Pigeon English

by

Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English: April Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Harri’s family does laundry in the laundromat at the bottom of Luxembourg House. Sometimes Harri and Lydia play a game where they get points for spotting different pieces of clothing (such as underwear and bras) in the machines. Harri then describes a shy Somali boy named Altaf, explaining, “you’re not supposed to talk to Somalis because they’re pirates.” Both Harri and Altaf skip RE (Religious Education) because their mothers do not want them to learn about other religions. Instead the two boys go to the library, where they start a conversation about whether being human is better than being a robot. Altaf wants to design cars when he grows up and does “bo-styles” drawings. Harri reasons that Altaf can’t be a pirate because he’s afraid of water.
There is a clear irony in the fact that Harri and Altaf’s friendship begins because both of their mothers forbid them from participating in RE. Both mothers harbor prejudice against other religions—prejudice so intense, that they disagree with even learning about other faiths. However, this advertently ends up bringing their sons together and encouraging Harri to get over the prejudice against Somalis. (Note that although Altaf’s religion is not specified, the vast majority of Somalis are Muslim, and we can thus infer that he and Harri are of different faiths.)
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Harri sees people die on the news every day, usually children. If a child dies, Mamma “prays the hardest,” and Harri concludes that adults love sad news. The news today says that the dead boy still hasn’t been found. Harri asks Mamma what she thinks the killer looks like and whether he is black or white, but Mamma replies that she doesn’t know. Harri thinks that all killers look the same: they have “piggy eyes,” smoke cigarettes, their eyes are red, and they’re always spitting. Harri thinks that if they catch the dead boy’s killer, it will be “like getting Forever back,” turning everything back to the way it’s supposed to be.
Again, Harri has his own way of processing trauma and grief, and he struggles to understand the way that adults deal with it. He is confused by Mamma’s prayers and interest in the news, thinking this means she “loves” when sad things happen. Similarly, Harri has a rather limited, cartoonish idea of what murderers are like. This is based more on stereotypes, prejudice, and Harri’s own imagination than it is on reality.
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Connor Green once said that if a dog attacks you, you should put your finger in its bumhole. After that, everyone started calling Connor a pervert. Nathan Boyd is known as being fearless and even once fulfilled a dare to lick a crack spoon. This made him the official “bravest in Year 7.” However, even Nathan has never been brave enough to set the fire alarm off. Although it is a crime to set the fire alarm off if there isn’t a real fire, X-Fire asks Harri to do just that. Harri reasons that if he joins the Dell Farm Crew, Vilis won’t be able to bully him anymore. X-Fire says Harri needs to set off the alarm, so they can be sure he’s “got what it takes.” 
Harri’s motivation for setting off the fire alarm illustrates that he is especially vulnerable to getting involved in crime and gang activity because of his national and racial identity. Vilis bullies him because he is a black African immigrant, and Harri thus dreams of showing strength by having a crew to back him up. Unfortunately, this means doing things—such as engaging in criminal activity—that Harri does not actually want to do.  
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Harri waits for a group of people to pass and then hits the fire alarm while X-Fire and Dizzy wait nearby. Harri tries his hardest, but the fire alarm glass does not break. X-Fire and Dizzy run away, and Dizzy shouts “Pussy boy!” over his shoulder. Harri eventually runs away as well, worrying that the Dell Farm Crew are now his enemies. He curses: “Adjei, my hands are too soft for everything!”
It remains ambiguous whether Harri’s hands were indeed “too soft” or whether he—consciously or unconsciously—was not able to break the fire alarm glass because he did not truly want to do it. Either way, Harri’s soft hands are a metaphor for his sensitive, caring, and innocent soul.
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Harri describes Mr. Frimpong, the loudest singer in church. Mr. Frimpong once fainted during church, and Pastor Taylor had to wake him up. At church today, the congregation prays for the dead boy’s mother and asks God to help the police catch the killer. Harri’s science teacher, Mr. Tomlin, is the most intelligent person Harri knows, and he thinks that if Mr. Tomlin joined the investigation, they’d find the killer right away. Dean doesn’t believe in God, so Harri prays on behalf of both of them.
