Homing by Jon Day – Review
By Barney Bardsley
Birds are fascinating creatures – full of flight and fancy and song. Delightful to watch in the garden, or out in the wild on the wing, it is not hard to see why one might dedicate a life, or at least a hobby, to the pursuit of them.
In 2014, Helen Macdonald wrote a stunning memoir, H is for Hawk, detailing her relationship with one particular hawk called Mabel, whose ferocious beauty captivated her heart – and that of the reader – whilst helping her deal with the devastating grief at the loss of her father. Something of the savagery of the bird, mirrored the savage emotions Macdonald was feeling: and through that mirroring, she was healed.
In his new book, Homing, Jon Day has a rather different, bird-related mission. It is not raw grief that he explores here – although loss does loom large in his story – but the quest for belonging, the search for home. In all our journeys, our leaving and returning, how and where do we find our place as human beings, safe and contented in our own skin?
The birds which help him in this endeavour are about as far from the wild hawk in temperament and habit as you could get. His particular bird of choice, is the common or garden racing pigeon.
“Colourful patchwork of information”
As a young boy, growing up in London, Day used to rescue the feral pigeons he found injured in the streets of his neighbourhood. It planted a seed of affection for these much-maligned creatures. So, when he becomes a father, and sets about trying to find a home for his young family, in a seemingly bleak and unyielding part of east London, it is the pigeons he turns to again, for solace and distraction. The arcane and unglamorous world of pigeon fancying slowly draws him in.
After acquiring a fledgling brood of his own, he sends them off on their first long-distance race, from Thurso, the most northerly town on the British mainland, to their loft down in Leyton, east London. The narrative of the race, interwoven with his own personal and family story, forms the framework of his unusual and appealing memoir.
What unfolds, as he writes, is an intriguing and colourful patchwork of information: not just about the lifestyles, habits and abilities of these clever homing birds, and their – frankly obsessed – owners; but also the wider philosophical and scientific ramifications of this mysterious man-to-bird relationship.
The myth of Odysseus. The theories of Freud. The history of the bird as messenger, in the developing evolution of humanity. All is touched on here, lightly, but with erudition. The author is a well-read man and a deep thinker. And oh, how he loves his pigeons!
The quest for the perfect racing pigeon, Day discovers, is not just a classic competitive drive. It is also bound up with notions of journey: the longing to get away, versus the atavistic need to get back home again.
“Homes,” he muses, as he wrestles with his own ambivalence towards becoming a family man, “provide the still stable point around which our thoughts and lives can orbit. But they are also thresholds: places we must depart from before we can fully understand what they mean.”
The racing pigeon is a fitting metaphor for this contradictory process: learning, as it grows, to roam further and and further from its loft, whilst all the while driven to do one essential thing – return to the place it came from. Back to the roost.
Although the cooing of the wood pigeon reminds me fondly and profoundly of the home I grew up in, where they flew and nested in a neighbouring orchard, humming their throaty melodies all the while, I am, I confess, no fan of pigeons in general.
I associate them with mess and torpor. And if the ones in my own garden are anything to go by, waddling lazily across the grass, shitting profusely, and gobbling all the seed left out for the tinier and much prettier birds, then my reservations have some basis in reality.
But Jon Day has helped me confront my own prejudices. He has done a fine job in exposing the homing pigeons’ particular artistry and skill, and is touchingly honest about how his birds have taught him to stop being so restless, to settle down, as a father, and in his own new family. Waiting for the birds to fly back to the loft, he finally realises that “it was the return that matters: journeys, I began to see, were often just excuses to come back home.”
‘Homing: On pigeons, dwellings, and why we return’ by Jon Day is published by John Murray, £16.99