Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English
Paperback, 263 pages, Bloomsbury, 2011.
ISBN-13: 978-1408810637. £12.99
The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011)
<1> In the Q&A at the back of the book, Stephen Kelman says that his first novel, Pigeon English, was inspired by press coverage of British children, especially those who live in deprived areas:
There’s a lot of noise around about knife crime and violence among the nation’s children at the moment and, having grown up myself in a housing estate which is much like the one that features in the book, I wanted to show the positive aspects of these children’s lives and tell their stories in a way that I think hadn’t necessarily been told before.
Kelman’s ambition is laudable and, after the tabloid demonisation of young rioters this summer as ‘feral scum’, it might seem even more necessary to tell a positive story about urban youth.
<2> The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Harri, recently arrived in London with his mother and older sister; his father, baby sister and grandmother are in Ghana saving up so they can join them. Harri lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a South London estate: in the opening pages a boy from his school is knifed to death outside Chicken Joe’s on the High Street and in the closing pages Harri himself is fatally stabbed on the stairwell as he races home.
<3> In the acknowledgements, Kelman cites the website founded by the parents of ten-year-old Damilola Taylor, who bled to death in 2000 on the stairwell of his home in Peckham after recently moving from Nigeria. After a long police investigation, two boys from the estate, who were 12 and 13 at the time of the crime, were eventually convicted of his manslaughter. The website has a photo of a smiling Damilola and a quotation from his writing: ‘I will travel far and wide to choose my destiny and remould the world. I know it is my destiny to defend the world, which I hope to achieve during my lifetime’ (Damilola Taylor Trust).
<4> Despite the fact that Pigeon English is book-ended by fatal stabbings, Kelman’s focus is on his narrator’s Damilola-like idealism and good nature. Although Harri learns to swear, give the finger and throw stones at buses like other kids on the estate, he doesn’t want to let his parents down. There are a lot of ‘rules’, Harri tells us, and if you follow them ‘your friends know what side you’re on’ (63). Tellingly, when the boys talk of which super powers they would like, Harri wishes for ‘invisible’ (130).
<5> Harri is no hoodlum. On the contrary, he tries to be ‘the man of the house’ until his Papa arrives (8). He wants to save his baby sister when she falls ill with a fever in Ghana: ‘if Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life’ (171). Although he trades insults with his sister Lydia, he ‘loves it’ when he arranges a birthday surprise for her, and he gives his girlfriend Poppy a Jelly Ring because ‘girls love it when you give them presents. It means you’re serious about them’ (228). When Terry Takeaway (a local fence) lets him walk his dog Asbo, Harri thinks: ‘Always tell a dog good boy when he does something good. Then he’ll only do good things after that’ (214).
<6> Having been brought up as a Christian, Harri even believes that if he joined the Dell Farm Crew he could tell them about God. After the gang vandalise the local church, Harri thinks maybe he ‘could save them. A gang can be a good thing, not just for tricks’ (113). In one of many flashbacks to his poor but happy life in rural Ghana, he remembers all the children helping to build a house and being given a bottle of Fanta: ‘Those kind of missions are the best, when everybody helps and you get a reward after. Someone should tell the Dell Farm Crew about them. I could pass on the message’ (113). But, despite trying his best, Harri fails the DFC test. When the gang smash the frail old Mr Frimpong to the pavement in order to steal his wallet, Harri runs away because he feels sick. That means he is out: ‘If you fail two missions you’ll never get in’ (119).
<7> Kelman says he loves Harri and found it easy to write in his voice because he has so much ‘exuberance and curiosity’ (Q&A). The Booker judges seemed to love him too: the novel made the shortlist while, controversially, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child was knocked from its perch. In the end, after much criticism of a dumbed down shortlist, the prize went to Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending. Rob Sharp in The Independent suggested that Barnes won in order ‘to appease critics who said the award favoured “readability” over quality’. But Pigeon English was the first choice of the book club in a Perthshire village which is televised annually on BBC2’s Culture Show. It has been shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award.
