On rereading (or just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave

A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines, was first published in 1968, and the Ken Loach film, Kes, came out the year after. I don’t remember if I read the book or saw the film first. As I read, scenes from the film played in my head. I now wonder if I read the book at all, or just saw the film. I was rereading (or perhaps just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave, for a writing and wellbeing event. We were asked to bring along a book on the theme of nature or ecology; one that meant something to us. I am sure that this book brought about my lifelong love of birds of prey.

A Kestrel for a Knave is about the transformation of a boy’s life through raising a hawk – Kes. Billy Casper lives in a mining town in Yorkshire with this mum and brother. His father has left home, and Billy no longer sees him. Billy is coming up to school-leaving age, which was 15 in those days. He is expected to work down the mine, as most lads who go to his school end up doing; Billy’s brother Jed is a miner. But the only thing Billy is interested in is his kestrel.

Billy is no saint. He steals Kes from a nest, and when he tries and fails to borrow a book on falconry from the library, he goes to a bookshop and steals a book instead. This is a child who can barely read and write, yet he teaches himself the art of falconry from this book.

A Kestrel for a Knave is filled with the language of nature. At school assembly, hymn books ‘bloomed white across the hall as they were opened.’ At a football match, Billy is described as ‘growling like a little lion’, and the other boys as ‘ a herd of multi-coloured cross-breeds gambolling around the ball.’

Cinematic descriptions, with an all-seeing eye narrating, made the book just right for translating into a motion picture. An omniscient narrator is frowned upon in current fiction-writing, but Barry Hines does it so well. The voice does not feel all-knowing; it’s just that there is no singular point of view. And the reader can easily picture the settings, action and people.

The scene I remember most is in the classroom, where Mr Farthing is leading a session on fact and fiction. He asks the boys to tell true stories, and the first boy leads with a tale of filling wellies with tadpoles and then putting them on. The other boys then encourage Billy to talk about his hawk. Billy holds the class and the teacher in rapture as he talks about Kes. This is a boy who is seen as unintelligent, a write-off, but here he is, an expert on falconry. The boys are then asked to write a tall story. Billy’s, poorly written in terms of spelling and grammar, describes an evening where his father is living back home. They go to the cinema as a family, and have fish and chips on the way home. It’s heartbreaking. What should be an ordinary account of family life might just as well be a fairytale.

Of course, the book does not end well. Billy takes money, meant to place bets on behalf of his brother, and spends the cash. Both horses win, and Jed would have won a tidy sum. Enough to take a week off work. Unable to catch Billy, Jed tries to take Kes from the shed where Billy keeps him, and inadvertently kills the bird. 

The edition I read was published in 1998, thirty years after the book was first published. There is an afterword by Barry Hines. Hines went to a grammar school; his brother to a secondary modern, like Billy. He talks about the divisions this caused, with children condemned as less intelligent, less worthy. Billy is seen as a failure, but, ‘If there had been a GCSE in Falconry, Billy would have been awarded an A grade, which would have done wonders for his self-confidence and given him a more positive self image.’

I have written previously about the divisions of the school system, my own experience of grammar school, while my sisters were sent to secondary moderns. I can see why Ken Loach picked up this book so readily and made it into a film that tells so much about class divisions and education.

A Kestrel for a Knave is well worth rereading (or reading for the first time?). Next for me is to watch the film Kes again.

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