Pigeon English

by

Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English: May Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
There is a carnival in Harri’s neighborhood, and everyone dances, “even the white people and the old people.” There are men on stilts, which Harri finds hutious. Terry Takeaway steals a jar of hot dogs for his dog, Asbo, from the raffle stand, and no one stops him. Harri wins a pair of binoculars in the raffle and is thrilled. He looks at a pigeon through them, following the pigeon’s flight until he feels dizzy. The Dell Farm Crew are there but don’t acknowledge Harri. Killa and Miquita are dating now, and Harri hopes they continue so Miquita will leave him alone. Lydia keeps her parrot costume on for the whole day.
At the carnival, the problems plaguing Harri’s community seem to momentarily fade away, as shown by the fact that everyone dances together, nobody stops Terry Takeaway stealing, and the Dell Farm Crew leave Harri alone. However, this momentary peace and harmony creates a feeling of tension, as it seems bound not to last forever. 
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Back in Ghana, Agnes has learned how to say the names of everyone in the family. Harri can’t wait until she can talk properly, so he can tell her a story about a man with a wooden leg. He wants to tell her that if someone has a missing leg in their mortal life, they will get one in heaven. Church is cancelled that day because someone smashed the windows and wrote DFC all over the walls. Mr. Frimpong is crying; Harri pretends not to know what DFC means. Harri suggests that they go to a different church, such as the one where the dead boy’s funeral took place. Mamma tells him that this is “the wrong kind of church.” Mr. Frimpong grumbles about Catholics wanting to steal the land again, and Harri is confused. He doesn’t understand how some churches can be the wrong ones. 
The fact that the Dell Farm Crew attack Harri’s church highlights how senseless and brutal their behavior is. There is no reason for them to attack the church apart from wanting to cause chaos. This is particularly true given that—as Harri’s conversation with Mamma indicates—Harri’s church is not a mainstream church, but one that is attended by other Ghanaian immigrants. The Dell Farm Crew have thus chosen a particularly vulnerable population to target with their violence.
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Harri thinks that if he joined the Dell Farm Crew, he could teach them about God, but Lydia tells him to stay away from them. They argue about the clothes Lydia bleached. Harri insists that he saw blood on them; Lydia eventually admits that this was true but tells him it was Miquita’s blood—“girl’s blood.” Harri feels bad that Lydia’s crying, but he also thinks that she needs to learn a lesson. Harri tells her she looks stupid in her parrot costume, and Lydia tells him to “f— off.” Harri is shocked but turns his attention to luring his pigeon back with candy. He worries that the pigeon is never going to come back. 
In this passage, the reader is once again reminded of how innocent Harri is, to the point of naïve cluelessness. At first Lydia attempts to save Harri from his own cluelessness by warning him not to try to convert the Dell Farm Crew to Christianity. However, she then chooses to utilize Harri’s innocence by telling him that the blood was “girl’s blood” (implying menstrual blood), presumably hoping that this will make him stop asking questions.
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Harri tries the “dirty finger trick” on Manik, and Manik responds by insulting the marker drawings that Harri has done on his running shoes, which makes everyone laugh. Harri tried to make the shoes look like Adidas and maintains that they look good from a distance. He angrily thinks that once he’s in the Dell Farm Crew, no one will laugh at him anymore.
Having shown that immigrants like Harri might be especially vulnerable to joining gangs, the novel now shows a connection between poverty and gang membership. Harri dreams of being part of the Dell Farm Crew in order to reverse the humiliation he feels over his running shoes.
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Harri observes that there are security cameras everywhere in London. He, X-Fire, Dizzy, and Killa are trying to rob someone; the other boys are going to bump into the target and Harri will escape with “the prize.” Harri reassures himself that if he just pretends he’s playing suicide bomber, he won’t be afraid. Harri sees his pigeon by the newsstand but can’t talk to it because he needs to concentrate on watching for the signal from the others. Harri is horrified to see that X-Fire has chosen Mr. Frimpong as the target. Mr. Frimpong is “only skinny” and the oldest member of Harri’s church congregation. Harri runs as fast as he can, trying not to look where he’s going.  
