Saturday 21 April 2018

Cheat read: A Kestrel for a Knave

Coming-of-age tragedy: A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, Written 1968, Yorkshire, England

Barry Hines's coming-of-age tragedy
Barry Hines's coming-of-age tragedy

Hilary A White

The rundown: Billy Casper is a young, shy beleaguered boy living in an unspecified Yorkshire mining town. He has much on his young plate that makes life difficult; the constant bullying by his thuggish older brother Jud and the apathy of his neglectful single mother; the daily humiliating lion's den that is his school; the scant opportunities for life offered by his drab, narrow-minded, impoverished environment.

All Billy has are some encouraging interactions with kindly English teacher Mr Farthing and his trained Kestrel. It is the latter in particular that offers him spiritual sanctity and a corner of Zen in this bleak world. Told in a single day, Billy's fortunes are paced out with flashbacks detailing the bird's origins and Billy's absent father.

Need to know

Long before Helen Macdonald's 2014 smash H Is For Hawk, Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave was the most famous book about man escaping through nature. In the case of its young protagonist, Billy Casper, there is a great deal indeed to escape, and Hines - who died peacefully this week following a long battle with Alzheimer's - doesn't spare the sense of downtrodden grit.

Hines's depiction of the working-class mire is a visceral one, a place of domestic violence, social marginalisation and filthy streets. Into this he places a potent symbol that ingrained itself into generations of readers during the novel's long tenure on the UK GCSE syllabus - Kes. Billy's small falcon, his only companion on earth, represents freedom and release, and acts as a conduit for scant embers of tenderness in the tale. Kes, a 1969 adaptation directed by Ken Loach, remains an evergreen classic and a seminal standard of British realist cinema.

The end

Those seeking a happy ending should perhaps look elsewhere. When Billy fails to place a bet on a horse on Jud's behalf - a punt that would have come in, it transpires - Jud seeks retribution. Billy evades his brutal brother but realises the imminent danger to his beloved Kes. He rushes home to find the bird dead in a trashcan by his brother's hand.

The verdict Billy Casper is an iconic literary character that formed a template for any number of Billy Elliots or Piscine Patels. Hines's prose is a tactile mixture of sumptuous nature writing and stark social realism that has aged very well, granting it modern-classic status.

did you know? Disney sought the film rights to the book with the intention of changing the ending so that Billy and Kes live happily ever after. Hines, working as a teacher at the time, stood his ground and turned down the potentially generous payday in order to protect the integrity of the novel's uncompromising themes.

It is the mark of a man for whom education and the broadening of children's horizons was a lifelong passion. "I thought I would like to show that these kids can do something which is in fact very skilful," he said of the book. "They can do all kinds of things if only they're given opportunities."

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