I first encountered this story at school when I was about 8 years old. Someone must have thought that it was a good idea to encourage us kids to read at home, or in our own time (which, of course, it is) and so they brought a tall cupboard into the classroom filled with brand new books. Someone was nominated as book-lending monitor, you could choose any book you liked, could read it, then return it, then write down what you thought about it on a card for others to read (a new, reasonably exciting twist at the time) and then choose another. ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ was the first book that I chose, mainly I think because of the picture of the young cheeky looking lad in the parka coat on its cover (not the one below, sadly). Everyone I knew wore parkas to school.
Although it was set in Barnsley (wherever that was) and I lived in Bishop Auckland (near Durham), it was the first book that depicted a landscape and lives being lived in a way that I completely recognised and related to. It was also the first book that didn’t talk down to me. It was really funny and quite complicated and really sad and quite shocking at the end and there were lads exactly like Billy Casper sitting near me in class. Billy Casper was also a bit like me. I must have written something a little like that on my card, but I made sure that no one else got to read it – I borrowed it again straight afterwards. I must have read it four times in the end.
My grandfather, my father’s dad, worked at the pit (as did my mam’s dad and my dad’s brother). I remember how he would seize any opportunity he could to be outdoors and with nature – fishing, feeding horses. He would constantly bring stray dogs into the house. I now think I understand why.
I saw Ken Loach’s film much later on. In many ways it’s better than the book. The performances are exceptionally natural, from a cast of largely non-trained actors using Barnsley dialect (although now-familar faces include an unusually sensitive Colin Welland, a brilliantly bullying Brian Glover and dysfunctional mother Lynne Perrie – new ground for the time, when most ‘Northern’ mothers were depicted as endlessly warm and long-suffering). It’s the only film that I can think of that employs metaphor effectively, in the form of the kestrel that Billy forges a relationship with. And this relationship is depicted without any sentimentality whatsoever – a relationship, from Billy’s point of view, based on respect and awe. It also breaks the stereotype of Northern ‘gritty realism’ in that we are given equal access to the countryside, and what this landscape means to Billy. (The score is gorgeous).
Writer Barry Hynes was a teacher within a Barnsley comprehensive school, and must have seen hundreds of Billy Caspers, with untapped imaginations, heading towards, and ultimately swallowed up, by the black hole of the coal pit. (What are the black holes, and obstacles, for contemporary Billys?) It’s an angry, yet beautifully lyrical story. It deals in hard truths, yet its politics are understated. Billy Casper is a magical character, yet very flawed. He’s the way that most kids are.
The scene below is wonderful for many reasons, but I love it most of all for how – in a matter of minutes – Billy’s teacher and class mates are able to see him in a new and surprising way. He changes them, without trying.
For a beautiful (and much better) description of why ‘Kes’ is so good, read this book. I also strongly recommend Barry Hines’ recent anthology ‘This Artistic Life’, published by the exceptional Pomona Books.