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Matthew d’Ancona discusses Pigeon English

Matthew d’Ancona discusses Pigeon English

At the announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist in September 2011, one of the judges, Matthew d'Ancona, spoke about Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English.

"Perhaps the highest calling of the novelist is to lead the reader into the mind of another person and to explore that character with total authenticity. It is this, above all else, that makes Pigeon English such an extraordinary book, a technical and artistic achievement of the highest order.

In this, his debut, Stephen Kelman invites us into the world of Harri, an 11-year-old immigrant from Ghana, who lives on the Dell Farm Estate in South London. The fulcrum of the plot resembles the murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and the resonances with reality do not end there. We are seeing a side of our society which nags at the conscience and troubles the intellect. But this is not a roman a clef, nor an exercise in political didacticism. Much more ambitiously, it is an account of life seen through the eyes of a child, his innocence and gradual disillusionment, his sense of fun and of confusion, and the vivid, jumbled panorama of the modern multi-ethnic society through which he moves.

Harri's language, a personal brew of Ghanaian patois and south London slang, is so distinctive that it is better described as an idiolect: a unique way of speaking, as personal to him as the pigeon that he believes is watching over him. In this sense, I was reminded of Anthony Burgess' experimentation with the language of youth in A Clockwork Orange and its function as an expression of group and individual identity - sometimes threatening, sometimes playful, always creative. Our language is, literally, who we are.

All this could have ended up as another worthy but dry novel of social commentary. Pigeon English is not that sort of book at all. In his amateur detective work with his mate Dean, Harri turns Sherlock Holmes with an entirely plausible spirit of childlike wonderment. Horror and innocence sit nervously side by side in the concrete corridors of this bleak estate: indeed, it is in that tension that much of the book's drama is to be found.

The riots of summer 2011 have made this novel, accidentally, all the more topical - but that was emphatically not why the Man Booker judges gave it its place on the shortlist. Pigeon English is, quite simply, a magnificent novel, to be read and relished not as a work of social prophesy, or a tract on the state of England, but as a warm, compelling and utterly personal account of the human condition, reminding us always that each of us, however young, wherever we come from, and wherever we are, contains multitudes."

Matthew d’Ancona, the Man Booker Prize
Matthew d’Ancona, the Man Booker Prize