This hilarious and heartwrenching novel follows eleven-year-old Harri Opuku, recently emigrated from Ghana to the rough housing projects of London, as he tries to navigate inner-city life. See what makes our good-hearted protagonist dope-fine, become acquainted with his bo-styles, and find yourself wanting this touching debut to last donkey hours.
Gbolahan Obisesan is an award-winning director and playwright who lives in London. His stage play Mad About the Boy, produced by Iron Shoes and developed with the support of the National Theatre Studio, ran at the Edinburgh Festival and was awarded a Fringe First for Best Play.
Stephen Kelman was born in Luton in 1976. After finishing his degree, he worked variously as a warehouse operative, a careworker, and in marketing and local government administration. He decided to pursue his writing seriously in 2005, and has completed several feature screenplays since then. Pigeon English is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy. Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’ Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’ Jordan: ‘One quid then.’ You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close enough. There was a line in the way:
POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS
If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust. We weren’t allowed to talk to the policeman, he had to concentrate for if the killer came back. I could see the chains hanging from his belt but I couldn’t see the gun. The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn’t let it. She wasn’t even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back up into the sky. A pigeon was looking for his chop. He walked right in the blood. He was even sad as well, you could tell where his eyes were all pink and dead. * • *
The flowers were already bent. There were pictures of the dead boy wearing his school uniform. His jumper was green. My jumper’s blue. My uniform’s better. The only bad thing about it is the tie, it’s too scratchy. I hate it when they’re scratchy like that. There were bottles of beer instead of candles and the dead boy’s friends wrote messages to him. They all said he was a great friend. Some of the spelling was wrong but I didn’t mind. His football boots were on the railings tied up by their laces. They were nearly new Nikes, the studs were proper metal and everything. Jordan: ‘Shall I t’ief them? He don’t need ’em no more.’ I just pretended I didn’t hear him. Jordan would never really steal them, they were a million times too big. They looked too empty just hanging there. I wanted to wear them but they’d never fit.
Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and he didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy. I could bring him back alive that way. It happened before, where I used to live there was a chief who brought his son back like that. It was a long time ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t work this time. I gave him my bouncy ball. I don’t need it anymore, I’ve got M ve more under my bed. Jordan only gave him a pebble he found on the floor. Me: ‘That doesn’t count. It has to be something that belonged to you.’ Jordan: ‘I ain’t got nothing. I didn’t know we had to bring a present.’ I gave Jordan a strawberry Chewit to give to the dead boy, then I showed him how to make a cross. Both the two of us made a cross. We were very quiet. It even felt important. We ran all the way home. I beat Jordan easily. I can beat everybody, I’m the fastest in Year 7. I just wanted to get away before the dying caught us.
The buildings are all mighty around here. My tower is as high as the lighthouse at Jamestown. There are three towers all in a row: Luxembourg House, Stockholm House and Copenhagen House. I live in Copenhagen House. My flat is on floor 9 out of 14. It’s not even hutious, I can look from the window now and my belly doesn’t even turn over. I love going in the lift, it’s brutal, especially when you’re the only one in there. Then you could be a spirit or a spy. You even forget the pissy smell because you’re going so fast. It’s proper windy at the bottom like a whirlpool. If you stand at the bottom where the tower meets the ground and put your arms out, you can pretend like you’re a bird. You can feel the wind try to pick you up, it’s nearly like flying. Me: ‘Hold your arms out wider!’ Jordan: ‘They’re as wide as I can get ’em! This is so gay, I’m not doing it no more!’ Me: ‘It’s not gay, it’s brilliant!’ Asweh, it’s the best way to feel alive. You only don’t want the wind to pick you up, because you don’t know where it will drop you. It might drop you in the bushes or the sea.
In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same. Piss and slash and tinkle mean all the same (the same as greet the chief). There’s a million words for a bulla. When I came to my new school, do you know what’s the first thing Connor Green said to me? Connor Green: ‘Have you got happiness?’ Me: ‘Yes.’ Connor Green: ‘Are you sure you’ve got happiness?’ Me: ‘Yes.’ Connor Green: ‘But are you really sure?’ Me: ‘I think so.’ He kept asking me if I had happiness. He wouldn’t stop. In the end it just vexed me. Then I wasn’t sure. Connor Green was laughing, I didn’t even know why. Then Manik told me it was a trick. Manik: ‘He’s not asking if you’ve got happiness, he’s asking if you’ve got a penis. He says it to everyone. It’s just a trick.’ It only sounds like happiness but really it means a penis. Ha-penis. Connor Green: ‘Got ya! Hook, line and sinker!’ Connor Green is always making tricks. He’s just a confusionist. That’s the first thing you learn about him. At least I didn’t lose. I do have a penis. The trick doesn’t work if it’s true.