In this moment, Mr. Frimpong represents all the parts of Harri’s life that are the opposite of the Dell Farm Crew: Ghana, his family, and his religion. These sides of Harri have so far led him to resist joining the Dell Farm Crew. Regardless of whether X-Fire deliberately chooses Mr. Frimpong or not, this decision forces Harri to choose between two very different paths lying before him.
Themes
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Harri turns around and sees Mr. Frimpong lying on the floor with his legs bent at a strange angle. His shopping has rolled out all over the floor, and the boys are now stamping on it. Mr. Frimpong looks terrified. X-Fire approaches him and demands his wallet. Harri is horrified, and runs away as fast as he can, pretending he can’t hear X-Fire calling after him. The narrative switches back to the pigeon’s perspective.  The pigeon says that it has been trying to get Harri’s attention and help him, but at a certain point there’s nothing more it can do. The pigeon tells Harri that he can always find home if he is a good person and encourages him to be as “big as you want to be.”
The pigeon is still a somewhat mysterious figure in the novel; it is not yet totally clear what the bird represents. Here, the pigeon acts as a kind of guardian angel to Harri. The pigeon suggests that home is less a fixed location than a state of existence that Harri can access if he is a good person and true to himself. The more he betrays his own heart, the further Harri will drift away from home.
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Related Quotes
Daniel Bevan uses an inhaler, and Harri thinks he might die soon. Daniel promises to leave Harri his books if he dies first. Harri recalls a memory of Papa letting him drive the pickup truck back in Ghana. In London, Harri throws his coat down a drainpipe so the police won’t know he was involved in the robbery of Mr. Frimpong. He thinks that the devil is “too strong” in London, and that in Ghana he was rarely tempted to do bad things.
Harri’s comment about the devil being too strong in London might refer to the greater rate of violent crime that Harri perceives in London. On the other hand, it might also indicate that Harri is more likely to succumb to the temptation of sin in London, as he is a newcomer, vulnerable to prejudice and not yet strongly rooted in a community.
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Altaf knows all the superheroes and draws pictures of them. He has even invented his own superhero called Snake Man, who can transform into a snake and poison his enemies. Harri is impressed and compliments him. People say that Altaf is gay because he is quiet and has feminine lips, but Harri pretends that Altaf’s lips are his superpower. Harri can fart in a way that makes it sound as if he has a woodpecker in his pants, although he clarifies that this isn’t a superpower, “just a skill.”
Harri’s kindness toward Altaf reminds us of his gentle, selfless side. Whereas other kids at Harri’s school immediately prey on people’s vulnerabilities in order to bully them, Harri prefers to see these vulnerabilities as strengths.
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At school, X-Fire makes the gun sign at Harri, and Dizzy says that the Dell Farm Crew “ain’t gonna forget” that Harri left them during the robbery of Mr. Frimpong. X-Fire warns Harri to stay quiet about it. Later, Harri sees Asbo biting Terry Takeaway. Harri finds it funny at first, but then he and Dean help Terry by putting a branch in Asbo’s mouth. After, they try to train Asbo to recognize the smell of a killer. Harri advises Terry that if Asbo finds a suspect, Terry should tie them up with Asbo’s lead and call the police. Suddenly X-Fire, Dizzy, and Killa walk down the road, which Harri sees as a perfect opportunity to test out the plan.   
Harri may have upset the Dell Farm Crew, but he still has other allies around his neighborhood, such as Terry Takeaway and Dean. However, given the disproportionate level of power and violence that the Dell Farm Crew exert within the community, it seems unlikely that Harri will be able to stand up to them for long and remain unharmed.