<8> Like Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, no doubt Pigeon English is destined for the school syllabus. With the exception of The Guardian’s reviewer, Rachel Aspden, who found the narrator ‘faux naïf’, the novel has had great reviews in the British press: Lewis Jones in The Telegraph even declared that its social urgency made it ‘critic-proof’. A television adaptation is apparently in the offing. It’s not hard to see why the novel is so popular: who wouldn’t care about a lovable boy trying to survive in a harsh world?
<9> Kelman’s decision to narrate the novel from Harri’s point of view is both its greatest strength and its weakness. It’s an advantage that Harri’s partial understanding of the world around him means that Kelman can allow the reader to infer what is going on without having to spell it out. For example, we can assume that his mother, a midwife, is the beneficiary (or victim) of the British government’s NHS recruitment drive in Africa. The desperation caused by British immigration restrictions, which resulted in two teenage stowaways freezing to death on a Ghana Airways flight in 2002, is also glanced at obliquely. Harri’s generous Auntie Sonia is living with a thug called Julius who sells forged passports to ‘illegal’ immigrants and lends money at exorbitant rates of interest to the desperate, like Harri’s mother. If they fall behind, Julius ‘persuades’ people to pay up with a baseball bat. Sonia is so terrified of being deported that she repeatedly burns her fingers on the stove so that she can’t be identified by the authorities and sent back. When she tries to leave Julius she ends up with a black eye and a broken leg.
<10> There has been some debate by West African critics about the desirability of a white Englishman (who has never even visited Africa) writing from the point of view of a black African boy and whether Harri’s voice and characterisation sound authentic. In Writing Across the Colour Margin, Miss Ojikuto argues that Kelman ‘touches deeply on the sensibilities of West African culture’, in particular through Harri’s propensity for superstition, his love of nature and strong family bonds. But she also notes that despite the frequent use of Ghanaian terms such as ‘hutious’ (scary) and ‘asweh’ (I swear), Harri’s syntax is not always convincing. Ojikuto also quotes the Nigerian writer David Njoku’s view that, given the history of colonialism, white British writers would do better to ‘give it a hundred years’ before telling stories about Africans: ‘I found it very hard to get past the jarringly ungrammatical pidgin English. Yes, pidgin English has rules as strict as those of any other language.’ As Harri might say: ‘advise yourself obruni’ (So there, whitey!)
<11> Nonetheless, it is a clever stylistic trick to leave the English reader to work out the meaning of West African phrases like ‘bo-styles’ and ‘dey touch’ from the context, because Harri takes them for granted; and to have Harri solemnly explaining English slang in parenthesis, as if he has just learnt it: ‘ankle-freezers (that’s when the legs of your trousers are too short)’ (47); ‘piece of cake (that’s what you say when something was easy)’ (74).
<12> Despite the charm and humour of Harri’s voice, this is also the novel’s main weakness. Ironically, by making Harri the narrator, Kelman ends up endorsing a tabloid morality of goodies vs. baddies. Much of the novel centres on Harri and his friend Dean’s attempt to solve the mystery of who killed the boy outside Chicken Joe’s after the police appeal for information is met with a wall of silence by the community. It is soon clear to the reader, if not Harri, that the too-aptly named Killa and X-Fire were responsible for the first murder, and we infer that Killa or X-Fire murders Harri at the end. The problem is that the members of the DFC are never anything other than feral scum: foul-mouthed, bullying, teenage criminals who turn the estate into a war zone and terrorise everyone in it. It would have been a more interesting novel, and a braver one, if Kelman had stood in X Fire and Killa’s stolen trainers and walked around in them for a while. But a novel like that is unlikely to be shortlisted for the Booker.
<13> Alex Wheatle, the author of six novels exploring the lives of London’s young ‘black underclass’, generously wished Pigeon English well and hoped that more white writers would cross the racial divide. But he also wondered why ‘it had to take a white author to explore the black underprivileged to finally attract the attention of a major award’. In ‘The race problem with the Booker’, Wheatle pointed out that despite good reviews, neither he, nor Courttia Newland, whose novel The Scholar tells the story of two young black males on an estate in West London, has ever been shortlisted for a major literary prize or invited to read at the London Literature Festival at the South Bank. It seems that Wheatle’s Brixton Rock, East of Acre Lane, and his most recent, The Dirty South, are ‘ignored by the literary elite and dismissed as “ghetto fiction”’. None of Wheatle’s novels has been debated on arts programmes or promoted in Waterstone’s, let alone shortlisted. He concludes that ‘narratives that describe the black underclass, penned by black working-class males’ are viewed as ‘inferior by judges’.
