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Thursday, 9 January 2020

Review - Barry Hines: A Kestrel For A Knave

Barry Hines: A Kestrel For A Knave. Penguin Decades edition.
Barry Hines
A Kestrel For A Knave (5*)

I have seen so many clips from Ken Loach’s film Kes, I felt I knew this book well. I didn’t.

I knew the outline well enough: “grubby little lad in Yorkshire … finds and trains a kestrel … bringing hope and meaning to a drab life crushed by bullying schoolmasters and a downbeat home life,” to quote the Daily Mirror (20th March, 1970). I even once co-wrote a parody called ‘Budge’, poking fun at a friend who kept animals, about a boy who found an escaped budgerigar in his coalhouse and trained it to sing rude songs in a Yorkshire accent. 

This entirely misses the poetry of the book: the vivid and lyrical descriptions of the streets and countryside around the coal mining community where it is set. It is an astonishing piece of writing. The story absorbs you completely. Every page shines with brilliance. The language mirrors the shifting emotions: the joy of escape from the dirt and poverty of the town into the natural beauty of the hills, woods and fields; the elation on seeing the kestrel wild and free in flight; the constricting terror in hiding from an inescapable beating; the dread when the bird is missing.

I can only give examples. The first has often been quoted before: 
A cushion of mist lay over the fields. Dew drenched the grass, and the occasional sparkling of individual drops made Billy glance down as he passed. One tuft was silver fire … and when it caught the sun it exploded, throwing out silver needles and crystal splinters. (p19)

There is despair at the end as Billy wanders the streets bereft through a scene familiar to anyone who has walked alone through an empty northern town at night:
A shadow rippling across a drawn curtain. A light going on. A light going off. A laugh. A shout. A name. A television on too loud, throwing the dialogue out into the garden. A record, a radio playing; occasional sounds on quiet streets.  (p157)

There is the language, the Barnsley dialect, such as in Billy’s words as he comes alive in describing the bird’s first free flight to his class during an English lesson: 
‘Come on, Kes! Come on then! Nowt happened at first, then, just when I wa’ going’ to walk back to her, she came. You ought to have seen her. Straight as a die, about a yard off t’floor. An’ t’speed!  … like lightnin’, head dead still, an’ her wings never made a sound, then wham! Straight up on t’glove, claws out grabbin’ for t’meat,’  (p66)
(clip of this scene from the film)

The accent would in truth be much stronger than rendered in the book (as in the film clip linked above). After the film was premiered at the Doncaster Odeon in March, 1970, some thought it would need sub-titles for audiences south of Sheffield. Like my mother-in-law, whose recurring nightmare, each time she heard the local accents when she travelled up on the train to see us and passed through Barnsley, was that her grandchildren might grow up to speak like that. (They did and they didn’t. Other kids at school said they talked posh but when they went out into the wider world their Yorkshire accents were obvious.)

The book took me back to my own Yorkshire town: the streets of terraced housing, the industrial grime, the local accent, but none of it quite as grim and hopeless as here.

The Barry Hines Memorial Statue
Barry Hines grew up near Barnsley at Hoyland Common. He wrote other novels and also scripts for radio, film and television. Before becoming a full-time writer he was an inspirational teacher. He was enormously influential. He died in 2016 and funds are being raised for a bronze statue to be erected in Barnsley in his honour, showing young Billy Casper with his kestrel. The bronze has now been cast but funds are still needed for the plinth.

The film Kes remains legendary in the area and many of those who were extras as children are still around. A fundraising screening at the Penistone Paramount a couple of years ago was a sell out. The folk ensemble I play in put on a fundraising ceilidh (barn dance) in Barnsley last year.

As Ian McMillan says in the introduction to the Penguin Decades edition I have, “Going back to the book with the film in my head is a revelation.” Indeed it is. I should have read it a long time ago. I’ll definitely read it again.


Key to book ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

List of previous reviews 



24 comments:

  1. The book and film are bleak masterpieces in their own mediums. Sheer escapism and grim social realism.

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    1. It was your comment on a previous post that prompted me to read it. It's so good and could even be said to be underrated. I'll look out for other books of his.

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  2. This Artistic Life is a good collection of his short stories. There's some great football stories. Pomona Books published it. They publish northern titles. I have bought a few of their books. I think This Artistic Life is out of print but you can get it on Abe books.

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  3. I was going to say "Dave will love you for this" but he has already got here.

    I do love the film Kes, one of my all time favourites but I have not read the book.

    Did you think we wouldn't know what a ceilidh is?

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  4. I remember the film well, although I was quite young when I first saw it. It left me feeling quite disturbed. I think I shall have to read the book now. Thank you.

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    1. The Ian McMillan quote sums it up. The book tells the same tale but it is something wonderfully different.

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  5. I met Barry Hines at the Sheffield Trades and Labour Club. We had a long conversation about "Kes" and how it relates to real life. Of course I "taught" the novel several times during my illustrious teaching career. He was a very nice man, gently spoken and a good listener too. Co-incidentally my wife later became his practice nurse and witnessed his declining health prior to his death. Did you know that in his youth he was a fine footballer and played for England schoolboys? It is so wonderful that "Kes" continues to stand the test of time.

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    1. I see it mentioned as one of your favourite books on your blog. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one interested in hearing what the kids made of it (or more of your teaching experiences - maybe I should check out what you've already posted). When I spent 3 abortive months in teacher training which included a short period on teaching practice I remember one young English teacher's exasperation that he had a 1st class degree in English and yet here he was trying to teach kids who had no interest in reading at all.

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  6. It sounds wonderful and so does the movie!

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    1. Debra, it really is, both the book and the movie (eek! "film").

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  7. Hmmm... It sounds wonderful, but it also sounds terrible. Like something I want to read or watch but then again don't want to. I'm afraid it would touch me real deep, make me cry, and right now I have enough to worry about (my parents' declining health, mainly) that makes me lose sleep and even have the occasional cry.
    Barnsley is an area I am relatively familiar with, as my late husband was born and raised in Wath upon Dearne. We often took a bus from there into Barnsley, and it was actually in a pub there (Yates', I think) where he proposed to me.

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    1. Maybe one to think about in the future. Wath was a coal mining area, as you'll know, and pretty tough, so you might find it fascinating. One of my great grandmas was born on a canal boat near there.

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  8. This does sound like a book well worth the time to read. I enjoyed your review very much. You have a way with words yourself.

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    1. Thank you. I really do like the book but there are clips from the film on YouTube - I've now edited in a link to the scene of the third quote above.

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  9. Right now I'm reading H is for Hawk. I'll get this when I'm through. Thanks.

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    1. H is for Hawk is one I have in mind to read - it looks good.

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  10. As my gravatar is me holding a hawk, this is one I need to see and also read. I was unfamiliar with either and will have to see if they are available in the U.S.

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    1. It looks a very fine hawk on your About page but a pity we can't see its head. Any chance of completing your Blogger profile to link through to you blog which is on Wordpress otherwise readers here can't find you. The address for those who can't is https://elizabethslaughter.com/

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  11. I have never watched the film much to my chagrin. I always move away from sad films, the death of the hawk in this instance. But sad social realism is something we should learn about, either here up North or where I was brought up, the 'Black Country'.

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    1. On balance I feel that the book is better than the film but you're right, it's not a happy read. However, I also felt there is a ray of hope in it looking back in retrospect because we know how things turned out in real life. I think Billy Casper became Chris Packham.

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  12. As with you, I felt I knew the story. However you have convinced me I need to read the book, certainly the extracts show a beautiful gift and use of language

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    1. It's a masterpiece. Everything fits together perfectly.

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