Harri and his community are turning everywhere in the hope of finding someone who will help solve the murder case—whether that be Mr. Tomlin or God. This demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust in the police, who are characterized throughout the book as being inept and largely irrelevant.
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Harri and Dean go to the pub to interview suspects. The air smells of alcohol, and they try not to breathe it in so that they don’t get drunk. Dean asks about the race of the man who Harri saw by the bins, and Harri replies that he thinks the man was black, but he isn’t certain. He adds that he was fairly short. The two boys identify a suspect who is angrily shaking the fruit machine.
Harri and Dean’s belief that they can become drunk through simply breathing in the pub air serves as yet another reminder of their innocence and cluelessness. Their limited grasp of the world makes it hard to believe that they will be able to solve the case.
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The man sees them and asks if they’re waiting for someone, and Dean replies that they’re waiting for his dad. Dean then asks the suspect if he knew the dead boy, and the suspect replies that he didn’t, and he wish he knew who the killer was. He adds: “These f—king kids, they need drowning at birth.” Speaking to Harri, Dean laments that the suspects are never going to give up any useful information. He suggests a change of tactic: they search for evidence themselves using “surveillance and evidence” such as fingerprints and DNA. Harri pretends to consider this suggestion, when he doesn’t actually know what Dean is talking about.
Dean sounds impressive when he discusses surveillance and DNA, which makes Harri embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t understand Dean’s words. On the other hand, it is worth noting that Dean probably has an extremely limited understanding of these things himself, given that everything he has learned about them has come through television.
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The narrative once again switches to the perspective of the pigeon, who says that violence has always come “too easy” to humankind. Harri describes a time when Kyle Barnes stabbed Manik with a compass in order to make him scream. The kids all discuss which weapon would be the best. Harri suggests an umbrella that’s secretly a poisoned gun. When Brayden Campbell boasts about shooting an AK-47 one-handed, Harri and Dean say “My arse” simultaneously and say jinx straight away to avoid being cursed. Harri gives a long list of rules and customs he learned at school.  
Some of the customs that exist at Harri’s school are entirely innocent, such as the game of jinx. However, it is clear that the pigeon’s words are right, and that violence does indeed come “too easy” to humans—including children. This is demonstrated by the fact that Harri and the other kids fantasize about weapons and stab each other with compasses for fun.
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The Dell Farm Crew waits for Harri and Dean outside the cafeteria and block their way, calling them “pussy boys.” Clipz mentions that Harri “failed the test,” but X-Fire assures him he’ll think of something easier next time. The crew force Dean to hand over his one pound, which makes Dean sad. Harri tries to reassure him that if he was black, the Dell Farm Crew would let him join as well, but Dean replies that he doesn’t want to. He says he hates them, and Harri agrees. After school, Harri and Dean find an old mattress and jump on it like a trampoline. They consider charging the younger kids fifty pence to use it, but then Terry Takeaway comes by, and his dog, Asbo, pees all over it.
This passage illustrates Harri’s ambivalent feelings about the Dell Farm Crew. He is grateful not to be robbed by them and perhaps enjoys the sense of affinity that emerges from the fact that he is spared because he is black. On the other hand, he is not particularly enthusiastic about joining their group, and as soon as Dean says that he “hates them,” Harri feels able to admit the same thing.
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Back in Ghana, Harri helped make the roof for Papa’s shop and made sure that it was “proper strong.” Harri felt proud of himself after. The rest of the family came to look at the shop and were happy as well. Papa was good at making things, and taught Harri how to saw properly. Harri hates that Mamma has to work at night as well as day; he wishes babies were only born in the daytime. He wishes Mamma was at home now, because Miquita has just arrived. Miquita and Lydia try on their parrot costumes for the carnival. Miquita keeps shaking her bum in Harri’s face. He leaves to go and listen to his CD player in the other room. 
