A KESTREL FOR A KNAVE
Regular readers will know that Barry Hines’ A Kestrel For A Knave is one of my favourite novels. I’ll go one step further and assert that it’s one of the greatest novels of all time, as perfect in construction and execution as ‘New Rose‘ by The Damned, in that nothing could be added to it or removed from it that would make it any better. And that fact that it’s no longer taught in school as part of the English Literature curriculum says much to me about the dire state of state education in this country. There are few teenagers (such as the priveleged offspring of the ruling classes, for example) in this country who would not see something of themselves in the character of Bill Casper, and who would not share his growing sense of hope – symbolised by the young kestrel ‘Kes’ that he trains – that there might be another life beyond the slagheaps and the terraced backstreets, beyond the everyday mundane into which they were spawned.
This was only Hines’ second novel, but he was already writing at the top of his game, a fact evidenced by the very first 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.
The world he describes is utterly authentic, raw, unromanticised, but not without tenderness or warmth. The pits might have been closed by Thatcher and her mob, and the mining communities that once served them might now be hollowed forms of their former selves, but millions of people still live the kind of lives Hines describes. They still have the same hopes and fears, the same dreams and dreads, and the same nagging sense that they were doomed before they were even born to a fate beyond their means to alter it. The simmering anger at this sense of injustice ripples through the pages of this novel like heat waves rising from sun-scorched asphalt, and it’s that anger that energises the book and makes it as vital today as it was when I first read it in the 1970’s. Ken Loach’s film adaptation of the novel – Kes – was holy law when we were kids, and whenever it was shown on TV we abandoned our games and went home to watch it. Unlike films like The Railway Children or Swallows & Amazons, in Kes we saw our own lives reflected back at us, without condecension or patronisation. This was back when there was still a thriving working class culture, but successive governments since the 1970’s have systematically dismantled all of that, dividing (and thereby conquering) them into either “aspirational” middle-class wannabe’s or the dreaded untermensch of the tabloids. Barry Hines saw all this coming, and his disquiet informed all his writing, through novels such as The Gamekeeper, The Price Of Coal, and Looks & Smiles, but A Kestrel For A Knave remains his greatest book. Still angry, still relevant, still necessary.
Above is my design for a cover, should it ever be given the lavish reprint treatment is deserves. Penguin have kept it in print for years as part of their Modern Classics series, so respect is due for that, but I really think that it deserves the kind of high-end production values of a set-up like The Folio Society. Were that ever to happen, then I am here, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice, to throw myself into what would be a lifelong-cherished dream project for me.
A few years back the BBC enlisted Greg Davies, himself a former teacher, to make a documentary about the genesis of the novel. It’s a great piece of television, in which we meet the elderly David Bradley, who played Billy Casper in the film, and Richard Hines, Barry’s elder brother, whose own self-taught falconry experiences were vital source material for the novel. There is an incredible scene where Richard performs with a trained kestrel, as a honey-tinged sunset falls over the South Yorkshire countryside. Pure Romanticism, but there’s nowt wrong wi’ that in my book. Davies understands the book and makes a strong case for why it’s still so important, and it’s well worth an hour of your time: