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Rereading Barry Hines

After 40 years, Robert Butler revisits “Kes”

Robert Butler | March 19th 2015

The first time I read Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel for a Knave” was in 1975; the second time was last weekend. Only 190 pages long, “Kes” has been a staple of the British school syllabus, so generations of pupils know that it portrays a day in the life of Billy Caspar, a skinny 15-year-old boy growing up in a Yorkshire mining town. There are flashbacks, but the overarching structure takes us from Billy waking up in the bed he shares with his older brother, Jud, to Billy going to sleep that night, his world having been wrecked.

The backdrop—lightly touched in—is the coal-mining industry of the 1960s: Jud has to get up early to get to the pit, Billy scraps with another boy on a coke-heap, and the Youth Employment Officer suggests Billy think about “the good opportunities in mining”. When Billy heads out to the fields, in a desperate search for the kestrel he has raised and trained, the sky has turned “charcoal”.


When I first read “Kes” I was at a prep school in the south of England. The backdrop there was a great Gothic cathedral, and daily life was punctuated by the peal of its 14 bells. A chalk stream flowed through the school grounds and the walls round the playing fields were the ruins of a bishop’s palace. Except for the familiar references to nibs and ink pots and the football legends Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, Billy's harsh life in the industrial North seemed impossibly remote.

But “Kes” had two great appeals that grabbed my 12-year-old self. The first is Billy; the second is the bird. Billy may be bullied, disregarded and misunderstood, but he finds a triumphant escape through his passion for the kestrel, which requires him to be, at the same time, intensely practical and imaginative. In the most unpromising circumstances, he had found his gift.

Reading it now, I’m struck by how cannily crafted the book is: a scene where the head teacher canes several boys, explaining as he does so that nothing else can be done, is followed by a scene in which Billy tells his class how he trained his kestrel by feeding it scraps of meat. It’s a version of carrots and sticks. The novel is full of these careful juxtapositions. I can now also see the influence of D.H. Lawrence. When Billy allows the one sympathetic teacher, Mr Farthing, to watch him take Kes out flying, the teacher finds himself awe-struck and quotes from one of Lawrence’s poems: “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they’d be worth looking at.”


But what I remembered most from 40 years ago wasn’t a particular episode. The strongest memory was getting to the final page. It was a winter afternoon in the study room and the strip lighting was on. It must have been a Sunday: it was quiet, there were no day boys, and very little to do. When I reached the last scene, I couldn’t believe what had just happened. A kind of outrage had been committed on the reader. I walked along the dim pea-green corridors trying to sort out a new tangle of feelings. The ending had been raw and painful. This wasn’t what I had expected of a book.

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