THE KING OF THE SKY: Coming to a theatre near you?

IMG_0190This time last year I had flu. It knocked me entirely off my legs for ten days. I lay in bed worrying about the deadlines I was missing until my head hurt so much I couldn’t even worry any more.

The day I felt better was full of that lovely washed clean feeling that you get after illness. I suppose just simple gratitude that nothing hurt any more. I got up, sat at my desk and wrote the text of a picture book in, a day, two maybe?

The story I wrote the day my head stopped pounding was supposed to be about pigeons, but the story I actually wrote was about a lot more than birds.

Mark Hearld LOVES pigeons and had asked me to write him a book about them. I’d been thinking about them for months, in fits and starts, in the background of other things. I’d read about them- wild ones, domestic ones, message carrying ones, racing ones. I watched videos of tough northern blokes cuddling their racing birds with heartbreaking tenderness.I revised all the stuff I’d learnt as a student about how they navigate – learning the shapes of their local landscape by that characteristic flying in circles thing they do; recognising the characteristic smells of home, so that downwind they can follow the scents to their loft. And I remembered holding the babies of the pigeons that lived in the loft over the garage when I was little; exquisitely ugly-beautiful, like tiny dodos with yellow fluff that looked stuck on by a ham fisted toddler.

Somewhere along the line something else got in to the biological information in my head – belonging and the nature of what makes a place ‘home’. The book about pigeons became a story about human displacement and migration.

One night I heard a friend of mine Shani Lewis singing the song written about the real Sheffield racing pigeon “The King Of Rome”. For an hour or two I thought the lyrics had give me a ready made story shape, but the story of the pigeon who raced back from Rome to his owner in a Sheffield back street somehow wasn’t enough. The race was useful, but only as a part of the story I was going to tell, whatever that was.

I began to look at settings, places where humans had been displaced from home. I watched videos of refugees in conflicts all over the world.Then something else came to the top of my heart: my mums stories about sitting in the Italian ice cream parlour in Gowerton when she was a girl in the late 1920s. I read about Italian families coming to Wales and finding a culture centered on family, where singing and high emotion are both valued. ‘The Welsh’ one newly arrived Italian said ,’are just Italians in the rain’.

So when I sat at my desk the day my flu stopped the story I wrote was set on my own doorstep, and connected with my own family history in South Wales, the miners, the steelworkers of the 1920s. It’s about a child from Italy who is brought to the valleys when his parents come to establish a business, selling ‘gelati’ to the Welsh miners and steelworkers. Everything about the place is alien- the landscape, the weather, the smells.

All the things in fact that a pigeon uses to find its way home tell the boy this is not where you belong. One feature connects the sunlit Roman palazzos with the Welsh village: the cooing of pigeons, and that is the start of the boys journey, from displaced alien, to Italian Welshman.

Sometimes when you write something you know you’ve hit the spot. Like the sound a tennis ball makes when it hits exactly the right bit of the racket. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone, but you know, at least, that it’s worked for you. And I got that hit the spot feeling the second I wrote the last word of King of The Sky. It worked on my editor too, and crucially it worked on Mark (who’s been toiling away with the illustrations ever since)  I read it to the audience at the Spatialising Illustration conference in Swansea in January and two wonderful things happened: someone came and told me that I’d described the story of their family and another said “All my adult life I’ve thought my background in the valleys was something I had to get away from. You’ve shown me it’s my best material.”

That’s when I realised that this little story about a boy and a bird had done what I wanted, and told a bigger more universal story about belonging, and what that means. And I felt then, that it could have a bigger life, as a performance of some sort.

Music seemed the natural place to start the story on its journey into another form, so I sent the story to Karine Polwart – magical singer and songwriter whose lyrics take my breath away. It felt like the most risky, daft thing I’d ever done, sending somebody famous a story and saying ‘fancy doin’ some music or something?’. I expected never to hear another word so when the e mail from Karine’s manager came, and then one for Karine herself…well I actually danced around my study.

But how to make the next step when I don’t know anything about theatre? Fortunately I know a man who does: Derek Cobely ex director of the wonderful Swansea Wordplay Festival and veteran theatre director. Once again I sent off the story, and it did did the talking. Derek’s response was very positive, and when we met to talk before his production of Macbeth at Pontadawe, it turned out that the manager of Pontadawe Arts Theatre was positive too.

