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Bare Lives
Part 3 – Voices and (In)Visibilities

Voicing Inarticulate Childhoods in Troubled Times: Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for A Knave (1968), James Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy (2008) and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (2011)

Les voix des enfances sans voix dans la fiction contemporaine britannique : A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) de Barry Hines, Kieron Smith, Boy (2008) de James Kelman et Pigeon English (2011) de Stephen Kelman
Georges Letissier


Dans son étude sur les vies ordinaires, les vies précaires, le philosophe français Guillaume Le Blanc fait allusion à la nécessité paradoxale pour les « sans voix » de trouver une voix. La vulnérabilité sociale va de pair avec la vulnérabilité linguistique, de sorte que les vies précaires se voient privées de formes d’expression verbale. En sélectionnant des romans présentant des enfants confrontés à l’épreuve de devoir grandir dans le dénuement et l’adversité de vie sans perspective, cet article contraste les démarches de trois romanciers (Barry Hines, James Kelman et Stephen Kelman) qui s’efforcent de résoudre la question de l’authenticité de la voix et d’expressivité orale. Barry Hines a souvent répété que dans ses fictions il se tient à l’écart des démarches expérimentales. À cette démarche qui privilégie les logiques métonymiques peut être opposée la tentative faite par James Kelman de transcrire le discours cru et intarissable d’un enfant de Glasgow dans les années cinquante. Quant à Stephen Kelman il choisit comme personnage principal un garçon de onze ans récemment arrivé du Ghana dans un roman dont le titre anglais Pigeon English porte déjà de manière programmatique les inflexions multiples d’une langue diasporique.

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1In his book titled Vies ordinaires, vies précaires, French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc dedicates one whole section to what he aphoristically calls les voix des sans voix. Sans voix, i.e. without a voice, should by no means be equated with voiceless, but rather as referring to voices which do not carry, because they are unheard, muted or not reckoned with. What is crucial is the notion of recognition, or better its absence.

2As a direct consequence of successive economic crises and the implacable law of profitability which entails competitiveness, an ever-increasing number of people have been excluded from the labour market. There have appeared forms of life, or perhaps survival, characterised by their precariousness. There are of course different acceptations that may be attributed to the term precariousness, two will be considered more thoroughly in what follows. They have both been propounded by Le Blanc in the above-mentioned book. The first lies in the potential tension between forms of marginalised lives and the absence of voice to bear witness to them, the second in the contradiction between the creative potential inherent in these marginalised lives and a general tendency to fail to acknowledge the diversity of this reserve of creativity (Le Blanc 2007, 78). The end result of this dual set of oppositions is social invisibility.

3Whilst, in the wake of the 1968 events in France, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze theorised forms of subjection to disciplinary power and state control, their analysis of processes of domination allowed for the possibility of counterpower, through dissent or desertion. In other words, power could not quite eradicate the potential emergence of minorities speaking up as one single voice. Today, precarious lives are vulnerable because the fact of being deprived of a paid employment results in a whole chain of lack, which Le Blanc labels as ‘being without’ (Le Blanc 2007, 83). In this list of social deprivations, disaffiliation through insecure jobs and vulnerable living conditions ranks high, and it is strictly correlated with linguistic disempowerment. Such stripping off of basic social attributes precludes any assimilation of this state of invisibility with what Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer defines as ‘bare life’ (Agamben 16-17). Going back to Roman times, the Italian philosopher poignantly suggests that ‘bare life’ qualified the threshold condition of former citizens who, having been deprived of their civic rights, could be killed but not sacrificed because their lives were no longer eligible for religious rituals as a consequence of their ostracisation. Thus homo sacer (both the accursed and sacred man) brings to a maximum peak of intensity the tension between physiological life (bio) and community (polis). According to Le Blanc, for such a bare life to be conceivable it is necessary to posit first an original, ordinary life not yet affected by the intrusion of political force, in other words to introduce a foundational ontology of being, predicated on a phenomenology of preserved life. Bare life would therefore be both the extreme limit of power and its ultimate target. Le Blanc, for his part, regards Agamben’s ‘bare life’ as an idealisation, since it is delusory to think of an existence that would not already be caught up in a network of coercive forces (Le Blanc 2007, 19). So life, in its most naked and simple expression, is already fraught with humiliations, setbacks and failures implying disqualification, prostration and suffering (Le Blanc 2009, 19).

4Social invisibility is therefore bound up with an absence of voice which is by no means the same as voicelessness, hence Le Blanc’s insistence on the necessity to enlarge the concept of voice to cover the heterogeneous plurality of voices of those who are hastily and erroneously dismissed as voiceless: half audible voices, unintelligible (to the educated) voices, foreign voices, voices cursing or racked by pain. This is precisely where literature comes in, because what Axel Honneth theorised as the struggle for recognition (Kampf um Anerkennung) may be conceived as both an aesthetic and an ethic challenge (Honneth 1995, 31–63). Needless to say, this approach to literature puts at the forefront both the realities of social antagonism and patterns of domination linked to language as a power-wielding force.