This passage contrasts different kinds of masculinity and maturity, highlighting Harri’s difficulty in navigating the transition from childhood to adolescence. Harri enjoys the feeling of responsibility and maturity he gets from helping Papa—who is a role model of positive masculinity—build the roof. However, Harri is disgusted by the idea of sexuality and Miquita’s expectation that he respond to her attempts to seduce him.
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Later, while heading to the bathroom, Harri sees Miquita give Lydia a Nisa bag before she leaves. They look inside it as if it contains “some kind of crazy treasure,” and then seem frightened when they notice Harri watching them. Miquita leaves, and Harri asks if she’s going to the laundromat, saying he wants to come too. Lydia says no, but Harri follows her anyway, hiding behind a corner so she doesn’t see him. He watches her pour bleach all over the bag of clothes, doing “everything proper fast like it was a mission.”
Harri’s limited perspective produces its own series of “clues,” leaving the reader in the position of detective trying to piece everything together. The Nisa bag seems ordinary (Nisa is a chain of small grocery stores in the UK), so why are Lydia and Miquita looking at it like it contains treasure? Harri’s description of Lydia being on a “mission” recalls his own detective mission, but it seems that Lydia’s mission is less innocent than Harri’s.
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When Lydia is done, she bumps into Harri and curses him for following her. Harri asks what was in the bag, and she says it was just leftover bits of the costume, but Harri can tell she is lying. Harri saw that the clothes Lydia had been bleaching were “boy’s clothes,” and that they were red—the shade of blood. X-Fire approaches them and asks Lydia if anyone saw her. She replies that no one did, and X-Fire tells them to get going.
The death of the boy has suddenly become a lot closer to home for Harri. The fact that Lydia could be involved with the dead boy’s murder—or at least in its cover up—challenges the prospect that there is a clear distinction between innocence and guilt.
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Harri explains that the best running shoes are Nike, followed by Adidas, Reebok, Puma, and K-Swiss. His own running shoes, which he bought at the market, are called Sports. The other kids make fun of them, but Harri says they are only jealous because Sports are the fastest. At first, no one would pass to Harri during football (soccer), but then he realized it was because he was signaling wrong. Vilis still won’t pass to him even though Harri uses the right signal now. Vilis calls Harri “so gay,” and Harri calls him “Potato House.” 
Although—or perhaps because—Harri’s community is quite poor, brand names and expensive clothes are considered very important. Harri is teased because Sports are not considered a real brand, but he misunderstands the nature of this bullying. Harri views his running shoes for what they can do, not what status they give him. 
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A wasp flies into the room during math class. Poppy is so scared that she almost cries, but Harri reassures her that the wasp is just visiting, then transports the it to the window and lets it fly away. The class claps and Poppy thanks Harri. Before Poppy, Harri has only loved one girl, a friend of Lydia’s in Ghana called Abena, who he admits he only loved for one day. Abena was “very stupid” and put soap flakes on her face so she would become obruni. Lydia still chats to Abena via instant message at Computer Club. Abena told Lydia that the skeletons of twins who were missing have been found. Harri explains that people in the north of Ghana kill twins because they think twins are “cursed by the devil.” 
The story of Abena shows that the issues Harri faces in London—such as racism, prejudice, and violence—also exist in Ghana, albeit in different forms. Despite growing up in a majority-black country, Abena still internalizes the racist idea that it is better to be white, which is why she attempts to change her skin using soap flakes. Meanwhile, prejudice against twins is so intense that they are sometimes murdered, as in the case that Abena describes.
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Harri decides that he wants to kiss Poppy. He also thinks the pound coin looks stupid. Mamma pays money to Julius, who doesn’t think Mamma can count properly even though she can. Harri thinks that Julius is richer than the president and notes that he drives a Mercedes Benz. When Harri and Lydia first came to England, they played a game where they had to shout “obruni!” every time they saw a white person. When they first arrived in their new flat, Harri checked all the furniture to make sure it was there and working. Harri isn’t sure why Mamma gives Julius money. He knows Julius is in love with Auntie Sonia and is “always slapping her behind.” It makes Mamma angry when Julius does that.
