Literary Review review: ‘Homing – On Pigeons, Dwellings, And Why We Return’, Jon Day (John Murray, 2019)

A memoir of pigeon-keeping and middle-class life in flux, Jon Day’s Homing is a sort of P Is For Pigeon, diligently if somewhat bloodlessly filling out the template set by Helen Macdonald in exploring the wild and the tame, home and family, flight and return. It’s never compelling but often interesting.

Day, a literary critic and lecturer by trade, takes up pigeon racing in a fit of hipster amateurism (adding to a subgenre that also includes startup beekeeper Helen Jukes’s recent A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings); at the same time, he and his pregnant partner Natalya settle into a new home in not-quite-gentrified Leyton, east London, with their young daughter Dora. These strands are interwoven in the approved manner with potted histories, pigeon lore, and forays into relevant literature.

A crisis in the strimmer aisle of a B&Q shortly before his daughter’s birth (‘an overwhelming fear of just how small our life was about to become’) triggers in Day ‘a vague and manic wanderlust’, which eventually expresses itself in the purchase of a pair of racers, ‘Eggy’ and ‘Orange’, at a Blackpool fanciers’ convention. He proceeds to build a team of a dozen birds, and the narrative moves at a comfortable pace towards an epic race from Thurso on the north-west tip of Scotland – only to be torpedoed by Day, gently, bathetically and rather beautifully, in the last chapter.

The stalwart pigeon-men of Day’s local club provide a companionable chorus. They are mostly likeable and largely interchangeable; Day presents them to the reader somewhat at arm’s length, studiedly noncommittal, and we wonder if these men are his friends, or colleagues, or useful props, or what (when we learn in the afterword that the colourful pest-controller ‘Tony’ (‘his hair was ratty brown, his eyes deep black and rodent-like…’) is in fact ‘a composite’, we might wonder which of them even exist as described).

Day’s stories from the history of human-pigeon relations are well-chosen and well-told (though Homing inevitably circles a lot of the same landmarks as Andrew Blechman’s 2006 Pigeons). We learn about the role of messenger pigeons in the foundation of the Reuters news agency and about Julius Neubronner’s early-20th-century experiments in using pigeons in aerial photography. As Day again and again awaits the return of his own pigeons to their Leyton loft, he ranges intelligently through philosophies of home (Heidegger, Sebald, Solnit, Donna Haraway, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and the idea of homesickness (once known as ‘the Swiss disease’ because of its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries). Day’s education in the hands-on business of actually keeping and racing the birds introduces him to the hard-nosed ‘widowhood method’, whereby cock pigeons are kept apart from their mates and chicks in order to encourage them to return home more speedily.

It’s to Day’s credit that he isn’t blind to the gendered components of his quixotic pigeon-fancying quest (modern nature writing has familiarised us with the amplification of the male voice, dreaming of flight, adventure, freedom from the domestic). ‘Was I, free as I was to indulge in my obsessions… while Natalya stayed at home, just another agent of the social structures [Charlotte Perkins] Gilman had sought to do away with?’ he asks himself. Relatedly, his few modest lines on class – ‘we colonised it with our bicycles and children and love of ruination and minimalist Scandinavian design’ he says of Leyton – are really the least we should expect in a book on a pursuit as resolutely working-class as pigeon racing.

Day writes really well on the anxieties of freedom – something of which parenthood, as much as pigeon-keeping, makes him acutely aware – and makes a good job of reimagining the world from a pigeon’s perspective. His perky amateurishness sometimes engages and sometimes exasperates (at one point he seems to mistake a peregrine for a sparrowhawk, like a sort of reverse JA Baker); the tone of careful neutrality – by no means unique to Day in modern non-fiction – can also sometimes frustrate, never more than when he engages with the fringe science of Rupert Sheldrake (‘the question of whether or not he was correct did not seem particularly important; it was as metaphor that I was most interested in the notion of morphic resonance’).

There is, inevitably, a story of personal development picked out here in among the pigeon facts and pigeon shit; it feels a bit contrived and won’t shake anyone’s world but it is gently heartwarming, as Day concludes: ‘I had thought that in order to understand what home was, I needed to depart from it. But as [his baby son] Ivo grew, I realised I had been at home for a long time already, even if I had never quite realised it until then.’ Really this is a simple book telling a simple tale, and there’s a great deal to like in the simple imagery of a young family and their pigeons, growing up together in an east London home – whatever ‘home’ means.

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