The nature of roller flight is fascinating. I don't know very much about pigeons, so I am ready to be corrected on this. But what I remember is that rollers have some genetic dooberry of the inner ear that makes them imbalance, send their heads over their backs so they cease flying and drop, somersaulting, towards the ground, before the functional fit stops and they right themselves back into normal flight. I’ve always found the sight of a rolling pigeon strangely disturbing: it looks too much, to me, as if they’ve been shot. But perhaps that’s why they are here. As if the whole point of this artificial selection was to show pigeons cheating death, day after day after day. Pigeon-breeders reinscribing a defeat over mortality: little feathered souls falling, righting, and winning. One in the eye for god.
What I didn’t know then was that part of the art of breeding roller pigeons is to ensure you produce birds that don’t roll too deep. This bird was not one of these. All the other youngsters were fine, but this one was wrong. It rolled down and hit the concrete drive, right at my feet. Hit with an audible smack like a handclap, bounced, hit the ground again, and went into a fit of agonised wingbeats, beak opening and closing, gasping for air. And then it was still. Bronze feathers drifted south across the drive. I picked it up. Its neck was broken; its head lolled. It was warm as new-baked bread. A soft, dead thing. How strange it was.
On Sunday, it happened all over again, but the pigeon was a man. It was a windy late afternoon: smoke blown right across the crowds from the marker canister in the arena suffused the Falconers Fair with the dusty, orange glamour of a desert market. Heads and hawks and stalls and dogs and smoke. And then I turned to see a man falling. I don’t know why I turned. Everyone I spoke to afterwards had done the same: even if they hadn’t been paying any attention to the skydiving display, they turned, as if the horror had picked up the whole crowd and turned its head.
This poor man; his chute had been caught by a downdraught—the arena was at the base of a vicious lee slope—and it collapsed, just like that. And he fell, impossibly fast, towards the ground. Hit the short grass of the tiny arena with the worst sound I have ever heard. Everything went still. There was smoke, silence, and then a man, running towards the motionless man on the grass, and then suddenly everything happening; ambulances, helicopters; a scene from a misremembered war movie. It was the most ghastly thing I have ever seen. They raised curtains of parachute silk to shield the scene. They looked like beach windbreaks. A woman from St John’s ambulance team walked away, crying.
I am so, so sorry for this man, and for his team-mates, and for his family, and for the crowds. I stood there with hot tears in my eyes, and remembered the pigeon. And stood there in disbelief for a long while as the announcer on the PA started, crazily, in his clipped RP, to announce the prizes in the raffle across the silence. Auden to a T. I still can’t quite cope with the fact that the skydivers called themselves the Icarus Display Team.
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.