At times, Harri has a hard time distinguishing between what is normal and what isn’t. There are certain ordinary things that he finds strange, such as the way the pound coin looks and the fact that there are a lot of white people in England. At the same time, he struggles to understand the relationships that Mamma and Auntie Sonia have to Julius. Harri doesn’t know why Mamma would be giving money to a rich man, why Julius slaps Auntie Sonia’s butt, or why Mamma doesn’t approve of Julius’ behavior. 
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A tree has been blown over by the wind, and Harri sees a bird’s nest in it. He is sad thinking about how the birds were probably crushed by the falling tree. He thinks: “I love all the birds, not just pigeons. I love them all.” There is a special assembly at school in which a policeman comes and talk about the dead boy. Harri doesn’t trust the policeman because he is “too fat,” which Harri thinks means he must be lying. Harri feels that there is no way the policeman will be able to catch the killer. He wants to talk to policeman but knows he needs to “stay undercover.” 
Harri’s distrust of the particular policeman that comes to visit his school is unfounded, based only in Harri’s own prejudice against overweight people. On the other hand, his distrust of the police in general is more reasonable given the fact that there has still been seemingly little progress in the investigation of the dead boy’s murder.
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In citizenship class, Harri and Connor draw scars on their skin with pens. Harri concludes that scars look better on white people because you can see them better. After school, men with saws come to cut up the fallen tree. When they get to the branch with the bird’s nest, they find it is empty. A younger kid suggests that a cat might have gotten to the birds, which makes Harri furious. He pushes the younger kid over, and the kid runs away. Harri looks at the hole where the tree used to be and feels sad, though he’s not sure why.
This passage suggests that Harri projects his feelings about the dead boy—along with other traumas and difficulties in life—onto the natural world. This leaves him feeling sad about the birds, even though Harri doesn’t even know what happened to them. 
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Harri and Dean decide to use sellotape to gather fingerprints. They check the surfaces by the river, having been chased away from the scene of the crime by Chicken Joe, who assumed they were trying to steal the flowers. Dean explains that poppies used to grow by the river, but they were cut down because everyone kept smoking the seeds. Harri enjoys the feeling of searching for fingerprints, which he finds peaceful. He concludes that Dean is “the best partner a detective can have,” and that he doesn’t even mind that he’s ginger. 
This passage contains further illustrations of the kinds of prejudice that Harri and his friends face. Chicken Joe assumes they are going to rob the site of the dead boy’s murder, while Dean is teased for being ginger. As was made clear by his friendship with Altaf, Harri seems better than most at letting go of prejudiced views.
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The first time Harri went on the tube (underground public transit), he found it crazy. He shouted, “We are on the tuuuuuuuuuuuube!” and everyone jumped. He pretended that it was loud enough for Papa and Agnes and Grandma Ama to hear. In Auntie Sonia’s flat, “everything looks brand new.” Mamma tries to stop Auntie Sonia telling Harri and Lydia about her fingers, but Auntie Sonia insists she doesn’t want to lie to them. She explains that she burns her fingerprints off on the stove. She presses her fingers there until the skin burns off. The first time she was scared because of the smell of her flesh cooking and cried afterward. She explains that it’s easier when you’re drunk. Harri observes that her fingers are shiny and black “like a zombie’s fingers.”
Fingerprints are one of the most important symbols in the novel, and here they are introduced in depth for the first time. Auntie Sonia hardly seems like a criminal, so it seems crazy that she would burn her fingers off—particularly given how gruesome and painful it sounds. The fact that Auntie Sonia tells Harri and Lydia about her fingers at all is proof of the difference between her and Mamma. Mamma tries to shield her children from adult matters, whereas Auntie Sonia believes in being upfront and honest. 