So that’s where we are.  Derek and I have talked about staging, a bit. Karine and I have had a lovely conversation about music – about harps, about combining melodies from Welsh and Italian culture, about singing. Mark is quietly plugging away with the illustrations that might one day be sets or even puppets. All I know is this IS the start of something and I know it could be really, really beautiful, extraordinary even. But now comes the hard part, selling our unformed vision to enough people to make it happen. We need theatres to say they’ll have us, we need festivals to give us their support. Like a pigeon struggling, reaching with its wings, almost at breaking point, we need to get lift off.

So read the story and if you think you’d like to see it bigger, with music, in theatre, then let me know!



It rained and rained and rained.

Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills

Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.

The streets smelled of mutton soup and coal dust

and no one spoke my language


All of it told me this is not where you belong

Just one thing reminded me of home –

of sunlight, fountains and the vanilla smell of ice cream in my granny’s shop –

Mr Evan’s pigeons, cooing in their loft, behind my house.

Purring as if they strutted in St Peter’s Square


Mr Evan’s face was crumpled and he could hardly walk,

but when his birds flew he smiled like Springtime.

I stood beside him watching

as his pigeons soared above the chimneys and the towers,

up to where the sky stretched all the way to Italy.


A lifetime down the mine had taken Mr Evans’ breath away.

So he spoke soft and slow, slow enough for me to understand.

“I like to see them fly, “ he whispered, “after so long underground.”


Every day I came to see the pigeons

“I’m training them to race, “ Mr Evans said “ and this one’s going to be a champion.”

He put a pigeon in my hands.

I felt its small heart racing underneath my finger,

and the push and power of its wings.

Its head was whiter than a splash of milk, its eye blazed fire!

“Name him and he’s yours!” the old man said.

I didn’t have to think: “Re del cielo!” I replied, “ King Of The Sky!”


Mr Evan’s showed me how to catch the birds, and slip them in a basket.

Then we’d wheel it to the station on a barrow.

“How far today then Mr Evans?” the railway man would ask,

My friend would name a station up the line: five miles, ten miles, twenty miles away –

a little further every time.

“They don’t need a map like we do see, “ Mr Evans told me, “they’re born knowing how to find their way. All they want’s a bit of practice.”


Back at the loft, we’d wait, eating Mrs Evans’ welshcakes

and squinting up into the light.

“Look out now!” Mr E would say “Keep those young eyes of yours well peeled!”

It never took them long.

From places far away, places that they’d never seen,

the pigeons flew home straight and fast as arrows!


But the pigeon with the milk white head was always last.

Still Mr Evans said he’d be a winner.

“He’s a hero,” the old man wheezed, “like the pigeons in the war, carrying messages when they were shot.  Just you wait and see!”


Every day Mr Evans grew a little weaker.

By racing season he couldn’t leave his bed.

So I put the race rings on the pigeons legs and took them to the station.

I scoured the sky for their return and clocked them in.


Mr Evans’ bedroom wall was papered with their winnings.

But not one for Re Del Cielo, my King of the Sky.

“He’s got the wings for distance!” Mr Evans breathed, “Here’s the race he’s waited for!”

He handed me the entry form:

King Of The Sky would go to Rome by train

then race back a thousand miles and more!


I smoothed his feathers, looked into his eye and put him in the basket for the journey.

A part of me was going with him, I wasn’t sure it would come back.


The race day dawned.

A storm blew up.

Lightening, wind and rain.

I waited for two whole days and nights

but the pigeon with the milk white head did not return.


I sat beside my friend’s bed,  and I told him

that perhaps the sunlight and the fountains,

the vanilla smell of ice cream from a thousand grannies’ shops

had made our pigeon want to stay


“No!“ said Mr Evans, “that will only tell him this is not where you belong….”

The old man’s eyes blazed fire,

“Get out there boy” he said, “ and welcome him!”


The rain had stopped. I ran out to the loft

and squinted up into the clouds.

A speck….a blob….a bird

A pigeon with a milk-white head!


Twelve hundred miles he’d flown,

from somewhere far away he’d never been.

Steered North and West, finding his direction from the sun

and the force that guides a compass needle.

Flown until he saw the shape of humpbacked hills,

the lines of little houses and the chimneys,

heard the clanking towers, smelled the soup and coal dust


Flown down, a hero and a champion,

into the arms of the smiling, crying boy

The boy who knew at last that he was home.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *