Thursday 24 June 2010

'Billy as hero.'

A Kestrel For A Knave
by Barry Hines

To celebrate their 75th birthday this year Penguin republished some of their classic titles in a series called Decades. Five books each from the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's, with new covers from four designers (Peter Blake, Zandra Rhodes, Alan Aldridge and John Squires), designed to showcase their commitment to fine design and access to great writing. I already had a copy on the shelf of Hines' classic novel of boyhood, which carried a still from Ken Loach's memorable 1970 film on its cover, and wondered how the book would fair after having been so affected by that film (how often do you wonder if the book will live up to the film?!).

Written in 1968, the book is a gritty depiction of life in the Barnsley that Hines had grown up in. I'm not being clichéd when I use the word gritty (well I might be), Hines uses it himself in the book's opening paragraph.

There were no curtains up. The window was a hard edged block the colour of the night sky. Inside the bedroom the darkness was of a gritty texture. The wardrobe and bed were blurred shapes in the darkness. Silence. 
We are in the bedroom that Billy Caspar shares with his brother Jud, in fact we are in the bed that they share together as they toss and turn before dawn and the early rise that begins Jud's working day and his journey towards the dark depths of the local pit. The antagonistic relationship between the two is set up immediately and as Billy goes through the rest of his morning (collecting his paper round, stealing a couple of bars of chocolate and some eggs, narrowly avoiding a beating from his mother when he refuses to place a bet for his brother) we get a sense of a childhood blighted by poverty and neglect. He has one refuge after that eventful morning before making his way to school, one presence that always listens.

Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'

Michael Morpurgo said that part of the inspiration for writing War Horse was watching the way that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom hadn't spoken to anyone about how they felt, would open up after a few days working on a farm and together with horses, speaking to them when they thought no one else was there and confiding in them all the secrets that they held close to them the rest of the time. For Billy, Kes is a similar kind of animal confidante; patient, non-judgemental, always available. After this opening we head back in time to discover how Billy came to have Kes after following a kestrel back to its nest and performing a risky night-time raid to take one of the young for himself to raise.

He peered in, but there was nothing to see, so he stretched belly flop along the sill and felt into the hole, wriggling further along as his arm went further in. He felt around, then withdrew his hand grasping a struggling eyas kestrel. He sat up, caged the bird in his hands,, then placed it carefully into the big pocket inside his jacket. Five times he felt into the whole and each time fetched out a young hawk. Some were slightly larger than others, some more fully feathered, with less down on their backs and heads, but each one came out gasping, beaks open, legs pedalling the air.
When he had emptied the nest he reversed the procedure, dipping into his pocket for an eyas and holding it in one hand while he compared it with another. By a process of elimination, he placed them back into the nest until he was left with only one; the one with the most feathers and only a little down on its head.

So after chocolate and eggs comes the theft of a kestrel and Billy has already used his initiative, after being rebuffed in his attempts to join the library, to liberate a copy of A Falconer's Handbook from the local bookshop (Billy may be the hero of this tale but Hines is careful to show that he is far from perfect). With this reference Billy trains Kes and realises some of his personal potential. As his brother testifies, there are very few prospects for a lad who has 'a job to read and write' and there is something joyous about the confidence instilled in him by his achievements with Kes. In one amazing section he stands up in front of the class and, encouraged by the teacher, explains the process of training a kestrel compete with the complex terminology he has learned from his book, spelling out the jargon and speaking with a confidence and assurance that we've never seen before. This ray of hope is tempered and heartbreakingly dulled when the pupils are asked to write a piece of fiction entitled 'A Tall Story' later in the lesson. Billy uses it as an opportunity to write about an idyllic domestic scene complete with 'carpits on the stairs and in the all and sentrall eeting', where his brother Jud is going to the army and not coming back, 'but your dades coming back in sted'. Billy's perfect family unit then enjoy a night at the cinema rounded off with 'fish and chips for awur super.'

As I mentioned above, however much he is surrounded by a cast of unsympathetic characters (his own mother and brother chiefly but there's also a strident cameo from Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, brought brilliantly to life by Brian Glover in the film) Billy is a flawed hero and the truly gut-wrenching events in the book are the result of his own actions. Hines makes a brilliant change of pace in the book's later pages and when Billy begins his odyssey after evading his brother's attempts to find him at school (remember that unplaced bet?) there is something breathless about the prose forcing the reader to turn the pages with increasing rapidity, however much we may want to avoid what we'll find on the other side. Hines manages to describe the technical aspects without seeming dry, the landscape without being overly grim or romantic and with Billy, creates a character so in need of the reader's empathy and sympathy that I defy anyone not to be affected by his trials. It is a book also that appeals to readers both young and old. In an afterword, Hines mentions his surprise at seeing it become a set text now in schools, but it works both as an evocation of a lost era of industry and agriculture, a prescient look at what education could be if it focused on an individual's potential and beyond that the potential of any human to rise above their circumstances.

It is no wonder that a book that finds nobility in the animal kingdom when the human characters behave so appallingly should chime so much with me at a time when I'm working on a show that follows a 'noble, noble cavalry horse' into the battlefields of the Great War . As a teacher of Billy's points out, quoting 'that poem by Lawrence.'

'If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they'd be worth looking at.'


kimbofo 24 June 2010 at 20:53  

I read your review earlier today and promptly went out and bought myself a copy of this at lunch time! I've been meaning to read this for years, but it took your brilliant review to make me get off my backside and do something about it. Mind you, the book is likely to sit in my TBR for three years, but I feel better for having my own copy.

I am very much fascinated by the relationships people have with animals and birds in particular (if you know my real name you can Google it and you'll figure out the reason). I've not seen the film. I need to sort that out, too.

William Rycroft 25 June 2010 at 09:24  

Sorry to have added to your TBR pile,Kim, I saw your photo of it the other day and I don't want to be the straw that broke the camel's back! It's a fabulous book to have though and it'll be ready for you when you're ready for it. The film is great too, quite groundbreaking in its approach at the time and with a heartbreaking performance at its centre.

Now as for you and your connection to birds I have to know more; maybe you could click on that email me button and let me know your real name...

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