5Admittedly, awareness of the anonymous, silenced majority in literature probably goes far back in time. Charles Dickens’s Jo, the illiterate crossing-sweeper and street urchin in Bleak House, is paradigmatic but the character remains peripheral to the plot. The three selected novels not only afford a diachronic perspective but they also raise the crucial question of voicing—or the failure to do so—characters living in precarious conditions, through fiction. The fact that the three main protagonists are poised on the threshold between childhood and their early teens add another level of potential invisibility. Barry Hines’s 1968 A Kestrel for a Knave is of course widely known through Ken Loach’s film Kes. Billy Casper, the chief protagonist, is chiefly remembered through his short, clipped utterances and inability to make himself heard. With Kieron Smith, Boy (2008), the Scottish novelist James Kelman took up the challenge of having a four-hundred- page-long novel spoken by a Glaswegian boy from the working classes, whose minimal English has a distinctly Scottish flavour. Kelman had of course been thrown into the limelight with his Booker prize winner How Late, It Was How Late which sparked a furore amongst the literary elite outraged at the sheer amount of four-letter words it contained. Finally, the other Kelman, Stephen, with Pigeon English (2011), whose title conflates a nod at Hines’s kestrel and an acknowledgement of the diversity of Englishes in contemporary Britain, voices a fictitious Ghanaian boy in the aftermath of the actual death of Damilola Taylor on the stairwell of his apartment block in Peckam back in 2000.

6This study falls into three parts; first the difficult question of voicing will be tackled by keeping in mind Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ In a second one, Richard Hoggart’s famous bipolar opposition between ‘Them and Us’ will be useful to envision a whole spectrum of voicing, ranging from linguistic repression to dissonant (perhaps even dissident) logomania. Finally, an attempt will be made to broach the issue of speech pragmatics and axiology (aesthetics and ethics) and to consider the possibility of performative catachresis.

Voicing the So-Called Voiceless

7Hoggart’s 1957 The Uses of Literacy opens with an endeavour to come up with some sort of definition for the ‘working class’. His investigation starts with an acknowledgement of the presence of the lower classes in literature, from George Eliot, Thomas Hardy to D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell. The writers’ propensity to indulge in romanticisms, ‘by over-stressing the admirable qualities of earlier working class culture and its debased condition today’ (Hoggart 13–14) and by expressing ‘a strong admiration for the potentialities of working class people and consequent pity for their situation’ (Hoggart 14), is exposed as counterproductive. The problem is compounded where voice is concerned because there is a general consensus amongst novelists on the fact that working class people are ‘possessed of a racy and salty speech, touched with wit, but always with its hard grain of common sense’ (Hoggart 15). Hence the difficulty for educated writers to articulate, let alone do justice to, a form of speech at variance with their own linguistic practices. Hoggart, in a typically pre-postmodernist vein, discriminates between high and low culture: ‘These over-emphases vary in strength, from the slight over-stressing of the quaint aspect of working life to be found in major novelists to the threadbare fancies of popular contemporary writers’ (Hoggart 15). The fact is of course that Hoggart writes from the context of the late fifties and that his take on the working classes―a social category which is hardly relevant to Le Blanc’s approach largely founded upon work deprivation―is informed by the world of D.H. Lawrence, for example the Morels in Sons and Lovers. Hines’s Kestrel is close to both Hoggart’s study, a mere ten years separate the two works, and to Lawrence’s aesthetics. Indeed, both novelists convey what the sociologist defines as: ‘the sprawling and multitudinous and infinitely detailed character of working class life, and the sense […] of an immense uniformity’ (Hoggart 16). This towering presence of the descriptive fosters the metonymic mode, which is in itself a hallmark of realism. Said differently, Casper’s use of direct speech is curtailed by the tyranny of material details and his statements are of necessity confined to facts: ‘’cos I’m goin ’to get a young kestrel an’ train it’; ‘I know a nest’’ (6), or ‘Gi’o’er, Jud, tha breaking my arm!’ (Hines 36). Casper is swamped in the world of things and can hardly get a word in edgeways when verbal exchanges involving power relation are concerned. The charade of the interview with the Youth Employment Officer, when Casper quails into silence after misunderstanding a question, is a telling example of linguistic impairment disqualifying the boy as potential narrative agency. So, Hines who is only socially a cut above his protagonist, as a miner’s son who qualified as P.E. teacher, resorts to traditional strategies of obliquity to call up his character’s inner life. One of them is the rather crude technique identified by John Ruskin as pathetic fallacy when, for example, to evoke Casper’s grief on not finding his pet bird, Hines resorts to a counterpoint between the extradiegetic narrator’s inflated prose and the echolalia of the verbally disempowered lad: ‘All over the woods, from millions of branches, millions of drops per second, pat pat pat against the background hiss of the rain falling straight through. ‘Kes! Kes! Kes!’’ (145)