<14> In Pigeon English Harri’s vulnerability is heightened because his father cannot be there to protect him and his mother, although loving, is always working. So Kelman gives Harri a guardian angel in the form of a pigeon: ‘If I’m not here who looks after the boy? ’ (272). Even the novel’s most fervent admirers have found the talking pigeon to be an embarrassment. Marked off from the rest of the text by the use of italics, and by pseudo-philosophical phrases like ‘sticky sweet epiphany’, the reader can only assume that the author is speaking through the bird: ‘This is me pitying you, that your lives are so short and nothing’s ever fair’ (26). Although well meaning this is a bit like being accidentally shat on from on high.
<15> It’s impossible when reading Kelman’s novel not to think of the poignant and funny pigeon scene in Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners about the ‘boys’ from the Caribbean who came to help rebuild London after World War II. Unable to get work and half-starved, ‘things was so bad with Galahad that he had was to try and catch a pigeon in the park to eat’. One cold winter’s day, he eyes up the ‘fat pigeons’ in Kensington gardens and ‘begin regularly to study pigeon life, to watch the movements and plan out a strategy.’ He’s frightened that ‘one of them animal-loving people see him’ and will report him to the police. Then ‘just as Galahad swinging the pigeon one of them old geezers who does always wear furcoat come through the entrance with little Flossie on a lead…: “Oh you cruel, cruel, cruel beast!” the woman say.’ Terrified of being arrested, Galahad makes off with pigeon in his pocket but feels almost too guilty to cook it until he has talked it all over with his old friend Moses. Finally, they boil it up, suck the bones, and smack their lips: ‘“Pigeon meat really sweet”, Moses say’ (125-6).
<16> If it’s any consolation to Alex Wheatle, when The Lonely Londoners was first published in 1956 it was dismissed in many quarters as ghetto fiction. It has taken 50 years for it to become a Penguin Classic. It would be nice to say who gives a damn about the Booker, but it makes a huge difference to sales. Posterity is one thing but novelists have to make a living. At the end of Selvon’s novel ‘Daniel was telling Moses how all kinds of fellas writing books what turn out to be best-sellers. Taxi-driver, porter, road-sweeper – it didn’t matter. One day you sweating in the factory and the next day all the newspapers have your name and photo, saying you are the new literary giant’ (142).
<17> The controversy over The Booker’s shortlist this year climaxed in the inauguration of a new Literature Prize, which aims to reward ‘excellence’ over the Middlebrow. But perhaps the real debate is not whether novels are formally challenging or easy reading but why black male proletarian novelists still fail to achieve recognition.
Aspden, Rachel. ‘Pidgeon English by Stephen Kelman – review.’ The Observer. 12 March 2011. Online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/13/pigeon-english-stephen-kelman-review. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
Damilola Taylor Trust. Online at http://www.damilolataylortrust.com/. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
Jones, Lewis. ‘Pidgeon English by Stephen Kelman: review.’ The Telegraph. 7 March 2011.Online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8362385/Pigeon-English-by-Stephen-Kelman-review.html. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
Ojikutu, Miss. ‘Writing Across the Colour Margin (On Booker Prize Longlister, Pidgeon English).’ Miss Ojikutu… writes African Literature, Music & Art. Online at http://missojikutu.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/writing-across-the-colour-margin-on-booker-prize-longlister-pigeon-english/. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
Selvon,Sam. The Lonely Londoners (1956). London: Longman Caribbean Writers, 1979.
Sharp, Ron. ‘The Sense of a Happy Ending – Barnes Wins the Booker.’ The Independent. 19 October 2011. Online at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/the-sense-of-a-happy-ending-ndash-barnes-wins-the-booker-2372567.html. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
Wheatle, Alex. ‘The Race Problem with the Booker.’ The Independent. 18 October 2011. Online at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-race-problem-with-the-booker-2371944.html. Accessed on 30 November 2011.
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review of Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English, Bloomsbury, 2011’, The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2011/thomas2.html. Accessed on [date of access].