The novel is set in a fictionalized version of Bethesda in North Wales. Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt from Pigeon that describes the fictionalized Bethesda.
Conran's characters express a fatalism about the future of the town and its community. Living in the shadows of a dying industry (and landscape), the truncated topography around them appears to curtail the ambition of those who inhabit the area:
Nain watched us. "It's this place that's the trouble. This hill. Cursed place it is. Rotten," and, when we kept dragging our feet all round the house, "Nothing good comes of people here," she said "There's no dreams, that's the trouble, only closed shops. There's far too much doubt here. That's the trouble. 2016: 55
"Chei di'm lwc yn fanma 'sdi, nghariad i." You'll get nowhere from here, love. You'll get nowhere. Here is nowhere. 2016: 55
Alys Conran locates Pigeon's house somewhere in Bethesda. The street view to the right shows an area where you can imagine it might be. Scroll through street view to explore the town.
Dispossessed from the urban landscape. Pigeon spends his days 'drag[ging] his feet' 2016: 55 around the town, or escaping to the hills to survey his 'pebble-dashed kingdom'. When he can put it off no longer, he returns to his street, and his own 'hiding place' at home, the shed at the bottom of the garden.
Like many industrial towns in Wales, the chapel is a key focus for what remains of community life. The history of the religion in Welsh life is complex; it is tied into the politics of nationalism, language, and institutional Christianity. However, nonconformist chapels, as opposed to the Anglican church or Church of England, thrived in Wales throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, offering the population a place to congregate, worship, and express their identity. The chapel represents both the comforting and claustrophobic aspects of life in the town. Listen to Alys Conran describe Bethesda's chapel in an interview.
In Pigeon, Iola attends the fictionalized chapel with her elder sister Efa:
Nasareth Chapel's there, on the High Street, weighing the street down. The building scowls as Efa and me walk towards it. The chapel's made of grey stone and it's fat like a lord. It's too big for the small, closed shops, and the square, grey council houses that make up down-town. I can feel 'God!' giving me a headache. 2016: 27
Chapel offers Iola a sense of community, of being part of something larger, a sense that her life is meaningful and important in a bigger scheme. Iola describes her experience of chapel as follows:
I like it at chapel. I like the being part of it. And how my voice with all of theirs singing makes one big proud voice, and from what they tell me about him, even like Jesus. Sharing and all that. And all the little things being important. Like me. 2016: 31
Yet even though this sense of community is something she values, it doesn't displace the importance of Pigeon in her world:
But even Jesus and the singing, and Anti Siwan and the other ones who smell of flowers and smile, and even the being a part of it, this huge thing, even that doesn't cancel out missing Pigeon. Compared to chapel, compared to anything, sundays with Pigeon are one big ride. He's making it up as he goes along and you just want to make sure you're in on it. Well in. Compared to that, chapel is all polish smells, pretty, uncomfortable dresses, girls pinching, and boys getting the credit for everything. 2016: 31
The sense of belonging engendered by chapel life was similarly valued by Pigeon. However, this longing for involvement reminded Pigeon of the absence of this feeling in his everyday life. Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt from Pigeon that evokes the main character's longing for involvement.
As Conran outlines in interview, there is both beauty and hardship for a young person growing up in this town:
there are difficulties about growing up in this kind of area. There's not, for teenagers there's not an awful lot to do at times and you can get in trouble… but also the kids here have access to this incredible environment. You do see them using it and… I did use it and enjoy it [myself] inexpertly and in a kind of fairly feral way. Conran, in interview
Feral is a term Iola's sister Efa uses to describe the nature and practice of Pigeon. Pigeon roams the town as if be-wildered, a person who finds its impossible to fit in, perhaps because of his own disposition, but also because the town and its people refuse to give him a home:
Feral. That's what she [Efa] called him [Pigeon]. Feral. Like one of the scraggy black cats that hang about by our door, waiting for scraps and love. Comfort. You have to tum them away, or they come back and back. 2016: 153.
Hill Above Gerlan
Pigeon has a strong sense of alienation and dispossession from the town in which he lives, escaping to the hills in order to distance himself from it, and give him a sense of control over it. When Pigeon is able to take this control, he sees the world in a completely different way.