Some people use their balconies for hanging washing or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the helicopters. It’s a bit dizzy. You can’t stay out there for more than one minute or you’ll turn into an icicle. I saw X-Fire painting his name on the wall of Stockholm House. He didn’t know I could see him. He was proper quick and the words still came out dope-fine. I want to write my own name that big but the paint in a can is too dangerous, if you get it on yourself it never washes off, even forever. The baby trees are in a cage. They put a cage around the tree to stop you stealing it. Asweh, it’s very crazy. Who’d steal a tree anyway? Who’d chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s?
What inspired you to write Pigeon English? Pigeon English is my response to the epidemic of child-on-child violence, specifically knife crime, which affects many poor, urban areas of Britain, particularly in inner-city London. Every week another teenager is stabbed to death, and this only encourages the view of Britain's children as feral and beyond hope, their lives bleak and blighted by violence. I wanted to address the subjects of child-on-child violence, immigration, and social breakdown in a more intimate way than is depicted in the news media; not to sermonize or romanticize but to present the lives of these characters as they are. I also wanted to show how the diversity of influences and experiences that come as a result of multiculturalism can only enrich us all. I grew up in a housing project much like the one in the book; my experience of that was as much positive as negative, and I wanted Pigeon English to reflect that. The kids in the book are in one sense victims of deprivation or crime or a lack of opportunities but they don't view themselves as victims. They're full of life, vibrant and funny and resilient. In writing from a child's perspective I was able explore my themes without exploiting them. They could form the backdrop for what is at heart a universal story, a coming-of-age tale for modern times. Everyone remembers being eleven the age of Harri, my narrator learning the rules of the playground, making friends and enemies, exploring the boundaries of adulthood. Harri doesn't analyze the forces at play in his world, he just gets on with the business of living, and he does this with an exuberance that defies the darkness of the world around him. The book has been described as his love letter to the world, and that's the one thing I want readers to take away from it it's not a lament of frustrated lives as much as a celebration of life itself. Why the title? Pigeon English is a play on the term "pidgin English," pidgin being a simplified hybrid language that develops between groups of people who don't share a common tongue, and that allows them to communicate with each other. In our increasingly globalized world, where economic migration is so widespread and people from different cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds are either obliged to or are choosing to work and live together, it is more important than ever that we find a means to communicate, a glue to bind those diverse elements into an integrated whole. That glue is our shared humanity, and just as Harri is a symbol of that a recent immigrant from Africa to London who embraces his new home with wide-eyed wonder so too is the pigeon that visits his balcony. Pigeons are found in every corner of the globe. Wherever people are, they seem to follow; they coexist with us either as pests or as the benign background to our everyday lives, depending on your point of view. The pigeon in the book poses the question: how do we differ and how are we alike? The bearded stranger you pass on the street, the woman who answers your tech support call in an unfamiliar accent: are these people in any way an obstacle to your way of life, or are they simply fellow travelers sharing a common path, a path trod by all of us? Pigeon English portrays the lives of children from an underprivileged section of society. How do you think a child's environment influences his or her experiences, and to what extent does it shape his or her journey to adulthood? The children in the book all live in the same inner-city housing project, and so they experience the same problems and deprivations. It is a place of few opportunities, where a lack of investment has left an indelible impact not only on the physical environment but on its inhabitants' sense of self-worth and aspiration. Violence and petty crime are prevalent, and drug abuse and alcoholism are visible, present dangers. Positive adult role models are few and far between. When all a child can see are the traps in his or her way, the path to escape becomes that much harder to negotiate. This feeling of being trapped often plays itself out in negative ways: a child's decision to join a gang, for example, is not only born of a need to feel protected in numbers from the perils of the street but also of a desire for kinship and belonging in the face of common frustrations for which they hold the adult world responsible. But these kinships, these bonds forged in adversity, can also be a positive thing. I've spoken of how resilient and vibrant the children in the book are almost spitefully so, as if they're collectively giving the finger to the adult world, defying it to take away their spirit if it dares and this resilience is the springboard from which some of these kids, if given the encouragement and provided the opportunity through education, might just leap