Pigeon English

by

Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English: June Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Harri and Dean are on a “stake-out” at the bottom of the stairs in Harri’s tower. They vow to stay there watching all day and night and have brought snacks. Harri asks if Jesus is a suspect. Jesus earned the nickname because he has long hair and a beard; he is always rolling around the flats on his rollerblades. Dean confirms that Jesus isn’t a suspect because rollerblades are “too conspicuous” for a killer. Harri finds it “relaxing” and “lovely” to be on the stake out, looking at everything through his binoculars. Dean chastises him for getting distracted by looking at pigeons. They have a list of “signs of guilt,” which Dean has devised from watching TV, and conclude that three signs of guilt is necessary in order to be a major suspect.
The description of Harri and Dean’s stakeout further illustrates the way in which Harri processes the trauma of the boy’s death, turning it into something fun and even “relaxing.” By pretending to be a detective, Harri gets the chance to sit back and observe his neighbors. Of course, as a recent immigrant, he is already a keen observer of the world around him, learning about the customs and norms of his new country through careful observation. He can now put these observational skills to a different use: finding the killer. 
Themes
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
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Dean suggests that Terry Takeaway could be a suspect, but Harri objects, stating that Terry is his friend. At that moment, Terry sees Harri and shouts to him. Dean curses that their cover is now blown, and Harri decides to wear a disguise next time. Dean tells Harri they need to start collecting DNA through blood, saliva, poop, and even boogers. Harri asks what DNA is, and Dean explains. Harri concludes that DNA is the “greatest invention,” and wishes that the killer’s DNA could have been altered in order to make him not kill.
Harri arguably relies too much on his instincts in order to be considered a truly reliable detective. On the other hand, his intrinsic innocence and moral goodness are perhaps rather good guides to assessing the guilt of those around him. 
Themes
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Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Lydia has not stopped talking about the Samsung Galaxy and has asked Auntie Sonia for one as a birthday present. Harri loves overhearing people talk on their mobile phones; he says that he finds it “relaxing.” Auntie Sonia’s nose is bandaged, and Harri thinks it looks like she was in a war. She explains that she was reaching for a suitcase and it accidentally fell and hit her in the face. When Julius comes back from the bathroom, Auntie Sonia becomes quiet. Agnes has a fever, and Julius offers to send her “special medicine,” but Mamma declines. She calls Julius into the kitchen and Harri can hear her opening her secret drawer, where she keeps her money and chocolate. Just before Auntie Sonia goes, she asks Lydia what color phone she wants.
It is likely quite obvious to the reader that Auntie Sonia is lying, and that her broken nose is from Julius rather than a falling suitcase. Note that while Sonia used to insist on being completely honest with Harri and Lydia and not keeping secrets from them, she has now reversed her position. This is likely because Mamma has to keep paying Julius money, so the children have no choice but to be around him. Both Mamma and Auntie Sonia are left especially vulnerable as female African immigrants to the UK. 
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Connor Green boasts that he’s seen Poppy’s boobs, but Harri insists that he’s lying and jealous because he wants to be Poppy’s boyfriend. Poppy writes “P.M. + H.O.” on her desk, followed by “I.D.S.T.” which she explains means “If Destroyed Still True.” Harri writes it on his desk too. He explains that it’s like being married but better because you’d have to have sex. Connor starts talking about people having sex with animals and children. Dean has told Harri that one of the never-normal girls’ grandpas has sex with her, and that’s why she looks so frightened all the time. Dean explains that the girl’s parents are dead, and that if she told the police, she’d have nowhere to live. Harri feels sorry for her.
Because they are only eleven, Harri and his friends still find sex disgusting and scary, even as some of them are likely also beginning to be intrigued by it as well. Dean’s story about the never-normal girl also shows the somewhat limited ways in which children this age are able to express empathy. While Harri does feel pity for the girl, his only access to her story is through Dean’s rather sensationalist telling. Neither Harri nor Dean think of intervening on the girl’s behalf, despite their status as self-styled detectives.
Themes
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Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
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Harri accidentally gets in the lift with Fag Ash Lil and vows never to go in it again, claiming that he will use the stairs even though they smell like urine. On the news, a man talks about the dead boy and how much he misses him. Harri and Lydia argue, and after, Harri wonders what heaven is really like. When the newscaster says “goodnight,” Harri says it back, even though Lydia teases him. Harri once saw a pigeon with one leg and asked how it lost it. He explains that he loves all pigeons no matter how many legs they have. Harri loves being outdoors; sometimes it makes him “squeezed up” to stay inside.
This passage emphasizes that Harri’s childlike innocence is still powerfully present, despite the efforts of characters like Lydia to make him grow up. Perhaps Lydia’s cruel objection to Harri saying “goodnight” to the newscaster is actually a manifestation of jealousy. Lydia, Miquita, and the Dell Farm Crew may all secretly envy Harri’s joyous, carefree, innocent state, which leads them to want to destroy it. 
Themes
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Harri would give his life up if it means Agnes doesn’t die. Grandma Ama assures him that Agnes will be fine. Harri thinks that it isn’t fair that you have to go to heaven forever; he thinks that people should be able to come back and forth to visit. Harri has a nightmare about Agnes being lost in the deep sea. Back in Ghana, Papa taught Harri to swim. In his dream, Harri sees the pigeon and asks if there really is a heaven. The pigeon replies “there is.” Harri asks if Agnes will be okay, and the pigeon says that she will be. The pigeon tells Harri to go back to sleep.
At a time when Harri’s life has become more tumultuous and terrifying than ever, the pigeon appears as a kind of guardian angel. The pigeon is clearly connected with Harri’s ideas about heaven and home, and particularly the sense that home may not be a physical place on Earth, but rather something inside Harri—a state of being.
Themes
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Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Harri thinks that “orgasm” means a mouse’s sneeze. He describes all the toughest boys in Year 7. The uppercut is Dean’s move of choice, but he hasn’t used it yet as he’s saving it for “emergencies” only. At lunchtime, Miquita and Chanelle have a massive fight. Miquita calls Chanelle a “fucking skank” and yells “You ain’t gonna tell shit!”. People surround them in a circle, and everyone cheers for Miquita to win.
Miquita and Chanelle’s fight demonstrates that violent conflict is not committed solely by boys and men. At the same time, it is clear that there is an added sense of spectacle to the fight between the two girls, suggesting that there may be an extent to which the girls are performing for others by fighting.   
Themes
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Harri becomes convinced that one of the two girls is going to die, but everyone keeps watching and cheering. Dizzy takes pictures on his phone, while Killa looks worried and walks away alone. Dizzy encourages Miquita to throw Chanelle through the window, and Miquita begins dragging her toward it, screaming “You best keep your mouth shut, bitch!”. Harri can barely bring himself to look, and sees Lydia looking terrified. The teachers arrive and break up the circle. Everyone walks away in a daze, saying it was the best fight they’ve ever seen.
When Miquita yells at Chanelle that she better keep her mouth shut, Lydia is suddenly implicated in the fight, as Miquita has said the same thing to her. Dizzy’s shouts of encouragement further indicate that Miquita is fighting Chanelle in order to win the attention and approval of the Dell Farm Crew.
Themes
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Harri and Lydia sneak into the Youth Club to play with the pool tables, checking to see if X-Fire is in there first. Outside, Miquita and Killa sit together on the wall, and Miquita is smoking. Miquita says Lydia is a “good girl” who keeps quiet, unlike Chanelle. Harri sees the marks on Miquita’s hands where Killa has burned her with his lighter, and Harri feels sorry for Killa because he has to burn Miquita in order to impress her.
Harri’s feelings of sympathy with Killa are somewhat surprising. Perhaps he feels sympathy for Killa rather than Miquita because Harri has a hard time identifying with girls (and especially Miquita). On the other hand, Harri’s sympathy also highlights the fact that Killa’s cruelty toward Miquita likely emerges from Killa’s own pain and insecurity.
Themes
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Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Killa threatens to break Harri’s binoculars if he doesn’t stop staring at him through them. As Harri walks away, Killa grabs him and smashes the binoculars. Killa runs away, and Harri laments that he’s now “just a civilian again.” Lydia offers to buy him new ones, but he tells her they won’t be the same. Harri makes a note that he has observed four signs of guilt in Killa and suggests making him “Suspect Number One.” He adds that Miquita is Killa’s accomplice, and they should beware of her.
All the clues provided in the book so far indicate that Killa is the murderer. Yet could this be the result of bias on Harri’s part? After all, he concludes that Killa is “Suspect Number One” only after Killa personally antagonizes him, smashing his beloved binoculars. Once again, Harri’s detective skills may be limited by his own biases.
Themes
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Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
At the market, Nish is taken away by the police. He screams and hangs onto his van while the police pry away his fingers. The watch doctor tells the police to “leave him alone,” but the fruit man shouts: “About f—cking time! Send him home!”. Nish’s wife falls on the floor and her shoe comes off, so Harri picks it up for her. Nish and his wife are locked in the van and taken away.
This passage depicts the issues surrounding migration and deportation that have become increasingly fraught in London in recent years. The different reactions of people watching in the market highlight the stark divide in opinion among British people on the issue of migration.
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon
Pluralism vs. Prejudice Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Nish is from Pakistan, and Dean’s mamma comments that she didn’t know they were “illegal.” Everyone agrees that Nish’s meat is better than what you get at the butcher. Harri hopes that Pakistan is nice and thinks about all the things he would miss if he were sent away. Lydia explains that Nish didn’t have a visa. Harri points out that Julius sells visas, but Lydia responds that they’re fake and that Julius is “a crook.” Worried, Harri asks if their visa works, and Lydia assures him that it does.
This passage reveals that Lydia has a greater understanding of the world than Harri. Whereas Harri doesn’t know what a visa is or realize that Julius is a “crook,” Lydia has been able to figure these things out. On the other hand, her assurance that their visas work seems tenuous, considering that Mamma appears to have bought them from Julius. 
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Pluralism vs. Prejudice Theme Icon
Harri tries to collect Jordan’s spit, but Jordan won’t let him. Jordan’s favorite gun is a Glock, which he says is what “the toughest gangsters use.” He vows to buy one as soon as he has enough money. Once, Jordan had to bury a gun for the Dell Farm Crew and boasts that he even got to pull the trigger. The boys usually bury guns in the gardens of old people who won’t notice and do so at night. Harri finds the idea of planting a gun crazy and imagines a tree of baby guns growing from the soil. A bus comes, and Harri and Jordan throw stones at it. The driver sees them and the boys run away.
Harri’s friendship with Jordan is a clear example of peer pressure. Without the influence of Jordan and other kids like him, it seems unlikely that Harri would ever fantasize about gun ownership. His mind is still too innocent, as shown by the fact that his fantasy soon drifts to an image of a tree of baby guns. Yet because Jordan thinks guns are cool, Harri decides that he does as well.
Themes
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Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Mamma is waiting on the other side of the tunnel. She calls Harri a “stupid boy” and tells Jordan to stay away from him. She calls Jordan “a waste of time.” Jordan calls Harri a “pussy boy,” and Harri tells him to “f— off,” which leads Mamma to threaten to “beat the black off you.” Harri feels miserable. He is sure that he’s ruined everything, and that God is going to kill Agnes in punishment. 
Although Harri may at times act recklessly, this passage emphasizes that in reality, he feels a heavy burden of responsibility. He is convinced that if he angers God, Agnes will die as punishment. Trapped between two worlds, Harri feels isolated and panicked.
Themes
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Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon
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Harri recalls what it was like in Ghana when there was a blackout. He would go around the neighborhood with Papa distributing paraffin, and eventually it would turn into a party. Harri was even given one sip of beer for helping. Mamma and Grandma Ama made cowpea stew for everyone, and music played. Harri wanted the night to last forever. Back in the present, Harri sneaks out after Mamma and Lydia are asleep and puts his lucky alligator tooth in the drainpipe as an offering to God. He is sure that God will fix everything now.
It is unsurprising that at his darkest moment, Harri turns to his memories of Ghana in order to re-center himself. Thinking about his life in Ghana brings Harri comfort and helps remind him of his values. This gives him the courage to sacrifice the alligator tooth—which was given to him by Papa—in order to make everything better.
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon
Harri walks past the church with Dean and Connor when X-Fire and Dizzy stop them. Harri keeps both feet inside the church grounds because he thinks that means the boys can’t hurt him, but they reply that they don’t believe in “fairy stories.” Dizzy stamps on the church flowers, and Harri tells him to let Connor and Dean go because “it’s nothing to do with them.” Dizzy punches Harri in the arm, and Harri screams even though it doesn’t hurt because he thinks this will make Dizzy leave the others alone. X-Fire tells Dizzy that Harri is “not worth it,” and the boys walk away. Harri concludes that it was just a “trick” all along.
Harri now faces his problems with a newfound sense of courage and selflessness, as shown by his willingness to take Dizzy’s beating if he lets Dean and Connor go. At the same time, Harri faces a difficult battle in confronting the Dell Farm Crew, particularly because they do not behave with any sense of moral integrity themselves. 
Themes
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Pluralism vs. Prejudice Theme Icon
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Dean admits that four guilty signs is incriminating but not enough to prove that Killa is the murderer. They need DNA, and Dean points out that they now have a chance, as Killa and the rest of the Dell Farm Crew are nearby in the cafeteria. Harri reluctantly agrees to distract Killa while Dean collects the DNA sample with sellotape. Harri walks up to Killa and pushes him, then calls him a “batty boy.” Dizzy and Clipz go after Harri, and at the same time, Dean places the sellotape over the spot on the cafeteria window where Killa’s hands had been. Killa tries to wipe his fingerprints away, and the whole Dell Farm Crew sprint after Harri.
Dean and Harri might be only eleven and using rather crude detective materials, but this is still enough to put Killa on edge. Indeed, his paranoia about them gathering his fingerprints is arguably one of the most incriminating signs of behavior Killa has displayed so far. Yet it remains unclear if this is because he is the murderer, or because he is worrying about being caught for some other crime.