8So there is no soliloquising, figural voice in A Kestrel for a Knave and the third-person narrator resorts to the standard device of inner focalisation to get closer to the boy’s perspective. Interestingly, the novel dramatises the efforts made by the teacher, Mr Farthing, to get his pupils to verbalise a story in class in front of all their mates, in other words to articulate a text and become potential hypodiegetic narrators in their turn. However, the educator’s repeated attempts to obtain speech acts of narration from the boys are thwarted by the latter’s inarticulacy: ‘I don’t know owt, Sir’, or ‘I can’t think of owt, Sir’ (60), which in the politicised context of the novel is attributable to cultural and social deprivation. It logically follows that to succeed in having a child recount a personal story is for the teacher not only a pedagogic achievement but a political one too. The best way to reach this target is by repeated encouragement to invite Billy to speak of what is the closest and the dearest to him, i.e. his kestrel. So Hines does not make of his main protagonist the narrator of his own text but he demonstrates that voicing is a necessary step to the education process, provided it stays as close as possible to the learner’s living experience. Billy Casper’s clumsy oral narrative is embedded within the larger novel whilst being its foundational matrix, as the fiction consists in nothing else than tracing the relationship between a boy and his bird.

9Unlike A Kestrel for a Knave, both Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English consist solely and exclusively in the single verbal flow of their two young protagonists. They correspond to what Dorrit Cohn, taking the paradigmatic example of the ‘Penelope’ section in James Joyce’s Ulysses, called ‘the autonomous monologue’ (215–265). The figural voices of respectively Kieron and Harri totally eclipse the authorial narrative voice. The ceaseless outpouring of words combine verbal stream of consciousness and snatches of direct speech, either in vernacular Scots or black London street slang. In Kieron, Smith Boy the irruption of an external voice, that of the parents’ or friends’, is not signaled by punctuation marks or inquit formulas. In Pigeon English, the monologic discourse is scripted, since the boy inserts dramatic scenes in which he attributes specific cues to the characters playing a part in his life-story, by staging himself as ‘Me’ and the boy who has been knifed as ‘Dead boy’. This dramatised script of real events in the fiction evokes the culture of role-playing games and is in itself an index of the speaker’s youth. In the absence of a controlling, adult narrator, the monologue proceeds by fits and starts, as the children are shown responding to outer events imposed on them by circumstances or adults’decisions, more than they follow their own set purposes. Kieron has to leave his old house next to his grandparents’ in order to move to a new project where he feels estranged. Harri, for his part, has to get used to a new life far from his grandpa Solomon and his baby sister Agnes, who keep coming back in his mind, together with recollections from his native Ghana.

10The major issue at stake is of course the status of these respective voices (Kieron’s and Harri’s) and the legitimacy of the purveyors of these discourses (James Kelman and Stephen Kelman). Moreover, voice representation involves a form of arbitrariness. It consists in having a voice keep on an uninterrupted monologue, which is not motivated by any interlocutory act. Such garrulousness may even contradict the impression the reader gets from the boys’ personality from other incidental remarks in the novels. For instance, Kieron Smith appears as shy and withdrawn, at least reluctant to push himself forward: ‘I was glad he was in my class and I sat beside him. I did not know many people’ (137), and only a few pages later: ‘Oh you are in the top division, you are brainy, Oh Smiddy is brainy. But I was not brainy’ (139). Similarly, the reader cannot help thinking that too much narratorial responsibility is placed on Harri who, not only recounts the story but also directs the cast of characters by distributing the cues:

Mr Kenny: ‘Where’ve you been?’
Me: ‘I felt sick, sir.’
Nathan Boyd: ‘He was smoking a fag in the woods.’
Connor Green: ‘He was having a wank.’
Me: ‘No, I wasn’t’ (248)

11So, Kieron and Harri speak on and on without any pragmatic reason, except that it is for the story to exist and to gratify the reader’s expectations, which of course somehow spoils the effect of authenticity. In spite of their agrammatical use of English and recurrent mistakes, they evince a command of story-telling which is at odds with the social type they are supposed to embody. They are most probably part of these children who seldom get the opportunity to speak for any length of time, without being interrupted, to say nothing of being paid heed to.

12Drawing from Spivak’s analysis in ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, it could be said that Kieron and Harri are both subjected to a form of epistemic violence because a narrative template, however erratic it is intended to appear, underpins their putatively random association of ideas. In these two novels, the function of the implied author is confined to being merely a purveyor of voices, by pretending not to exist. He feigns not to add anything to the voices he is retrieving, Kieron’s and Harri’s, and his role is merely to authenticate them. But in this voice transfer from what may be heard in the streets of Glasgow or London to the text, the two children Kieron and Harri are both presented through their radical Otherness, one for instance is a Scottish Protestant boy raised in a proletarian family, the other one has just arrived in a council estate from his native Ghana. To all intents and purposes, both are being appropriated, and possibly showcased, for the sake of fiction writing.

