The Enfield Blazers

Some normal men and some fancy pigeons.

‘If you want to buy a good pigeon,’ a small man in his early sixties, wearing a flat cap and a tropical shirt tells me, ‘you have to come to my house.’

‘Oh yeah? OK,’ I reply in a tone that I really hope indicates I won’t be doing that.

‘They’re the best of the best,’ he continues.

‘Is there no competition for you?’

‘You ask everybody, yeah – they know Fast Eddy.’

‘Fast Eddy?’

‘Fast Eddy, that’s what they call me.’


‘If you say, “I went to see Fast Eddy’s house”, then they know what I have.’

My friend, a photographer, and I have been interested in pigeon fancying for some time. Now, after several months of investigation, one missed meet-up and two hours on buses and trains, we’ve arrived in Enfield for a pigeon fanciers’ meet, or the very end of one. The space we’re in is the dead end of a small alleyway next door to a ramshackle café off the canal, covered by corrugated plastic to shelter us from the drizzle.

Most of the men (it’s all men) are packing up, but there are still a dozen with hutches containing the fanciest pigeons – white, grey and iridescent green, black, reddish brown. Many have a magnificent cornicing of feathers around their feet, which are Uzbek Tumblers and Bokhara Trumpeters (originally from Russia); others have tails splayed like fans – fantails. All of these ostentatious birds are descendants of the rock dove, which is the common pigeon to you and me.

In less than 30 minutes of being here, I’ve declined a Dunhill and a fishing trip from an old man, a lift to another pigeon show and a four-bedroom house from John, and a free pigeon from Fast Eddy. I’m tired. I walk to the back for a break. There’s a quiet man who has been standing, tending his pigeons. ‘This is beautiful,’ I say, ‘this black and white one.’

‘It’s from Uzbekistan,’ he replies, ‘far away.’

His name is Vas. He talks to us about the pigeons, and only the pigeons.

When he says he has hundreds more at his house, he doesn’t ask if we want to come and see them. So we ask.

A month later we arrive at Vas’s home. His wife is understandably confused by our presence as Vas guides us around to a courtyard with a large, hand-built shed – his pigeon loft. He was born in Kazakhstan and started keeping pigeons when he was four, inspired by his uncle. When his family moved to an apartment in Greece there was no room for his pigeons. He moved to the UK two years ago, where he works as a builder, and this is the first time he’s had the space to keep pigeons in 23 years.

Pigeon fancying became popular in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. It was a cheap sport of ‘release and escape’ for factory workers, Dickens proclaimed. But pigeon fancying is at risk of dying out in the UK, and as Jon Day concluded in his memoir Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return, its existence here is bolstered by immigrants like Vas and Fast Eddy. Fancying is more popular in the north-east, but even there fanciers say that Brexit, avian flu and disinterest from the younger generation mean that the sport is on the wane. At the meet there was only one British guy. Everyone else was Albanian, Iranian, Spanish, Polish, Pakistani, Siberian and Kazakhstani.

‘In here,’ Vas gestures with his head and unlocks the door. Inside, it’s floor-to-ceiling pigeons, all meticulously separated into different sections, three metres high and the same width. There are hundreds of pigeons. Some flap their wings, releasing particles of dust which contain a protein that, after years of inhalation, can give you ‘pigeon fanciers’ lung’, with symptoms akin to asthma. We stand engulfed by the sound of flapping, the cheeping of newborn chicks and a constant baseline cooing.

‘This is my whole collection,’ Vas says proudly, holding chicks whose eyes barely open.

‘How many are in here?’

‘I never counted.’ We estimate there must be around 300. Vas says that his pigeons are all ‘expensive’ – £170–260 each. That means there are between £50,000–78,000 worth of pigeons sitting in this 3m x 3m loft.

Pigeon fancying isn’t just a hobby, it’s the science of breeding and domestication, and has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. The qualities Vas looks for in birds are clear or original colouring, short beak, strong neck and a straight head. ‘This one is Turkish, it’s rare,’ he says, pulling out its wing so we can see the span. ‘This one is its brother.’ They are both black and iridescent. The shimmer of green on the black is ‘very hard to get,’ he says. ‘You have to mix it seven or eight times – white, black, yellow – all colours! You mix it to come green. But you have to know how to pair them, which colours are going to make it right. It takes years so you have to be patient: this one it takes seven, eight years to make his colour.’

Now we understand why they’re so expensive.

‘And this one is my baby – I make this colour,’ he says proudly of a white-and-black one with iridescence. ‘When I send her picture to the Kazakhstan pigeons’ group everyone says, “That one is the English Queen”.’

We go outside and dozens fly out with us into the winter sky. Vas whistles and claps as birds wheel around the buildings and then return to their perch. Fortunately for British pigeon fancying, he will always keep pigeons now – he has too many to stop. ‘I feel I have to have them always near me,’ he says, surrounded by his cooing, prancing and tumbling descendants of the rock dove

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