October 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Homing truths

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Craig and Jarrod Boord are in their studio showing me footage of their film, Fast, Feathered and Fearless – a full-length feature documentary about pigeon racing.

Onscreen, a middle-aged man is standing in front of a pigeon loft. “My name is Carlo Napolitano,” he says proudly, absently stroking a pigeon. “I race racing pigeons. Her Majesty the Queen of England’s racing pigeons.” We’re on the grounds of Sandringham Castle, England. The camera pans over a sideboard packed with trophies, ribbons and a framed photograph of Carlos and Her Majesty. “I got the job because I used to compete against the Queen, and I was quite successful.”

Craig hits fast forward. “He’s the loft manager for the Queen,” he explains. “The pigeon estate is right next to her horse estate. She apparently drops around to have a cuppa and a chat about the birds.”

“We’re heading to the States next,” Jarrod says, “to Texas, where there is a lot of money in it. Well, there are a lot of people with money in it.” (Rumour has it that George Bush’s neighbour owns a $6 million pigeon loft.) “And we’re going to Thailand,” Jarrod continues. “That should be interesting – they yell a lot more there.”

Nestled on shelves among piles of paper and a tin toy collection, I spy a “Best Documentary” award the brothers won at the 2010 St Kilda Film Festival for Little Ripper, an 18 minute short on pigeon racing in Australia. This time, with Fast, Feathered and Fearless, they’re going global. They have sourced pigeon-flyers from all over the world to feature in the documentary; Belgium, apparently, is “pigeon central”.

“We met the four-time world champion there,” Craig says, shaking his head. “He’s got trophies that are bigger than a small child. He sells birds that haven’t even been born yet.”

The Boord brothers grew up in rural Victoria, in the small community of Lurg. “I came home with the video camera from school,” Craig begins, before Jarrod takes over in the enthused, sentence-finishing manner of close siblings.

“He handed it to me and said, ‘Right, we’re going to make a motorbike video, and you can shoot it while I star in it —”

“Of course it was motorbikes! I mean, film what you know about, right?”

Craig was 16, Jarrod 11. “He said, ‘You can be cameraman,’” Jarrod continues. “It’s the same story now. I’m still carrying the bloody thing!”

The brothers didn’t keep pigeons when they were young but they knew locals who did. The potential of the story occurred to Craig at university when he was studying film-making. “I’d always loved competition animals and thought I’d go out and shoot a doco about them. At first the pigeon guys were quite secretive about their strategies but eventually they got used to us. You’ll see in the film that nobody’s too concerned about the camera being there.”

“They just ignore us now,” says Jarrod happily. We’re now watching footage they shot last night at the Victorian Homing Association HQ. It’s a hive of activity: purposeful people carting around boxes and wicker baskets, calling out figures to each other, stowing pigeons into walls of cages prior to a race. One guy pulls out an instrument that looks like it’s designed to decapitate but instead it snaps a tiny rubber ring around a proffered pigeon’s extended foot; the handler strokes the bird gently.

We watch as the pigeons are taken out of their baskets, rubber rings on, their numbers registered. The owners are directed to their cages, the birds placed inside. The pigeons calmly peer through the wicker with bright, scarlet eyes.

“Do you reckon the birds know what’s going on?” I ask.

“They’re definitely smart. This is the seventh race of the season, so they’re probably thinking: ‘How far are we going this time?’ Definitely. Very smart.”

“They don’t seem so super-smart on the city streets,” I add unwisely. The brothers react as though I’ve made an embarrassing gaffe.

“Oh, different bird,” Jarrod explains. “Pigeon-flyers get pretty defensive about that. Their birds are not street peckers, which are pretty ratty birds. I mean, look at these shots of the racing pigeons in flight.” Jarrod points to footage of beautiful, graceful birds on the wing against a fleecy expanse of sky. “You do the same with the street birds, and they’d be missing legs or have fleas, lice, club feet …”

“Two club feet!” Craig is laughing.

“No, these are elite racing animals,” finishes Jarrod emphatically. “Very different bird.”

Something grey flies past the studio window, flapping onto the terrace, and we glance up. “Dove,” says Craig, definitively.

We drink tea and continue watching: the old wooden clocks still used to record birds’ flights; an elderly man, surrounded by crates of birds, polishing off a meat pie. “It’s migrants who’ve brought the sport with them to Australia. There are so many old Greeks in the sport,” Jarrod explains. “And guys from Hungary, Lebanese guys, Dutch.” He believes pigeon racing is universal because anyone can do it. “When they came here as migrants with nothing, they could still get a bird and fly it – it costs nothing. A bit of feed, that’s it.”

Craig agrees: “It doesn’t matter where you are in the social hierarchy, whether you’re the Queen or the guy on the dole, you can still race each other. In horseracing, you need to be part of the elite to race against the Queen, or play polo, or whatever. With pigeons, it’s different.”

“They’re like blue-collar racehorses,” says Jarrod. “Working people’s racehorses.”

Craig passes round a plate of salad rolls. We eat and watch. Ready to race, the pigeons burst from the cages like bats from a cave, hundreds and hundreds of them spilling into the air with a soundtrack of gentle acoustic guitar.

“It keeps lots of the younger guys at home, this sport,” says Jarrod. “Instead of being at the pub on Saturday afternoon drinking with their mates, they’re at home with their families, waiting for the birds to come back in.”

The pigeons pour from their cages into the sky with hundreds of kilometres of flying ahead of them, their flapping wings like a round of applause. In an empty sky, the birds soar into bright invisible currents of air, spiralling in loops that look like strands of DNA. With the melancholy strum of the guitar, we witness them somehow sense which direction to start off. We are transfixed. I watch the Boord brothers; their eyes don’t move from the screen.

“That’s the fundamental thing,” Jarrod says finally, as Craig nods. “It’s all about home.”

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

Cover: October 2010

October 2010

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