Themes
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Harri runs into Mr. Tomlin’s class, where he knows he’s safe. Later, Dean and Harri review the sellotape, but are disappointed to find that the fingerprints are blurry because Dean gathered them too quickly. Harri puts the sellotape in a folder and writes Killa’s name on it. He admits that it feels scary in a good way, as if he has control over Killa. 
Harri has spent most of the novel feeling powerless in the face of the Dell Farm Crew. Regardless of whether it amounts to anything, his detective work allows him to gain a sense of power and control over the older boys.
Themes
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Over the phone, Grandma Ama tells the family that Agnes is feeling better, and Mamma and Lydia cry with joy. The day before Lydia’s birthday, Auntie Sonia gives her a Samsung Galaxy, and Lydia is so happy she cries again. After getting it, Lydia starts taking pictures of everything. Harri gets a remote-control car even though it’s not his birthday. Julius is fixing his baseball bat, which he calls “the persuader.” Harri asks if he can knock someone’s head right off with it, and Julius says no, but it can do quite a lot of damage. Mamma doesn’t say anything but scrubs the dishes like she is “trying to scrub the sin off them.” 
Due to the burden of responsibility that Mamma bears and her vulnerability as a recent immigrant and a woman, she does not feel able to retaliate against Julius or defend her sister. Instead, Mamma is forced to suffer in silence and maintain a strong, stoic image in front of her children, keeping her true feelings secret. 
Themes
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Harri sees a Year 10 girl in a headscarf praying and finds it “relaxing” to watch her. After she finishes, Harri walks away and accidentally bumps into Killa, who points a craft knife at Harri and demands to have his fingerprints back. Killa tells Harri not to mess with him and says, “You can’t prove nothing anyway.”
Although Harri doesn’t know the Year 10 girl and although she practices a different religion, he finds comfort to see someone else immersed in their own faith and values.
Themes
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On Lydia’s birthday, it is warm, and people are blasting music out their windows. She gets chocolate cake and a package from Ghana, which contains CDs from Abena, earrings from Grandma Ama, a picture of Agnes’ hand, and a dancer that Papa carved for her from wood. Lydia starts crying, and Mamma observes that “she’s missing her Papa.” Harri tries to cheer her up, and Lydia smiles a small smile, then laughs.
Due to the separation of the family, even happy occasions like birthdays are tainted by sadness. This passage also shows how the separation affects Lydia and Harri differently due to their different ages. Due to her more sophisticated grasp of the situation, Lydia finds it harder to deal with.
Themes
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Harri asks Lydia if she’s ready for her surprise. At first, she is suspicious that it is a trick, but then agrees to go with him. Harri leads her to some wet cement he found earlier in the day and explains that if they jump in it, their footprints will be there forever. Lydia is uncertain, but after Harri demonstrates, she leaves her footprints too. They write their names below their footprints, and Lydia beams “from ear to ear.” Harri is thrilled that now the whole world will know they were there, and in his head asks the pigeon to guard the cement until it dries. The narrative switches to the pigeon’s perspective, and it agrees.
As a symbol, footprints are clearly related to fingerprints, as both represent identity and legacy. Yet where fingerprints are associated with guilt and criminality in the novel, this passage represents footprints in a positive, happy light. By leaving their footprints in the cement, Harri and Lydia feel a sense of belonging in their new home. They become—literally—part of the city.
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Harri loves surprises, like the cement or when people have hidden talents. While Harri and Dean play football, Dean notices something wrapped up on the ground. Nervously, Dean unwraps it, and they see it’s a wallet. It is sticky with dark stains and has no money inside. However, it does contain a photograph of the dead boy wearing his Chelsea shirt next to a white girl. They are both smiling, and Harri reflects that he didn’t know the dead boy had a girlfriend. The girl is “nearly as pretty as Poppy,” and Harri suddenly feels overwhelmed by sadness. Harri and Dean speculate that the stickiness on the wallet could be blood or oil.
As the novel nears its end, the parallels between Harri and the dead boy eerily increase. Although it is not clear whether the blond girl in the picture was actually the dead boy’s girlfriend, Harri projects his own circumstances onto the dead boy and assumes that, like him and Poppy, the dead boy and the girl were dating.
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Related Quotes
Harri and Dean go back to Harri’s room and apply the sellotape the stains. Harri suggests that they taste it to check if its real blood, but Dean replies that it might have AIDS, and that it is creeping him out. Later, Terry Takeaway gives Harri Asbo’s leash to hold and teaches him how to make Asbo walk next to him. Harri instructs Asbo to sniff out the killer, and Terry shows off all the tricks Asbo can do. Harri’s favorite is when Asbo shakes hands with his paw. He thinks it is “the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Throughout the novel, Terry Takeaway and Asbo provide moments of lighthearted comic relief. However, as the narrative progresses and the issues Harri faces become more urgent and serious, these moments of levity become increasingly rare.
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