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A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

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A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I posted this in the book review section, but on re-reading it, I though it was perhaps as much about my experience as the book and film. It is cetainly relevant to an Uncle of mine.

A Kestrel for a Knave was written by Barry Hines; a writer who originates from a South Yorkshire mining village. It is based upon the stories and events that Hines came across through his childhood in the 1950s and 60s.

Billy Caspar is a lad in his last year at the local Secondary Modern that serves the rough estate he lives on. Hines uses flashback from a particularly rough day to show us how Billy has taken and trained the kestrel of the title.

At home Billy is constantly challenged by his half brother Jud, who has left school and works down the local pit. He spends his money on drinking in the local pub and clubs, and the betting shop.

Billy’s mother is unwilling to deal emotionally with Billy. She is portrayed as picking up the local men in the bar where she goes at the weekend, and it becomes clear that she has a string of failed relationships behind her.

At school, Billy is beset by vengeful teachers who fail to understand and, in most cases, care about his predicaments. What is particularly jarring nowadays is how the Teachers speak to the kids. I remember it well, but had forgotten how harsh it was. He is picked out by schoolboy bullies, though he does not accept the victim’s label. He fights back and also acts the clown for the benefit of his peers.

The evocation of the school and the characterisation of the teachers brings my own education back to me. It was not so far from this, and I was there in the assembly hall when Billy is picked out for sleeping. I saw similar things hundreds of times, and I well remember the ritual coughing at the beginning of assembly, and the very real chance that you could be randomly picked out to see the head at the end of assembly. It all added to the authenticity of the book.

The scene outside and in Headmaster Gryce’s office with the smoker’s union is both funny and poignant. Gryce laments the poor qualities of the kids in his school but it is clear that it is the school that is failing the kids.
Link to the film version with assembly and Mr Gryce’s office. (The film is very close to the book, and very effective in its portrayal. Lots of the dialogue is virtually word for word. Here’s the clip from Gryce’s office.)

The scene during the PE lesson is similarly funny and poignant. The wannabe sports Teacher bullying the kids in an inadequate attempt to reclaim youth and football status is a classic. I knew PE teachers like him. One PE Teacher would do the selfsame things; tackling kids and pushing them out of the way. I even remember one kid I used to know swearing at the teacher when he had been pushed off the ball, and being punished for it - just like the film.
Link to the film version of the PE lesson. (This scene is also very well done, and very funny.)

The story is grim, the situations rough and the people hard. Out of this comes Billy, having, against all the odds, trained a young kestrel. His endeavour in keeping and training it is impressive and it certainly makes an impression on the one Teacher who takes any notice of him. From his endeavour, you get the impression that Billy will succeed at something, despite the downbeat ending.

The book took me back to those late 1960s, early 70s days at school when their aim was to churn out kids for manual work. All the inequality and presumptuous labelling by the Teachers is skilfully explored. It is only 30 years ago that they were funnels to a world of hard graft and unpromising work.

I also liked to hear my own accent – or rather a closer accent than normal – on the screen. My cousins, who live in an ex-mining village in south Yorkshire near Barnsley, still sound like this. Reading this book I was back there among the crowds of lads in the playground in familiar rough, territory with the laughs and the ever present threat of sudden violence occurring at any time. A good read and a good film.

I don't suppose there were many people who kept birds of prey. You needed a special licence for a start, else it was illegal. My uncle did though, and I must say I was very surprised when I was taken into his shed as a young teen and saw owls and kestrels on perches.

This was because my Uncle was a difficult character to like. He was a tearaway when young and drank when he was older. He may have been violent with the drink too.

I last saw him in the 1980's organising a works do for his mates. (The organising involved certain female entertainment which I won't go into).

It made me wonder recently, when I read the book though and watched a few clips. Billy is a difficult kid from deprived circumstances. My uncle was difficult and from deprived circumstances too, and yet there was a great talent there which I saw when he showed me notebooks of sketches and drawings he had done of the birds in the shed.

And why didn't he go to art school, get work with naturalists or become a recognised authority on birds of prey? Because he went to some no hope school in the early 1960's, and ended up working down the pit. He had no connections, no appreciation of the possibilities and no suppot for what he was really good at.

A kestrel for a Knave took me right back to those times, and also expressed something about the expectations of people from the working class.

Updated 07-01-2011 at 06:29 PM by Paulclem



  1. prendrelemick's Avatar
    I have a similar relationship to the book. I first read it in our English Class around 1972, and as it portrayed what was familiar to us, we thought it very ordinary. Our Young teacher, Miss Hufferdine, who was from London (wherever that was,) kept going on about "the vernacular tone" and "bleak emotional landscapes", but we were more interested in the passages involving the Kestrel.

    Then there was the film, which was and is absolutely brilliant, and ran and ran at the local pictures, There we all were portrayed on the screen as if our lives had some significance. I was older by then and also recognised the themes of crushed hopes and Billy's brief glimpse of something wonderful before it was destroyed.

    Now when I read it waves of nostalga wash over me. That is an old(er) man's reaction to to his past. I would not want to return to those days really. The school kids I meet today always astound me with their confidence and outgoing atitude. We had subservience drilled into us.

    Books like this one and others of its genre, flourished at the end of the 60's and spurned a desire for social mobility, especially through education. I hope we are not now returning to the bad old days.
  2. Paulclem's Avatar
    I couldn't agree more Mick. I came to it later, and re-read it last month. Yes - waves of nostalgia, but I definately wouldn't want to go back there - or my kids to have to go through it. I can hardly believe it was like that then. Subservience is right. I too hope we won't be moving back there.

    The film was great. I watched it transfixed again recently. It's not often you hear such a stong accent on the screen.