13The ambivalence of voice representation lies in the overlap between the two distinct meanings of ‘representation’; representation in the sense of ‘speaking for/in the name of’, which Spivak extrapolates from the German vertreten, and the mimetic acceptation of ‘representation’, meaning reproducing as faithfully as possible and with the intention to testify earnestly: darstellen. It does not ensue that only children can speak of children or Ghanian migrants about their compatriots, which would be sheer nonsense, but that the consciousness of this gap between the author and the figural voice should be a prerequisite, wherever power relations are involved; an educated, well-integrated adult versus a newly-arrived migrant child or even an experienced novelist versus a child who has still so much to try out. The ambivalence inherent in voicing should constitute an ethical and aesthetic challenge more than a deterrent, whenever and wherever the author is confronted to the vulnerability of precarious lives.

  • 1 “Can I obviate the risk of appropriating the others in the very fact of wishing to speak and act in (...)
  • 2 “The ethnological bias, identified by Spivak, may be extended to a whole range of other biases, suc (...)

14The question is therefore not whether the author is legitimate, or not, whenever s/he speaks in the name of others, but how s/he may do so without appropriating them in the process: ‘Puis-je ne pas disposer des autres dans le fait même de vouloir parler ou agir en leur nom ?’ (Le Blanc 2011, 106).1 What Spivak wrote about the superiority of the West over third-world countries may be extended to the field of sociology: ‘Le préjugé ethnologique, relevé par Spivak, peut se décliner en une multitude de préjugés comme le préjugé sociologique’ (Le Blanc 2011, 104).2 Isn’t there the necessity then to acknowledge the imaginary potential of these radically other or subaltern lives, to preclude the danger of essentialising them? This may be the case whenever there is a blatant dissymmetry, in terms of social, cultural and symbolical power, between the creator and the represented subject. It is indeed the social class factor, which is admittedly crucial when dealing with vulnerable lives. When Graham Swift evokes empathetic identification and the function of fiction as being ‘to prompt us to try to understand what it’s like to be someone else’ (309), he shuns the abrasive issue of what may be at stake in the act of voicing someone who is regarded as voiceless. His purpose is to establish the imaginative journeys that literary creation permits, without necessarily having in mind someone different, as is clearly shown in the following line: ‘We all know that the journey from ourselves to another human being, even one who’s normally very close to us, can sometimes be immense’ (309, my emphasis).

15The challenge of voice representation therefore lies in the blurred dividing line between speaking in the name of others and assuming the role of others. In the latter case, it might imply that a life is in such a condition of precariousness and vulnerability that it cannot produce its own narrative, cannot author its own text. This entails the ethic responsibility of recreating a semblance of what this life must be like, whilst always missing it somehow, because it is bound to remain partly inaccessible and irreducible. So voicing children, let alone children from the lower uneducated classes, poses a formal problem. This is in itself could be an incentive for innovative writing. For a writer like B.S. Johnson, for instance, the trigger to writing was the literary challenge that a topic constituted. His friend Zulfikar Ghose clearly explained this initial step: ‘For him [Johnson], to write a novel was to have a subject matter, investigate the formal problem particular to it and then find the solution to that problem’ (Guignery 8). Admittedly, Johnson’s subjects were steeped in social realism but this did not stop him from breaking the mould of (Victorian) realism in his novels, by cutting out holes in the pages to intimate a future event to the reader, using double column passages, or even breaking up a book into separate sections put in a box to be read at random. To what extent do Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English take up the formal challenge set by B.S. Johnson and do they, in some way, acknowledge the asymptotic thrust to reach out towards ever receding lives, which is precisely their novels’ subject matter?

16What both novels put in place are more or less clever authenticating tricks to impart a flavour of life-likeness. Kieron Smith, for instance, is prone to lapsing into an unexpurgated farrago of Glaswegian: ‘My maw was smiling but saying yous, she would not like it. You not yous, you not ye. Head, not heid. Dead not deid, instead not insteid. And not isnay and wasnay and doesnay. When I said doesnay my dad said, Walt Doesnay, you do not.’ (Kelman 93) In other passages the lad tapers off into a string of onomatopoeic repetitions when he stumbles for lack of the adequate linguistic resources: ‘And if there was birds, they were sea gulls, gwok gwok gwok. And then up high, gwoak gwoak gwoak.’ (Kelman 23) Something similar occurs mutatis mutandis with Harrison Opoku, the Ghanaian boy. Pigeon English is indeed peppered with Ghanaian terms, such as ‘Asweh’ for I swear, ‘hutious’ for scary or such African phrases as ‘bo-style’ for swell and smashing or ‘dey-touch’ for loony. Due to his lack of familiarity with British English, Harri sometimes misunderstands his pals. For instance, to the question whether he has got a penis which he takes as meaning ‘Have you got happiness?’ (Kelman 6), he prudently replies that he thinks he has, causing instant hilarity around him. Stephen Kelman is a white social worker, which led some West African critics to wonder about the desirability of a white Englishman (who has apparently never set foot in Africa) writing from the point of view of an African boy.

  • 3 See The Literary London Journal, ‘Stephen, Kelman, Pigeon English’, reviewed by Susie Thomas, Volum (...)