In order to impose control over his life and the spaces in which he lives, Pigeon begins to tell stories that re-order his world. He uses words to make sense of the 'skiw wiff' world he has inherited, plots that enable him to challenge that reality and escape from it. As Conran notes:
a great driver in the book is Pigeon's imagination, his imagination is very important and his sort of adventuring spirit is a great catalyst of all the things that happen in the book really. So the place definitely makes that happen because you're always moving in and out here between the National Park that's around and the more urban nature of the town. Conran, in interview
There are specific places in the hills around the town that Pigeon also finds refuge. One of these is the pool. This is how Conran describes it:
It's a funny thing, that right beside the grey town there's places like magic. There's mountains like fists coming out of the land, their rocky tops as raw and rough as a cruel man's knuckles. There's rivers. In the rivers all the rain gathers like a riot. Like a stampede. And then there's still, quiet places, like the pool. 2016: 167
In conversation, Conran describes the importance of such natural places as follows:
I think one thing about being here where we are now in Gerlan is you're absolutely on the edge of the town with the landscape just right there. At times the novel steps outside the town so the children run up the hill or Pigeon particularly tends to escape the town into different places, he goes and jumps into the pool and the river and he sort of will temporarily immerse himself in that more natural kind of sublime landscape that is beyond the town. I think the location made that happen for sure. It meant that they're right on the edge of town and they're able to get into this landscape which does transcend the scale, the landscape in some ways I think is outside the balloon. The landscape is a much wider place of possibility. Conran, in interview
During one episode in the novel, Pigeon attends a detention centre in Liverpool. Outside of his familiar surroundings he finds refuge in his imagination and stories.
Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt that describes the main character's imaginary escape from the detention centre.
Outside the Balloon
Whilst Pigeon is in the juvenile detention centre in England, he comes to realise the importance of his roots in Wales, not simply for how he sees himself, but perhaps more importantly in terms of how other people see him.
"Hey Taffy!" Big Neil calls after Pigeon as Pigeon and Salim are walking towards Education Block. It's because he's Welsh, although Pigeon's never heard the word before, Taffy, and he doesn't feel anything. He doesn't feel Welsh. He's just Pigeon, just Pigeon. It's important here, where you're from. It's funny how it's so important, considering everyone here lives the same life, eats the same food, gets up at the same time, and has lights out just at the same moment. 2016: 118
Importantly, Pigeon's world is defined not simply by living within the 'balloon' 2016: 202 of the town and its local area, but also by experience gained beyond this geographical and cultural space. This combined experience draws on the author's own history of growing up within Bethesda, and 'beyond the balloon' in Barcelona:
I was really, really drawn to come home - all the time I was away - partly due to language and culture - but it was a struggle to return. In a strange way I came back through Barcelona - I learnt Catalan whilst I was there and I saw this minority culture at the centre of this cosmopolitan place, and people really respected where I was from there, my Welshness, in a way it wasn't the same elsewhere - it just hadn't been acknowledged. There was a tension when I was away until Barcelona - where they saw my being Welsh very differently - and I realised I wanted to come home. From the Margins, 2016
In the Juvenile Detention Centre Pigeon began to reflect on his origins, where he belonged, and the role of language in forming his identity. Conran herself reflects on these issues as follows:
It is the emotional tie to a community and sense of being looked after, held by a community in a web of genuine relationships - people don't let go - it still amazes me what persists - at the launch of Pigeon people came from the chapel I went to as a child and school - it was incredible. Thinking about coming back reminds me that I left my Welsh language school as a teenager to go to an English medium sixth form and had to go back, I missed the closeness - it was so alienating. Just as I came back to the Welsh language through the work I did when I moved back, in a way the book was also about coming home for me - in parallel with reengaging with language and culture through work I was also writing my way back to the people around me. From the Margins, 2016
I [realised] could not live without the culture and language that surrounds me. From the Margins, 2016
The young characters in the novel escape their urban environment by seeking refuge in both natural and human-made landscapes around them. The fictionalized Penrhyn slate quarry is one such place of escape. At the end of the nineteenth century, this was the world's largest slate quarry and was worked by almost 3000 workers. As outlined by Hughes et al (1979) in their book 'The Penrhyn Quarry', the quarry holds a significant place in the history of the British Labour Movement as the site of two prolonged strikes by workers demanding better pay and safer conditions (in 1896 then 1900). These disputes undermined the perceived reliability on the North Welsh slate industry, causing orders to drop sharply and thousands of workers to be laid off. Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt about the dangerous journey to the quarry.
In the end, Pigeon begins to find his place in this fictionalized version of Bethesda. Through a growing acquaintance with Elfyn, an old man who builds stone walls, Pigeon begins to construct for himself an identity with which he is content. Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt from Pigeon.
Whilst learning the craft of stone wall building, Pigeon also rebuilds his relationship to his town, his country, and his language. His interest in expressing his identity through Welsh (Cymraeg) reflects a broader revitalisation of the language which was formalised by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which gave it official status. 24% of people aged 3 or over in Wales are able to speak Cymraeg, and this number is higher in the region around Bethesda (see map). Through the thoughts of Iola, Conran refers to the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid, to describe this process of Pigeon finding his 'voice'. Listen to Literary Atlas read an excerpt from Pigeon.
Through this process, the reader may hope that Pigeon begins to find a place where he belongs.
"Chei di'm gwell na'r mynyddoedd 'rna." Elfyn says today, looking past the wall at the hills.
"Na," Pigeon agrees.
"Does na'm gwell He yn y byd." Elfyn says it quietly, because it's a fact.
Pigeon smiles. And right now it's true . They're on top of it, on top of the world on this heap of a hill by this wall, and there's nowhere better, nowhere better. There's nowhere else in the world 2016 :223.
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