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Book Title: A "Kestrel For A Knave"|
The author of the book: Barry Hines
Edition: Smartpass Ltd
Date of issue: February 1st 2000
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 936 KB
City - Country: No data
Loaded: 2490 times
Reader ratings: 5.7
ISBN 13: 9781903362082
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When I was a child I used to live in a large city in the North of England. One day I was told that my brother, whom I idolised but who had moved to the bright lights of London, was going to pay us a flying visit. Apparently there was a new film which he wanted to see, and it was to be premièred - unusually - in the North. The film was "Kes".
I was pleased, but a little puzzled, when he took me along with him to one of the biggest cinemas in the middle of the city. I was then disappointed to find at the start of the film that it was filmed in black and white; this being unheard of at the time for a new film. I was even more surprised to hear that the characters on the screen talked just like I did - only more so. They sounded, as my family would have called them, "rough". As the film went on I met Billy Casper, the main character in the film who was just a couple of years older than me. He was cheeky, dirty, he lied and talked back to his elders, he thieved things, he skived off and ran all over the place. I came from a family who were hard-up but honest and proud. I didn't admire or envy Billy at all. But ...
He had a hawk. And the hawk was beautiful; wild and free. And she trusted Billy. She flew for Billy, and Billy alone. I sat up.
Many years later I have now read the book on which "Kes" was based, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines. And I realise how brave and unique an achievement it was. Barry Hines can write. And he wrote here about his own childhood, for he too was born in a small mining village near the town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, in 1939. Nobody expected him to amount to much. He was a promising footballer, and became a PE teacher first in London and later in Yorkshire. During his spare time he wrote this startling book, which was published in 1968 and became an immediate success. This allowed him to write full time, and go on to write nine more novels, as well as straightaway co-writing the screenplay of "Kes" with Ken Loach. As a child he had had a pet hawk.
The portrayal of Billy is searingly honest and raw. He doesn't have a chance. The whole world seems to be against him. Billy is living in a back-to-back with a care-worn Mum who hardly notices he's there, and an older brother (from a different father) who is already embittered with his lot in life, and grimly determined to make life just as miserable as he can for Billy. He is usually cold, dirty and hungry. The novel starts with Billy and his brother waking up (they have to share a bed) on a cold winter's morning. All these domestic episodes, and the episodes at school, are both funny and pathetic. They are a perfect embodiment of the stoic Northern working-class attitude, "If you didn't laugh you'd cry."
At every step of the way Billy's chances are thwarted. He is despised by his classmates and bullied unmercifully by his PE teacher, who has delusions of grandeur. He has no friends, and can't even do simple things like joining a public library, because nobody will speak up for him. He is one of society's castoffs. Yet he tries to make a success of things. He has a paper round to earn enough money to feed the wild creatures he rears and loves so much, and occasionally shopkeepers take pity on him and give him a few scraps. He is misread at every stage. Perhaps the careers officer could have helped. By this time Billy has gained an enormous knowledge of wildlife, but all anyone can see is that he is destined to go down t'pit.
He has one rare friend, a teacher who sees his potential, and like the reader, is staggered by how much he has achieved against all the odds. But we know it cannot end well. The teacher has little power, and probably little conception of Billy's problems, or just how precious, fragile and hard-earned is his experience with the hawk. Even Billy himself appreciates that "Sir" cannot really understand. The teacher quickly drifts out of the novel, and out of Billy's world.
The book is beautifully written. The events are described candidly, with a great sense of authenticity and much humour and pathos. Some of the dialogue is in dialect, and whereas I personally have no problem with, "Gee-o'er!" I can see that other readers may have to internally translate this as "Give over" - and again as "Stop doing that!" But mostly I would say that the dialogue's meanings are obvious from the context.
The descriptions gave me pause. For this is a world which has gone. At the time the novel was published it was notable for its description of social problems, situations and inequalities. Now however, in retrospect, the reader can see that it is a snapshot of a world which has partly disappeared. We still have the deprivation, the poverty, the inequality. But today's equivalents of Billy will be living on an estate with no access to the countryside, and probably little freedom to explore as he did. Only a few years later the high-rise flats would spring up all over. A few years after that, when vandalism and burglary were on the increase, the realisation came that these structures were not a solution to poverty. All the planners had done, was to destroy any sense of community, and consequently much of the self-identity of those who had been forcibly moved there. But even when most of the highrises had been torn down, the countryside was never to return.
"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 a silver fire. The drop had almost forced the blade of grass to the earth, and it lay in the curve of the blade like the tiny egg of a mythical bird. Billy moved his head from side to side to make it sparkle, and when it caught the sun it exploded ..."
Billy walks for miles. He observes Nature in a way urban children now will never know. He has an escape which they can never imagine. For of course, the novel is packed with metaphor. Billy's life equals prison. The natural world represents something better; something soaring and free, a bit of magic. When he wanders, different locations are described; the neglected areas full of litter, the neat little houses, each with their tiny square of lawn proudly maintained by their owners. When Bill writes an essay at school, he heart-rendingly describes an interior of such a house he has glimpsed on his paper round. He yearns for such comfort. He even at one tragic stage runs to his mother for a hug, but there is none forthcoming. She is merely embarrassed.
Reading the detailed descriptions of Nature seen through Billy's eyes, the accounts of how he trained his hawk through his own blood, sweat and tears, made me realise that this is something we have lost. The world is now totally different. The poverty and deprivation which exists now is not always due to money. Barry Hines cannot have known that not only was he writing a book which would be a classic of social realism, but also a depiction of a microcosm which was about to crumble. There is an added poignancy.
You will weep for all the Billy Caspers of this world. Little scraps of humanity whom nobody cares about. Cast aside, neglected and unloved, bullied; they have to make their own way through life as best they can. Hope sometimes sparks in them for something better. Perhaps sometimes their determination wins through, as did that of the author. We would say that he "dragged himself up by his bootstraps". But it is all too easy to sink into the mire of lethargy.
Is that what would happen to Billy Caspar? I defy you to read this book without getting a big lump in your throat.
"..there's Billy Casper there wi' his pet hawk." I could shout at 'em: it's not a pet, Sir, hawks are not pets. Or when folks stop me and say "Is it tame?" Is it heck tame, it's trained that's all. It's fierce an' it's wild, an' it's not bothered about anybody, not even about me, right. And that's why it's great ... They can keep their rabbits an' their cats an' their talkin' budgies, they're rubbish compared wi' her."
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