic by using the zebra crossing in Regent’s Park. For many of us they are our closet bird and we take comfort from their crooning companionship’. There are around 300 varieties and hybrids, including fantail, tumblers and carrier and racing pigeons, and the one we are most familiar in our urban conurbations, the feral, wild or city pigeon. They are our earliest companions and were domesticated before cats and dogs. Indeed, our most ancient and abiding relationships are with pigeons, going back to the Sumerians, who flourished between c. 4100-1750 BCE, and who first house-trained them. Pigeons provided our original postal service, which even played an important part during the two world wars – well illustrated by the permanent exhibition at Bletchley Park’s Pigeons at War display. How many rats and cockroaches can do that?