Wednesday 5 April 2017

A Kestrel for a Knave

I'd never really heard of this book before the author Barry Hines died last year. I vaguely knew it was on my 1001 list but that's about it. I'd never heard of, or seen, the 1960s movie adaptation, Kes either. So I finally made time to read A Kestrel for a Knave last month.

It's an interesting book. Billy Caspar is a fifteen year old boy living on a housing estate with his mother and older brother. Theirs is not a comfortable or easy life. Billy's mother works and often brings a different man home at night. Billy shares a bed with his older brother Jud, who works down t'pit, and drinks and gambles in his spare time. 
then stood up and walked into the kitchen, and opened the pantry door. There was a packet of dried peas and a half bottle of vinegar on the shelves. The bread bin was empty.
Billy doesn't have it much better at school. He is the kid always blamed for whatever goes wrong, always in trouble. 
'There's always somebody to spoil it. There's always someone you can't suit, who has to be awkward, who refuses to be interested in anything, someone like you, Casper.'
But Billy is interested in something, very interested. Billy has taken a kestrel chick from the nest and reared her, trained her. He tries to borrow a book on falconry from the library but in the rather strict rules of the time, this boy who can barely read and write isn't allowed to join the library to borrow the book, so he steals one from the bookshop. 

I'd like to think that these days teachers and the school might recognise Billy's circumstance for what it is, and realise why he never has had a football kit for all the years he's been at high school. 
'I don't know, Sir. I seem to get into bother for nowt. You know, for daft things, like this morning in t'hall. I wasn't doing' owt,  I just dozed off that's all. I wa' dog tired, I'd been up since six, then I'd had to run round wi' t'papers, then run home to have s look at t'hawk, then run to school.We', I mean, you'd be tire wouldn't you, Sir?'
I thought I'd enjoy this book more than I did in the end. It's one of those books that I'm more glad to have read, than a book that I loved reading at the time. It's well written and I really liked Barry Hines' use of distinctive North England dialect, and was a bit surprised to read in the Afterword of my Penguin Modern Classics edition that he wouldn't use dialect if he was writing it again, and that he didn't think it worked on the page. I really liked his use of dialect, and I thought the speech leapt off the page. Perhaps it was my misspent youth watching endless series of Shameless but I could hear these characters talking. I have tried to read some books where dialect hasn't worked -I remember Transporting being incomprehensible, I think for dialect, but perhaps it was for other reasons. 

Barry Hines also said that "In retrospect, I think I made Jud and Mrs Casper too unsympathetic." This part is true I guess. Neither of them are in the story all that much, although they play important roles, particularly Jud. It was hard to imagine a mother as indifferent as Mrs Casper seemed to be, but there are mothers in the news every day who do much worse than Mrs Casper does here. 

Another fascinating tidbit from the Afterword was that Barry Hines found the name Billy Casper in the sports section of his newspaper as he was a prominent American golfer of the time, and in those pre-Google days Barry had no idea what the real Billy Casper looked like. It was only after A Kestrel for a Knave was published that he saw Billy Casper on television and realised that he was a "big, burly type, the exact opposite of my skinny little character". Barry even went on to describe his book as "A slim book about a no-hoper and a hawk". That it is, but it is more than that too. 


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