17Critics owned that Stephen Kelman ‘touches deeply on the sensibilities of West African culture’, especially through Harri’s concern with superstition, his love for nature and his strong family bonds. Yet, objections were raised concerning the writer’s use of pidgin English: ‘I found it hard to get past the jarringly ungrammatical pidgin English’.3 If anything, these reservations do not fundamentally discredit the ethical merit of attempting to transcribe the Other’s voice, even if they show up how delicate the attempt may prove where issues of class and ethnicity are at stake. As for James Kelman, his novel elicited the opposite kind of criticism, as Kieron’s voice authenticity was beyond doubt. However, even if the main protagonist’s childhood, as a working-class boy in the 50s, is not radically different from the author’s own past experience, some critics found other shortcomings. One claimed that ‘Kieron rambles on like the worst kind of bore’ (Marcel Theroux n.p.), adding that such a literary enterprise did not tally with the demands of fiction writing. Another, Michel Faber, chiefly known for his neo-Victorian page-turner The Crimson Petal and the White, pressed the point further: ‘I’m just not convinced that the voice we need to hear is that of a thoroughly unremarkable child, droning on about how he likes football or dislikes school, for whatever number of hours 422 pages amount to read’ (Michel Faber, n.p.). Both Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English show the limitations of building up a whole novel on one single narrator’s voice by, in one case, stretching credibility through dubious authenticity and, in the other, undermining readability. In either case, the only formal endeavour to capture the experience of the voiceless was by voicing them by hook or by crook. This logomania was probably insufficient in itself as it was bound sooner or later to showcase, to varying degrees, the artificiality of this narrative device.

‘Them’ and ‘Us’: Linguistic Repression and Dissonant Voices

18The crude opposition set out by Richard Hoggart between ‘them’, understood as ‘‘the people at the top’, ‘the higher-ups’’, those who ‘‘get yer in the end’, ‘aren’t really to be trusted’, ‘talk posh’, ‘are all twisters really’ […] ‘clap yer in clink’ […] ‘treat y’like muck’’ (Hoggart 73) and the communal ‘us’ of the downtrodden, is faithfully transposed in Kes. No doubt readers recall Mr Porter, the newspaper agent, telling Billy off for being late for his paper round (Hines 10–11) or Mr Gryce, the headmaster, bawling at the children from his lectern. The gap between the high-handed authority of those standing for the establishment and the forced silence of the vulnerable schoolchildren, cowed into submission, led a director like Lindsay Anderson to shoot his epoch-making film If back in 1968, even if it was in an altogether different social milieu. However, with both Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English the situation is less polarised and the ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy less straightforward.

19Kieron Smith, Boy is an alternative narrative, mouthed, quite often foul-mouthed, from the fringe of authorised culture. ‘Them’ is the education system, dictating the right way of speaking and enforcing a hierarchy between the wheat and the chaff. Miss Halliday, Kieron’s schoolmistress, could not put it more bluntly: ‘If it is the classroom it is not the gutter. It is the Queen’s English, only you must speak the Queen’s English. I was in the top division but at the low desks.’ (207) Unlike Matt, his elder brother, who is swotting for a white-collar job, Kieron deserts his desk for the gutter, i.e. everywhere that is outside school and the classroom. Indeed, in Kelman’s novel, spaces are metonyms for language dissidence as a result of social ostracisation. The move from a small house in a working class close (alley) to a new scheme makes up the only perceptible semblance of a plotline. Amidst this sore absence of any outstanding event, a series of no man’s land areas come to stand for as many peripheral spots and they illustrate the equation between social marginalisation and linguistic exclusion. Amongst such places the midden, an abandoned gun site, and the cluttered-up space between the river and the street stand out as pockets of linguistic hotchpotch. Kieron grows up in a contrasted environment between the library, where his brother refuses to take him for fear he might tear the books and the mud heap where so-called ‘midgierakers’ search for good finds: ‘We looked for stuff that was good and we called it lucks’ (24). Kieron’s cultural spectrum spans the gap between the books he may not borrow and those he occasionally chances upon at the tip: ‘Torn old burnt old magazines with all pages torn out and books too’ (24). The authority of high culture (‘them’) looms high on Kieron’s heterogeneous narrative that smuggles itself in the cracks and crevices left by canonical texts to form a sub- or infra- culture. Kieron’s verbal text is indeed a patchwork of short vignettes and haphazard anecdotes mirroring a world riven with tensions. It also outlines an individual identity riddled with contradictions. Kieron Smith’s daily routine is indeed determined by the sectarian tensions between the ‘Proddies’, the Protestants whom he allegedly belongs to, and the ‘Papes’, the Roman Catholics, known for the ignominious state of poverty they wallow in. With a father away on a boat, not sending money home regularly, Kieron dreads above everything else to fall into such destitution. Besides, his first name Kieron somehow disqualifies him as a proper protestant: ‘Oh Kieron is a Pape’s name. They said that. Oh ye do not get Proddies called Kieron. So if it is Irish, you must be Irish. Oh you are a Pape.’ (42–43) Through this conjunction of incompatible ingredients, Scottish and Irish, protestant and RC, Kieron epitomises what Hugh McDiarmid famously identified as ‘Caledonian Antisysygy’ (MacDiarmid 56–75). In a more mundane way, this ill-chosen first name brands him as the outsider within, depriving him of the possibility of fully qualifying as ‘us’.