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Asbo sniffs Killa, and Killa pulls a screwdriver from his pants, demanding that Terry get Asbo away from him. Harri feels sure that Asbo has identified that Killa is a sinner, though he can’t tell if this means Killa murdered the dead boy or if Asbo is just picking up on all the other things that he’s done wrong. After X-Fire and the boys leave, Terry offers a kettle to Dean and Harri for six pounds. They both say no but thank him for offering. Harri plans to split the reward with Asbo if they catch the killer. 
Terry Takeaway proves that not all criminals are evil. Although Terry steals, he is also kind and friendly to Harri and Dean when few other people are. Furthermore, his stealing is not motivated by selfishness or cruelty, but—considering how little money he asks for the kettle—seemingly by necessity. 
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Harri explains that people who don’t believe in God are “lost” and “empty inside.” Mr. Frimpong doesn’t sing during church that week. He laments that no one stopped and tried to help him. Mamma tells Mr. Frimpong that Harri’s coat was stolen, and Mr. Frimpong speculates that it was probably the same people who robbed him. Harri tries to pray, but it ends up being filled with swearwords. He thinks that his superpower of choice would be invisibility. That was how Mr. Frimpong didn’t notice that it was Harri who knocked him over.
Harri’s claim about people who don’t believe in God seems to be a form of projection. At this point in the novel, Harri is plagued by guilt and internal turmoil, which affects his relationship to his faith—as shown by the prayer that’s accidentally filled with swearwords.
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Related Quotes
Jordan’s mom has a tattoo, which Harri thinks means she’s a tutufo. He thinks only men should have tattoos. While playing football, Harri and Jordan see Fag Ash Lil, who got her nickname because she picks up used cigarettes from the ground. Harri thinks she must be “at least two hundred years” old. He is afraid of her because there are rumors that she has killed children. As Fag Ash Lil is gets into the lift, Jordan calls her a “stupid old bastard,” and Harri realizes that she thinks Harri was the one who said it. When Harri worries that she will kill them, Jordan replies that he will shank her if she tries. Jordan shows Harri his knife and encourages Harri to get one too. When Harri replies that he doesn’t need one, Jordan tells him everyone does. 
This passage illustrates a key difference between Harri and Jordan. Jordan recklessly provokes other people without fear of the consequences, on the basis that he can stab anyone who dares to reproach him. Harri, meanwhile, prefers not to bother anyone who hasn’t harmed him first and insists that he doesn’t “need” a knife. Of course, Harri’s statement raises the question of whether anyone actually needs a knife or simply whether the idea that people need one creates a meaningless, unstoppable cycle of violence.
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Harri says that a war has started, but that he hasn’t seen it. He lists the wars that are “going on all the time,” including “Kids vs. Teachers,” “Northwell Manor High vs. Leabridge High,” and “Arsenal vs. Chelsea.” While Mamma is in the shower, Harri takes her tomato knife from the kitchen and pretends to use it. He hides it inside his trousers and pretends that there is a war going on, and that God has “forgotten” him. He eventually decides that if a war really does happen, he will just run away, which will be possible because he is so fast.
Once again, Harri processes conflict and violence by turning it into a kind of game. This is shown in his list of “wars”—many of which are not actually violent conflicts but just silly rivalries or sports rivalries. Harry’s sense of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred, putting him in danger of confusing real, dangerous conflict with a mere fantasy.
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A boy at school calls Poppy “four-eyes,” and Harri defends her. Harri shows Poppy his binoculars but doesn’t tell her what they’re for, as that’s a secret between him and Dean. Poppy became Harri’s girlfriend after he ticked the box to say he liked her. Harri and Dean have collected five fingerprints so far, including those of innocent people, so that they can compare them to the suspects’. Harri’s bedroom is now their “headquarters,” and only people with the password—“pigeon”—are allowed in. Harri decides to freeze off his fingerprints in the freezer but worries that he’ll get frostbite. After he is done, his fingers go numb, which he thinks means that he no longer has fingerprints. Lydia calls him a “complete retard.” He is glad when the numbness fades and feels bad for Auntie Sonia that her fingertips are numb forever.
