The book climaxes with the end of the Thurso Classic. Twelve hours after the race has begun, flyers all over London wait in deckchairs in their gardens, hawk-eyed and ready to time in their birds with tamper-proof clocks. A pigeon race, as flyers say, has “one starting gate but a thousand finishing lines”. No spoilers, but this big-hearted and quietly gripping book has one very satisfying finishing line.
Homing thinks quietly, carefully and insistently about where we are now. Day explains that pigeon-racing is a dying subculture in Britain, tending to be something practised by increasingly elderly men – but perhaps all is not lost. “The immigrants are keeping it alive”, admits one flyer. “I think it reminds them of home.” The book’s quiet optimism about our ability to change, and to learn to love small things passionately, will stay with me for a long time. How perfect it is that pigeons offer us a way of thinking about home that is free from appeals to race and history, political boundaries and exclusion. As they grow, they learn to be at home, and will make any place their own.
Day beautifully interweaves the twin threads of his life through these years, as he settles down with his partner and starts a family, while at the same time training his birds to fly ever further away. The book is awash with historical and literary detail, and moving moments: when pushing his daughter on the swings at the park and battling fatherly anguish at the speed she is growing up, she tells him: “I want to go as high as the pigeons.”... When his children grow older, Day reflects, they will no doubt be “deeply embarrassed” by their father’s hobby. But for now, the author, his birds and brood reside happily alongside one another in the intangible bliss he calls home. This wonderful book captures so much of what that word means.
Homing eschews the descriptions of beautiful landscapes and wildlife that we’re so used to in the works of Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and John Lewis-Stempel, and yet this is nature writing at its best. Here, canal towpaths and discarded used condoms are portrayed as beautifully as any description of an idyllic, countryside scene. In taking pigeons — a species reviled by most humans — he gives life to the underbelly of London, brings light to the squalor and litter, the nesting coots and pigeon shit. Day is clearly on a journey to find a sense of belonging in the often indifferent city, at a time when his life is changing and grounding him. But he takes us with him. I never expected to learn so much about the homing pigeon, and to have developed a newfound respect for the common feral one.
The parallels between human and bird life never feel laboured, and there are numerous passages startling for their insight and emotional honesty. These domestic chapters are intercut with shorter, more fanciful sections, in which Day recreates an epic race that his birds undertake from Thurso in the north of Scotland back to London. These are literal flights of imagination, in which Day seeks to slough off human consciousness, to enter as fully as possible the arduous existence of the pigeons he has come to love... Homing is a highly literary book, dense with quotes from the likes of Sebald and Solnit, Perec and Henry Green. That Day’s own prose does not feel out of place amid such exalted company gives you an idea of what a very good book this is.
His book makes for a vivid evocation of a remarkable species and a rich working-class tradition. It’s also a charming defence of a much-maligned bird, which will make any reader look at our cooing, waddling, junk-food-loving feathered friends very differently in future.