clear of their difficult beginnings. In Harri's young world, violence is pervasive. Was this your experience as a child? I grew up in an environment much like Harri's, amid many of the same problems. Crime, poverty, and violence were and still are commonplace. But for a kid these things felt more abstract than they do for an adult they were simply part of the background hum of life and didn't seem to possess the power to impinge on the day-to-day business of being a child. When I was Harri's age I used to choose my route home from school based on how I could best avoid the class bully; but that bully wasn't carrying a knife, and the worst I had to fear should I run into him was a punch in the nose. At that time I was eleven years old in 1987 Britain did not have such an entrenched gang problem, and whatever threat of violence there was lacked that extreme edge. There wasn't the sense, as there is now, that every encounter with those dark forces would have life-changing or lethal consequences; violence was still something that could be avoided if you were careful and stuck to the rules. And growing up, I didn't have access to the violent entertainment that today's children are exposed to. There was no Internet and no cell phones with video playback, and my TV viewing was restricted. Now, with the availability of violent content through every media channel, it seems as though that inevitable desensitization has occurred, and society appears to be reaping the seeds it has sown. Who have you discovered lately? I've recently discovered Patrick Lane, a Canadian poet whose memoir What The Stones Remember [A Discover selection in 2005Ed.] is an unflinchingly humane account of his recovery from alcoholism. His novel Red Dog, Red Dog is equally incisive and beautifully written, a portrait of a doomed working class family in 1950s British Columbia. I think he's a modern day Steinbeck. My wife has also recently introduced me to Philip Roth, whom I'd never read before. I loved American Pastoral and will read more.
Pigeon English 4.1 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
it was ok
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
Prepare to fall in love. Harrison Opuku bursts off the page and into the reader’s heart. Harri is eleven, a recent immigrant from Ghana. He is now living in England with his mother and sister; his father, grandmother and baby sister left behind until the family can afford for them to come also. Living in the projects, Harri is amazed at all the new things he sees. The subway is an amazing item that he can’t quite believe work. He thinks it is bo-styles; the word for the ultimate cool. He is thrilled by remote control cars, cell phones, and new trainers. Harri’s best skill is his running; no one can catch him when he runs. He is the kind of boy who is open to all experiences, taking them in and finding the good in everything around him. Harri tends to like everyone; even the pigeons who flock around the housing projects, occasionally getting inside. Where others see a mess that should be cleared away, Harri sees a friend.
But not everything is positive in Harri’s world. Gangs abound, and as a newcomer, he is tested for inclusion. Daily life is full of insults and casual violence, and Harri is sometimes tempted by these acts. Worst of all, a boy who is the star of the basketball court, is murdered on the streets. The motive? No one knows for sure, maybe even just for his dinner. Harri and his friend Dean decide that they will find the killer. Full of facts gained from CSI shows, they attempt to lift fingerprints and find DNA, sure that they can find the culprit and bring him to justice.
Stephen Kelman has created a character that readers will not soon forget. The language is spot-on for a child growing up in modern England in the housing projects. The language is sometimes rough, and the facts that are commonplace knowledge breathtaking, but through it all, the sweetness of Harri’s personality shines through. Kelman himself grew up in the housing projects of England and worked as a careworker, a warehouse operative, in marketing and in local government administration before focusing on writing. Pigeon English has been nominated for the Booker Prize and readers will not be surprised by that fact. This is a stunning, excellent book; the fact that it is a debut novel is almost unimaginable. This book is recommended for all readers.
More than 1 year ago
I haven't yet finished this book only having got half way through. But so far, I am really hoping that it gets better. I love the plot and the idea of the book is brilliant...hats off to the author. But for me, it is missing something and to me that something is sunstance. I feel like the chapters are pointless being there because it is just one unchanging story. The main charactor is an 11 year old boy who is relatively new to the country and is finding hard to fit in, he wants to be in the gang but for protection, he doesn't want to be naughty...and I feel for him, but that is a far as it goes. I really wanted to like this book, but right now, I am finding it difficult to pick it back up again...after putting it down. But this is just my oppinion...yours might be different, so I strongly suggest you read it and see what you think.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
Delightful,funny and sad in parts. a great debut! I hope to see more from this author!
More than 1 year ago
I don't know when I've been so enamoured of a character!
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