20In his 2010 study Dedans dehors, la condition de l’étranger, Le Blanc took up James Scott’s distinction between ‘private text’ and ‘public text’ to shed light on some aspects of the subaltern’s condition. The subaltern, as dominated, is she or he whose public text works like the mirror of society’s public text―incidentally, the latter amounts to the image the dominating want to give of themselves. So the dominated tend to keep their own private text in the background (2010, 100). Le Blanc further adds that it is not because this private text is left behind, in the background, that it is devoid of any tangible, vital existence. It consists in speech acts, gestures and a whole set of practices confirming, contradicting or altering, off stage as it were, what is invested with value of authority or force of habit in the public text. Put differently, the culture of the dominated is not totally subsumed by the dominating. Under certain conditions, minority groups can, in their privacy, act in ways or speak in manners that are out of keeping with the predominating, national cultural values, which they have nonetheless to pay lip service to in many situations of public life. This entails subtle distinctions between public and private life which influence the migrants’ condition. This in turn, modulates the frontal split between ‘them’ and ‘us’, as put forward by Hoggart in the late fifties. Indeed, the dominated migrants can hardly band together as ‘us’ and speak up as one single, collective voice without risking exclusion and forced repatriation.

21Precisely, it is this new form of distribution between ‘them’ and ‘us’ rendering economic immigrants more vulnerable, which Pigeon English documents. The novel’s title postulates an alternative form of English, set against the text of the majority which in this particular case happens to be represented by the white urban subculture of the yobs and hoodies, who are themselves demonised by a certain press. The newly arrived Harrison Opuku desperately wants to be part of what he perceives as the dominating community. This implies that the narrator’s Afro-English—imperfect as it is in its imitation as was suggested above—must be limited to Harri’s moments of introspection and to his interaction with his next of kin. The rest of the time the Ghanaian boy is dead set on speaking the East London urban slang of his peers. This is especially striking when he, together with his white pals, are shown mickey taking a police woman inquiring into the murder committed against the neighbourhood kid:

Dean: ‘Have you got any leads?’
Me [Harri]: ‘She’s not a dogcatcher!’
Dean: ‘Criminal leads, dumb-arse.’
Lady cop: ‘We’re working on it.’
Dean: ‘If we hear anything we’ll text you. What’s your number?’
Lady cop: ‘Cheeky.’ (21)

22Harri’s determination to be part of the boys from the local community is an instance of self-willed acquiescence to dehumanisation as exposed by Judith Butler:

When we consider the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation, especially self-representation have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less human, regarded as less human, or indeed not regarded at all. (Judith Butler 2004, 141)

23Pigeon English dramatises Harri’s failed attempt at assimilation by renouncing self-representation on at least two occasions. The first one is when having botched his mission to activate the school alarm and create disturbances to pass the test of gang membership, Harri is searingly reminded of how those he regards as his pals, actually consider him: ‘Don’t worry, Ghana. I’ll think of something easier for you next time, you’ll be alright’ (65). The vulnerable outsider cannot rely on his native language to answer back. He is all the more incapacitated, both psychologically and linguistically, as his identity is abusively turned against him to reduce him to what in his detractor’s mouth is nothing else than a contemptuous, neo-colonial taunt. Thus floored and cornered, and without the skill to bite back, the boy finds himself suddenly immersed in an explosive, lethal silence: ‘I wanted to be a bomb. I wanted to knock them all down. That’s what it felt like.’ (65) The second failed attempt at assimilation is when, to comply with the test assigned to him to prove once again his mettle, the boy throws stones on a bus before realising that his mother is getting off it and looking right at him.

24So, both Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English illustrate the failure of language to empower their respective protagonists. Acts of self-narration register forms of personal entrapment, whilst constantly pointing to the abrasiveness of social relations as they may be felt, more than rationalised, through a child’s mind. These autonomous monologues are indeed focused on reporting external action as it affects the speaker in the immediacy of the present; to take up once again Dorrit Cohn’s terminology, they are ‘extrospection’, more than ‘introspection’, ‘with the monologist producing a verbal film of sights and happenings’ (237). So, in the final resort, it may be wondered whether there is any possibility left to reach out beyond the narrow boundaries of the self-enclosed worlds of these novels? Is there any promise of escape despite the narrow scope opened by these reconstructed voices, which may occasionally betray weighty contrivances in the efforts made to bring them to life?

