I remember how, when I was still very young, my grandfather used to keep homing pigeons. He housed his prized birds in a purpose-built wooden cote he himself had meticulously constructed down behind his garden shed. On the second Sunday of every month, he would attend this special club he belonged to and race his pigeons against other enthusiasts.
The type of birds he owned were a specific breed called Racing Homers, amongst which his absolute stand-out favourite was a bird named George. George (or Georgie Boy) was a puffy-chested, dapple grey champion racer, who my grandfather lavished all of his spare time on. He’d fuss over him the way a young child might over her “very bestest” and most belovéd teddy bear.
“Come on, Georgie Boy, eat up,” he would coo. “You’ve got a race to win on Sunday!”
Believe me, it fascinated me no end.
I used to especially love to watch my grandfather whenever George took to the air. My grandfather’s face would always immediately light up, after which he would next whistle softly through his teeth.
Almost breathless with pride, he delighted in following the flight of his golden boy, Georgie, through the sky, tracking him through a pair of battered, old field glasses, until George eventually faded from sight. That bird meant everything to him. And my grandfather meant everything to me. So not surprisingly George held an almost legendary significance in my mind, while I was growing up.
All these years later, my grandfather’s hobby, in a not so roundabout way, I suppose, makes much more sense to me when viewed in light of the fact that he had served in the RAF, during WWII, having trained at a Commonwealth flight school, in Canada. Both he and his brother Keith flew Lancasters for bomber command. Only Keith never made it back home.
I didn’t know much about all this back then. But I did know how my grandfather flatly refused to travel absolutely anywhere at all by plane. And I am ashamed to admit that I can recall thinking how his refusal to fly seemed more like the act of a coward than a supposed war hero. I was just a kid, so what did I know?
What the hell did I know about being a twenty-something-year-old farm boy looking down at Dresden, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1945, as the Pathfinder flares started marking out the first civilian bomb sites? So far away from home and no longer sure there was anything much left of the world worth fighting for?
Please, forgive me.