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Auntie Sonia explains that she has a hard time doing certain things with her hands, such as using the TV remote because the buttons are so small. Each time her fingerprints grow back, she burns them off again. She promises that she will stop burning them when she settles on where she wants to live. In the meantime, she moves around, living just like anyone else wherever she goes. Auntie Sonia gives Harri a “proper football made from skin,” and Lydia a Tinchy Stryder CD. Harri observes that Sonia always knows exactly what people want. Julius comes back, carrying his baseball bat, and has a drink. He offers Harri some, and then tells Harri to “stay good for as long as you can… stay the way you are.” Harri promises he will.
Auntie Sonia is honest, generous, and kind, but her life seems to be colored by violence. There is the self-inflicted violence of burning her fingerprints off over and over again, and also implied violence from Julius. While Julius is not explicitly described as perpetuating violence, he has a menacing presence, particularly due to the baseball bat. His advice to Harri seems to suggest that Julius does not consider himself “good” or innocent anymore.
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Back in Ghana, Harri’s favorite barber was called Kwadwo. The barber Harri sees in London is called Mario and is “quite grumpy.” Harri asks for “cornrolls.” Lydia suggests that Harri only wants them because X-Fire has them, but Harri denies this. Harri finds it hilarious that low hair is called “a number two” in England. He concludes that Mario is dey touch.
Again, Harri is shown to have mixed feelings about X-Fire and the Dell Farm Crew. Earlier Harri claimed to “hate” them, and now he denies that he wants cornrows just because X-Fire has them. However, it seems that Harri is not being fully honest and is actually just embarrassed about being called out by Lydia.
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There is a small playground near Harri’s tower block, with a car, a motorbike, and two ladybirds on springs. However, Harri doesn’t go on them anymore because they’re “gay.” The climbing frame belongs to the Dell Farm Crew, so no one else can go on it, even though the Dell Farm Crew don’t climb—they just sit on it, smoking and yelling at people. A sign by the playground says, “Say No to Strangers,” but Harri observes that “it doesn’t even tell you what the question is.” He points out that strangers might need help, but Jordan replies that they never need help—they just want to “shag you up the arse.” Harri is shocked, musing that Jordan is dey touch.
In quick succession, Harri has declared that both Mario and Jordan are dey touch. This suggests that calling people dey touch is one way in which Harri deals with new, unfamiliar people, situations, and behaviors. Note that Harri is not alone in this habit; calling people dey touch is arguably just another version of calling them “gay,” “lame,” “pussy boy,” or “never-normal.”
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Harri looks for the murder weapon but only finds drug needles. Jordan likes to boast about the list of bad things he’s done, which include drinking a whole bottle of vodka, deflating the tires of a police car, called an adult a “c—,” and stabbed some people. He makes Harri smash beer bottles with him. Harri doesn’t want to, but he can tell Jordan loves doing it. They see Lydia coming, and Harri gives her a dirty blow on the arm in case Jordan is watching. Harri then tells her it was an accident.
This passage illustrates that Harri feels pressure to seem tough in front of kids like Jordan (and thus presumably also the Dell Farm Crew). Jordan is able to pressure Harri into smashing beer bottles, and just Jordan’s presence encourages Harri to punch Lydia. Mamma is clearly right to say that Jordan is a bad influence on her son.
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The pigeon muses on the tactics humans use to keep pigeons away, such as metal spikes, flypaper, and rifles. In school, Harri learns about volcanoes, and points out that at the center of Earth is hell. The class laughs at him, and Harri is astonished by the fact that they don’t believe in hell, concluding that “they’re in for a nasty surprise!” At afternoon registration, Poppy gives him a letter that says, “Do you like me?” with two tick boxes, yes and no. She asks him to tick a box and give it back to her after the holiday. Harri hopes that the box he ticks is the right one.  
Harri’s life has become increasingly fraught over the course of the novel, with his otherwise happy, normal life being tainted by bullying, violence, peer pressure, dishonesty, and the death of the boy. Poppy is a contrast to all of this: she is innocent and kind and brings out Harri’s natural cheerfulness and innocence. 
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