Speech Pragmatics and Axiology: the Possibility of Performative Catachresis

25When voices fail, when language is devoid of the fluidity, articulacy and poetic resources to release emotions, frustrations, impulses and affects, the body reacts. In two recently published novels En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014) and Histoire de la violence (2016), French writer Édouard Louis evokes precarious bodies, bodies tied down by the imperious necessity of being fed, cured and rested, when none of these elementary wants may be taken for granted. In his interviews, he mentions the persistence of an atavistic past in the precarious body so that there may occasionally be a split between voice utterances and somatic manifestations (Le Monde n.p.). Yet, if the body may be envisaged as a site of domination, by the same token, it may also be seen as a springboard for emancipation. Precisely Le Blanc, in L’insurrection des vies minuscules, a short essay published in 2014, takes Charlie Chaplin as an emblematic figure of what he calls ‘a democratic hypothesis’ (17), i.e. a precarious, tiny, invisible life that attains to visibility, not through voicing for obvious reasons, but thanks to a bodily performance which blurs and confuses the boundary lines of social order and stratification. Chaplin is prompted to perform and gesticulate out of an unquenchable vitality. Through his silent choreography, Chaplin acts out a nomadic part in his haphazard course and is unwittingly led to disregard all the staked out social partitions. To paraphrase Le Blanc’s Deleuzian mantra, this vagabond becoming hallucinates its own escape lines (30).

26In Dispossession Athena Athanasiou introduces two examples of what she calls ‘performative catachresis’; when in a 2006 demonstration in Los Angeles clandestine migrants sang in Spanish the American national anthem and when the Women in Black movement in former Yugoslavia deployed practices of public mourning specifically targeted against nationalism. Instead of solely grieving their sons who were sent to war, these women emerged as antimilitarist public mourners, also crying over the deaths of those they did not know or could never have known. In rhetoric, a catachresis is an improper use of words, or an abuse of a trope or a metaphor. In the above cited examples, codified situations, a national anthem or a public mourning, were deliberately diverted from their usual purpose to serve another cause.

27Admittedly, Kes, Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English do not propound such fully realised alternative challenges to dominating systems. These narratives are indeed not novels of emancipation and do not follow the teleological model of the Bildungsroman. Billy Casper in Kes, who had been chiefly depicted through his many silences, is shown burying the remains of his hawk in the novel’s coda, and it seems pretty obvious that he will not escape his predetermined destiny, which is to go down the pit. Because speech, or the ability to monologise, does not so much empower their main protagonists, as it returns them in the end to their initial situation, Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English do not provide any escape route either. In the last few pages, Kieron, who has remained trapped in a community split by religious divisions, finds himself assailed by his angst and apprehension: ‘They would see what religion ye were. Oh what street do ye live in? What team do ye support? What school do ye go to? Are ye a Proddie bastard? No, I am a RC. Well ya daft cunt we are Proddie bastards.’ (417) His confused logorrhea resonates with the threat of hostile voices, before he conjures up visions of otherworldly peace blending the sacred and the secular, biblical heaven and comics ghosts, through his hallucinatory speech. And in Pigeon English’s epilogue, Harri reports live on his being stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment block, sealing the exact similarity between his own fate and that of the murdered boy on which the novel opened.

28Yet, given their tentative, and too-rapidly-aborted attempts at voicing their vulnerable protagonists, it is through episodes of physical liberation from the shackles of everyday routine that an incipient, inchoate thrust towards emancipation may be perceptible. Paradoxically, it is not the fact of being granted a voice which is in itself conducive to an escape from an oppressing situation, but rather the realisation that moments of creativity, or release, may be salvaged from within an adverse, inimical environment, thanks to these vulnerable voices, which are seldom represented in the realm of fiction. Said differently, whilst no emancipatory rhetoric is found, the verbalisation of what remains usually unseen is rendered possible through the insertion of characters who rarely, if ever, qualify as narrators.

29Kes is memorable through its alternate pattern of constriction and release. Linguistic pressures tighten their grip on Billy who significantly climbs over a stile to leave the council estate to go into the wood where ‘the bird songs were less frequent, yet more distinct’ (25). The capture and adoption of the kestrel necessitate a new outlook on well-set routines as these birds ‘never seemed to get tame like other birds’ (31). Metonymically, this may be construed as a nascent opportunity for Billy to forge his own path, by straying from the predetermined prospect of the mining pit. The fact that this momentary ray of hope is dimmed by the bleak ending does not dispel the novel’s more poetic moments, for example when the boy is shown stuttering his breath into the sound chamber of his cupped hands to produce a call that is immediately answered by the owl (42).

