The London Pigeon Wars, by Patrick Neate

Birds of a feather
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The Independent Culture

There used to be something wonderful about going to a park to feed the pigeons. As a child, having the birds peck viciously, even drawing blood, was part of the fun. Now, it's easy to walk past a pigeonless Trafalgar Square, see the fountain brimming with foam, and hope Westminster Council has tried to poison the dirty birds.

But, like rats, pigeons are integral to any major city. They're valuable co-habitants and, if cast by the Whitbread-winning novelist Patrick Neate, knowledgeable too. Take Ravenscourt, Neate's philosophising pigeon and part-time narrator. He is a commentator only London could have produced, from the first signs of trouble – the battle of Trafalgar ("a battle named after a square named after a battle") – through three encounters in the London Pigeon Wars (waged between the RPF of the West End and the Surbs) to the fall of Murray, the human "peepnik" that Ravenscourt calls Mishap.

A Surb himself, Ravenscourt is at the scene of the initial skirmish at Trafalgar. Murray is also there, eating chicken (the only food he ever eats), and seconds from earning the title Mishap when he chances a meeting with his old college friend, Tom. Watched by Surb leader Gunnersbury and the RPF's "starling geez Regent", Murray tosses what's left of the chicken towards a bin. And so the fateful fight begins. The spoils become known as the Remnant of Content, a symbol of the birds' London turf war.

Ten years before, Tom and Murray's last meeting was a fractious event. Murray claims he spent the decade either parading as a guru in India, as a rag-trader in Jo'burg, or a musician in Europe. Tom is in the final throes of therapy and disentangling a failed relationship. That evening, there is a full reunion with the gang at Freya's hat shop. Also making up the numbers are Tariq, the near-bankrupt technology boffin, and his inexplicably sick wife, Emma. There's Identikit Ami, a minor TV celebrity, and the wannabe ghetto poet Kwesi.

All close to 30, their fortunes are far from good. But Murray's reappearance could prove as fateful for them as it was for London's pigeons. They are virtually powerless before Murray, the master of "Murray Fun": his much-loved brand of scams and pranks which, in the intervening years, has taken a more serious turn.

The London Pigeon Wars is an original novel, but also packed with caricatures. Therein lies both its strength, and the true nature of a capital where "perceptions of authenticity are at a premium even as authenticity itself becomes ever more meaningless".

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