Friday, 17 September 2010

The tears of a clown

The reprobate will always exist. That kid whose underdeveloped sense of humour, or overdeveloped sense of mischief means that they will, at some stage in their school career, let off a stink bomb, flood the boys toilets, or stick a ‘kick me’ sign to the school bully’s blazer, signed with your name. He, and it always used to be a he, would construct a reputation with the teachers that was so bad he would be blamed even when it wasn’t him who covered the Headmaster’s car with spitballs.

Billy Casper is that reprobate, and Barry Hines’ council estate terror is instantly recognisable to most people. His dysfunctional family life is typical of a good proportion of British children more than forty years after A Kestrel for a Knave was written. Hines’ unpretentious attitude towards writing allows him to admit that there was no deliberate intention to write social commentary, that’s just how the story can be decoded in hindsight, by those who wish to do that sort of thing.

Barry Hines was not a reprobate (
An absent father, a self-centred mother, and an embittered older brother combine to make Billy’s life a misery at home. Add to that a lack of encouragement, and no academic confidence, and Billy finds subversive means to occupy his mind, bringing him to the attention of cane-happy Headmaster Gryce. Billy lives out a continuous cycle of ‘well if I’m going to get the blame, I might as well do it’.

Until, one day, Billy is let down by a couple of mates for a planned nest raid. For once, events favour the lad and he ends up with a kestrel chick. Billy is transformed. He steals a book on falconry, and, despite having ‘a job to read and write’, makes perfect use of the entire text, and trains the bird. In short, Billy Casper is a success. But Billy lives in the real world, and nothing last forever.

Hines’ bittersweet story captures much of working class life during the sixties and seventies. His settings and characters are so familiar he needs minimal description to bring Billy’s existence to life. Hines uses a mild Yorkshire dialect for his dialogue, which even the narration slips into at times. And despite his opinion in his afterword that he would not write in dialect now, I think it works in this case. His prose is clean, with a light sprinkling of magical phrases like ‘great rashes of buttercups’, ‘[hymn books] bloomed white across the hall as they were... flicked through’, and ‘just because we’re in 4C [the teachers] talk to us like muck... allus callin’ us idiots’.

Kes: almost the real thing (
There are stand-out characters galore such as Billy and his family, Headmaster Gryce, and pathetic PE teacher Sugden. Observations of the minutiae add to the intimacy of the narrative, such as Billy getting dirt in his eye when throwing pebbles at his friend’s bedroom window, or when Mrs Casper’s skirt zip works only half-way, so she fastens the waistband with a safety pin. Hines’ descriptions of architecture are less successful, but this is rare and doesn’t detract from the story’s pace. Although not quite on my all-time favourites list, the novel is well worth a read. Billy Casper’s reputation was further advanced by Ken Loach’s sympathetic film adaptation, Kes.

Despite Hines’ protestations, A Kestrel for a Knave is a social commentary, and although the minutiae are different now, nothing has changed for the Billy Caspers of this world. In fact, watching the news these days, Billy had it easy. Instead of studying Hines’ novel for GCSE English Literature, it should be discussed in Citizenship lessons in an attempt to break the underclass cycle that turns sink estates into third-world zones within twenty-first century Britain.

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