30Kieron Smith for his part taps into his scant linguistic resource to call up the thrill of walking the dykes: ‘The dykes were big walls made of bricks. They split the backcourts. It was them or spiky palings. Ye climbed up on the dykes so you could walk them’ (75). These erections, policing space in a highly segregated urban area marked by religious divides, become a venue for acrobatics; from tightrope walking to body twisting in mid-air (77). Unlike purposeful walks to school or work, dyke-walking is both gratuitous and serendipitous, it makes for unexpected opportunities and transgressive actions: ‘One high-up dyke led to the back wall of a picture house […] [i]f there was a window they could get in and watch the pictures for nothing […] Grown-ups chased us. […] The woman saw ye out the window. Oh you f*****g wee b****.’ (78) Once Kieron moves from the close to the scheme he misses the dykes, which he replaces with the balcony, to trigger the imagination: ‘The balcony was the best place in the house. Ye got peace there. […] Even if ye were up on the roof, imagine diving off. Some ships my da sailed in were like that, ones as big as our complete building, sailing through the ocean.’ (160)

31And the balcony fulfils a similar function in Pigeon English where, in the dismal nowhere of strictly similar tower blocks, it spells out the promise of escape routes: ‘Some people use their balconies for hanging washing or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the helicopters. It’s a bit dizzy’ (6). It’s also where the pigeon, Harrison’s alternative inner voice (228), is fed whenever it alights (8). Through the English pigeon, Stephen Kelman articulates a decentered, alternative text to the main protagonist’s pidgin English. It may be a crude literary device but it is one means to conjure the split psyche of the insider outsider.


32All three novels under study address the issue of vulnerability by focusing on underage characters. It has been thought relevant to treat all three jointly, even if such an approach precluded in-depth analyses of each of them separately. The outlines of this paper were drawn from a philosophy which has vacated the celestial spheres of metaphysics, or the realms of the abstract or spiritual, to engage with social praxis. Hence the sociological turn of the argument which a topic like ‘bare lives’ seemed to call for. The diachronic cut implied by the choice of the three novels allowed for a shift of perspectives from a polarised society in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ occupied easily identifiable camps to one in which intersectionality, the entanglement and overlapping of cumulated forms of domination related to class, religion, race and age concur to produce a more complex picture. So, the novels should be seen as randomiwed moment-to-moment responses to a changing social context. Even Kieron Smith, Boy, by adopting a child’s viewpoint immersed in the context of the immediate post-war years, eschews any retrospective perspective, choosing instead to prioritise the contingency of a reconstructed here and now. As has been shown, the three narratives raise most acutely both the ethic and aesthetic dilemmas attending the appropriation of vulnerable lives’ experiences for the purpose of fiction writing. Indeed, speaking in the name of more or less inarticulate youngsters may potentially incur the risk of silencing them, by producing a screen or proxy narrative, missing—partly at least—their experience. When it was first published, A Kestrel for a Knave was most legitimately praised for its documentary value. In hindsight, it seems that its predictable, (Victorian) realist format contributed to heightening the sense of social determinism, when nearly at the same moment a novelist like B.S. Johnson chose to tackle head-on the aporetic position of the artist confronted to the violence of social inequalities. This most uncomfortable position could not have been put more bluntly than through Christie Malry’s metaleptic address to the novelist, at the moment of dying: ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it’ (Johnson 180). Precisely, this is the kind of dilemma Hines fails to acknowledge, since the predictability of the narrative frame only replicates the determinist path of a predetermined destiny. Finally, with both Kieron Smith, Boy and Pigeon English, it is not so much the attempt to voice the young protagonists that serves to empower them, as the episodes in which they escape the template of compulsive telling to perform unknowingly the insurrectional potential of their kinetic and somatic lives.

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1 “Can I obviate the risk of appropriating the others in the very fact of wishing to speak and act in their name?” (My translation).

2 “The ethnological bias, identified by Spivak, may be extended to a whole range of other biases, such as the sociological bias ” (My translation).

3 See The Literary London Journal, ‘Stephen, Kelman, Pigeon English’, reviewed by Susie Thomas, Volume 9, Number 2 (September 2011),, accessed, 30 September 2016.

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Georges Letissier, « Voicing Inarticulate Childhoods in Troubled Times: Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for A Knave (1968), James Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy (2008) and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (2011) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. He has published articles both in French and in English, in France and abroad (Aracne, Palgrave Macmillan, Rodopi, Brill, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly, V&R Unipress) on Victorian literature (C. Dickens, G. Eliot, W. Morris, C. Rossetti) and on contemporary British fiction (P. Ackroyd, K. Amis, A.S. Byatt, A. Gray, A. Hollinghurst, L. Norfolk, I. McEwan, W. Self, G. Swift, S. Waters, J. Winterson). He has published a monograph on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Éditions du Temps, 2005). He has edited a volume entitled Rewriting, Reprising: Plural Intertextualities, Cambridge Scholars (December 2009) and co-edited with Michel Prum a book on Darwin’s legacy in European cultures (l’Harmattan 2010). He has worked extensively on Dickens and After Dickens recently whilst keeping a keen interest in the most recent developments in contemporary British fiction-writing. His interest in Ford Madox Ford as a hinge between late Victorianism and Modernism has incited him to publish recently a chapter on “Paris Fluctuat… Ford Madox Ford’s Urban Psychogeography” in Ford Madox Ford’s Cosmopolis: Psychogeography, Flânerie and the Cultures of Paris (A. Becquet and C. Davison eds.), Brill, August 2016.

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