Harri proclaims to have a clear idea of the distinction between innocence and guilt. For example, he explains that he has taken fingerprints from innocent people—yet how does he know they are innocent in advance of completing the investigation? Harri’s decision to freeze off his own fingerprints suggests that the distinction between guilt and innocence is not as simple as he presumes. While Harri obviously did not kill the dead boy, he is also no longer entirely innocent, and now wishes to erase his feelings of guilt through freezing off his fingertips.
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Miquita is straightening Lydia’s hair. After one side of Lydia’s head is done, they take a break and drink apple juice, pretending it’s champagne. Once Lydia’s hair is almost done, Harri concludes that it looks bo-styles. Suddenly Miquita turns angry and asks Lydia if she’s “with us,” adding: “you’re either with us or against us, innit.” Miquita taunts Lydia with the straightener, bringing it close to her skin and taking it away. Eventually Lydia cries out that she doesn’t know anything, and that she’s with them. Miquita has already burned a small red mark into her cheek.
Miquita’s demand for loyalty indicates that Lydia is indeed somehow involved in the shady activities of the Dell Farm Crew, and perhaps even in the murder of the dead boy. However, it also shows that Lydia’s agency has been severely restricted. The fact that she is essentially physically tortured into promising loyalty shows that Lydia has had little choice in the matter.
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Harri takes Miquita and Chanelle’s fingerprints from their glasses of juice. He doesn’t take Lydia’s because she’s not a suspect. After Miquita and Chanelle leave, Lydia cuts up her Dance Club costume with scissors. She makes Harri swear not to tell anyone about the clothes at the laundromat, even though she also maintains it was nothing. Harri gets new running shoes called Diadoras from the “cancer shop.” He pretends that the person who owned them before was “the greatest at football” and that he will pass on his skills through the shoes. The other kids say that things from the cancer shop have cancer, but Harri knows that’s not true. 
Harri may have upgraded his running shoes, but he now has to face an additional level of prejudice directed at them. The “cancer shop” refers to a shop selling second-hand clothes for cancer charities. The kids’ assumption that the items in it have cancer is arguably less a sincere belief than it is yet another manifestation of prejudice against poverty. Most people in Harri’s community are also poor, yet they harshly judge those who are perceived to be poor regardless.
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Poppy loves Harri’s Diadoras. The two of them hold hands sometimes, but the rest of the time just act “normal.” Poppy shows Harri how to hold hands so their fingers are interlaced. She lets him try on her glasses, and he says he wishes he had to wear glasses, not her. He wants to tell her that she is “the most beautiful” and “my yellow,” but there are too many other people around.
Again, Poppy brings innocent joy into Harri’s life, and he enjoys being in the role of her boyfriend. On the other hand, there is still part of him that resists being in a relationship, as shown by the fact that he contrasts holding hands with acting “normal.”
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Harri describes the invisible lines marking the different gang territories in his area. It is important to stay within the right lines in order to be safe. He adds that the church is “home for everybody,” and no one can be harmed in there. Home is also safe for everyone, as long as the front door is locked. Harri sees Dizzy, who calls him a “pussy boy” and says he’s going to kill him. Harri runs but stops to tease Dizzy, who is out of breath from trying to catch him. Harri rejoices that he’s won, but then sees X-Fire, who says: “I’ll f—ing kill you!”. Harri keeps running and jumps on the chair car lady’s chair car. The lady is furious and makes Harri get off. X-Fire and Dizzy crack up laughing, and Harri once again laments that “in England they can never tell if it’s a trick or serious.” 
Harri complains that in England it is never clear whether “it’s a trick or serious,” but this is also true of his own behavior. Harri plays a game called “suicide bomber,” pretends to be a detective, pretends to be in a war, and turns Dizzy chasing him into a game. In each of these cases, Harri turns something serious and violent into a joke, a game, or a fantasy. On the other hand, Harri never does the reverse, and turns something that initially appears to be “a trick” into something genuinely serious and threatening—this behavior is true of the Dell Farm Crew.
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