Looking In

When Pigeon English was released early this year, we didn't know what would happen in London in August...

The narrative revolves around Harrison — Harri — an 11-year old boy, newly arrived to England from Ghana. He lives with his mother and older sister, while his father and baby sister have stayed behind. Harrison's family, like so many immigrant families, lives in a bad neighbourhood (in London), defined by crime and violence. Through the first-person narrative, Harrison retains an innocence and sense of wonder that seems to belong to someone several years younger. This is at times not exactly plausible, as when he seems to have absolutely no knowledge of human sexual activity. I remember being 11. I wasn't participating in anything, but I certainly knew some of the mechanics (and I can't just blame Jean M. Auel for that). Then again, perhaps the avenues which kids in Europe and North America learn about sex just didn't exist in Ghana; I can't claim to know anything about it. In other ways, the exaggerated innocence seems appropriate, as his class-mates are portrayed socially similar. The games and they way they play them sometimes seem, again, something younger kids would be interested in. (I should note, though, that by "innocent" I don't mean "simple.") The comparison has been made, favorably for Pigeon English, to Emma Donoghue's Room, with Harri judged an easier child narrator to read and accept. Readers often found Room's Jack both too precocious and annoying (I don't agree). Harri remains likeable and for the most part, age-appropriate (as above, if anything, he skews slightly young for his age). The Guardian review says
Kelman has already been much praised for his ability to write from an 11-year-old's perspective, but here, as often in the first half of the novel, Harri's voice feels laboured and faux-naïf.
I think most of this, aside from my issues with innocence, can be chalked up to Harri's difficulty using language in his new context. I think Stephen Kelman's writing is pretty clear on that.

While it's not explicit, one assumes that Harri's family is (in waves) moving to England for a "better life," but his flashbacks to time spent in his home country show that he is now much worse off. (Though this may be some of the troubling white framing of black experience as seen in The Help, or evoking a "noble savage" type.) Comparatively, London is dirty, violent, and crowded. People are selfish, preferring to harm rather than help others. The never-easing class divide in England cuts across colour and and country of origin, keeping a poisonous river between the have-nots and the have-too-much. The origins of the August 2011 London riots, it's been said, erupted from a feeling of absolute hopelessness, from the societal group of which Harri is now a member. Unlike the prevailing "You can be anything" message that American kids grow up with (erroneous or not), England likes to keep its classes separate. Given the historically abysmal record in the way England treats the poor, upward mobility isn't even considered; it's just assumed getting out is not possible. Near the end of the novel, the seniors in Harri's school write goodbye messages on each other's school shirts. Two pages are devoted just to these messages, and they illuminate the matter-of-fact acceptance of the fate of those without means. It doesn't even seem sad or angry, it just is. The messages read like any year-book: some are just names, some are jokes or bawdy quips. They begin*:
DFC [the initials of a local gang]FUCK SCHOOL LEWSEY HILL R. PUSSIES
Then others start, interspersed with the sort above, with a new theme:
repeat after me: DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
Be warned: the future doesn't need you![emphasis mine]
It feels almost prescient that mere months before the London Riots this novel would be published, capturing the soon-to-be-violent malaise of a demographic group so strongly. Harri, while a newcomer, shares a lot with his peers, and neighbours. Like him, most of the people in Pigeon English are essentially, easily good. For example, Terry Takeaway is a thief and a drunk, owner of a pitbull (hallmark of a "bad guy" in many places), but he's also on the lookout for Harri, willing to defend him from older kids for no other reason than it's intrinsically right. (The pitbull, Asbo, is revealed to be a loveable pup, and Harri enjoys playing with him immensely.) There are only a couple essentially bad characters in Pigeon English, and Kelman is careful to make them different as possible, to show that the hard, evil criminals of legend aren't the majority. When things go bad on a large scale, as in the August riots, it's often not because people have substandard ethics or upbringing (fuck you very much, David Cameron), but because they're pulled along, never having been allowed to know another way to be.

There's a load of films being made where filmmakers go to a council estate and 90 percent of the people there are functional—getting their kids ready for school, paying their taxes, working. And 10 percent are dysfunctional—and they go, "That's what we're going to make a film about."*

*I've attempted to replicate the changes in type on these pages of the novel, which indicate that there are different people writing each message.
**Actor Eddie Marsan, interviewed by Jonathan Romney in The Independent, May 2, 2010. As quoted in Jon Ronson's The Pyschopath Test (210).
***Also, I think I've figured out — for myself anyway — the "talking" pigeon character that seems to have caused so many readers so much trouble. He's supposed to be for Harri, as Harri is for the neighbourhood; an outsider looking in, with a perspective that illuminates the situation. I agree, though, it doesn't really work.

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