Barry Hines’s modern classic A Kestrel for A Knave is so much more than a powerful story of survival in a tough, joyless world. Hines wanted to write about the wickedness of disregarding pupils who failed the 11-plus, thus branding them with inferiority complexes. Hines was a teacher. He modelled the school in his book after the school at which he taught, St Helen’s. Billy Casper (the boy) is treat as a failure at school; bullied by staff and class mates, alike. And then bullied mercilessly at home by his older brother. Billy has nowhere to turn. He seeks solace in the Kestrel hawk he finds, naming it Kes. Ken Loach (he of I Daniel Blake fame) made a film of the book, Kes. For those of you unfamiliar with this work, and for those of us seeking a reminder, here is a taste of Billy’s world.
Barry Hines took the inspiration for his character, Billy, from his brother, Richard. Richard Hines kept a hawk, as a boy. Richard was interviewed on Radio 4’s Diverse Conversation programme back in March 2016. Fascinating in the way that Richard brings Billy to life. Clearly, Richard’s experience at school remains raw. “I was an 11-plus failure.” “It was awful in the way that people were written off.” Richard says that there were many clever people at his school but their talents went to waste. Richard offers insight into his particular interest in hawks. He speaks of their “intransigence”, and “absence of understanding of social hierarchy and social subservience”. And then, the thing. Although a kestrel never loses its wildness, it can be reached by kindness; no good comes from shouting orders at it or trying to make it conform. Richard’s source for this information? The Gentleman’s Recreation by Nicholas Cox (1928). The young Richard Hines had found his passion. This led to him developing, he says, “a voracious appetite for reading”. He went on to become a teacher, an academic, and made documentaries for the BBC.
What of Billy? There is a scene in the film where Billy attends an appointment with the school’s careers adviser. Billy attends the appointment alone, unlike another boy, sat waiting outside with his mother. Billy’s discomfort is tangible, he cannot get out of there fast enough. “What kind of job have you got in mind?” “You want to start off on the right foot don’t you?!” One thing Billy is sure of is that he “wouldn’t be seen dead down t’pit!” Billy flees from the appointment. Billy only ever seems to be running from school.
Richard Hines suggests that “all of us have a latent talent, if we can find it”. Richard found something for himself and that set him on his way. Barry Hines knew he did not want to be down t’pit, like his father before him. He became a teacher. David Bradley, who played Billy Casper in the movie, attended St Helen’s School. He knew he didn’t want to be down t’pit, like his father before him. He became an actor. Billy? We don’t know. Although, I find it eerily poignant that David Bradley himself penned a sequel in which Billy runs away to London and gets into trouble, sniffing glue, washing car windscreens at traffic lights, but is adopted by a couple and ends up converting a narrowboat. David’s idea for a sequel went no further.
Professor Diane Reay says, amongst a growing number of others, thankfully, that what UK society needs, more than anything else right now, is greater equality and less social and economic distance between its citizens. Reay cites R.H. Tawney and his saying that no class is good enough to do its thinking for another. Reay concludes that now, more than ever, the ruling elite has no knowledge of, or interest in what that other actually thinks.
So what? I do wonder if the system itself is as big a bully now as it ever was, if not bigger. Are our schools, because they sit within the system, failing the Billys of our world just as catastrophically as that school in Barnsley where Billy Casper’s voice remained unheard? Unheard, that is, except for his fifteen minutes of fame when asked to share his interest in falconry with the rest of the class by Mr Farthing. Mr Farthing was the sole, stand out teacher who showed interest in Billy’s world, and Billy’s voice.
When Saul Alinsky (Community Organiser in the US) was asked why he was so provocative, stirring up activism in marginalised communities with no voice, he replied, “I can’t stand to see people get pushed around.” I cannot imagine that the physical and verbal abuse levelled at students in schools such as that featured in Kes exists in our schools today. But should we stand by as so many of our young people get pushed around; failed by an unjust system? If those in power have no knowledge of, or interest in, what that other actually thinks, are we as educators powerless to intervene? I say no. But it is an all of us together thing. Our young people need the sort of kindness hinted at in The Gentleman’s Recreation (How ironic!). The sort that Richard Hines read of, recognised and exercised. As did Billy. But the lone voice of kindness received by Billy, offered by Mr Farthing, was not enough. Still Billy fled. The networks of support our young people need now are just as important as they ever were, arguably more so. Those networks must encompass families, school and community. We can be better at that, and must be. Schools can work on building such capacity, placing themselves with and within their communities. But, as Saul Alinsky said, “The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community.”
For Billy Casper, there was a devastating disconnect between family, school and community. The real life Billy, Richard, achieved his dreams, regardless. Too many others did not. Too many do not. Arguably, it is harder now than it was in the days Billy Casper was set to leave school. If the system shouts down our young ones, let us respond with kindness, as connected communities. We must believe that all schools, in embracing their communities and fostering solidarity can shape a better and more socially just world. To do so, we must address the needs of all those orbiting around our communities by listening to their stories and addressing traditional lines of power. And let’s hear it for the Mr Farthings of this world.
I explore these ideas further in a blog series here
Libby Purves interview with Richard Hines, Midweek : Diverse Conversation, Radio 4 – Wednesday 16th March 2016 (begins 24 minutes into podcast) http://live.audials.com/en#!podcast/midweek-58985
Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Random House.
Reay, D. (2012) What would a socially just education system look like?: saving the minnows from the pike, Journal of Education Policy, 27:5, 587-599.
Shultz, A. and Miller, M. (eds) (2015) People Power: The Community Organising Tradition of Saul Alinsky, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.