“Tha must be crackers…. Nicking books … I could understand it if it wa’ money, but chuff me, not a book … An’ what better off will tha be when tha’s read it?”
The story of young Billy Casper and his kestrel is one that has reverberated around thousands of classrooms in the past few decades and sits comfortably as a modern classic that is loved by so many people. Sadly, the Yorkshireman who wrote this timeless story, Barry Hines, has just passed away. Still, whilst we mourn Hine’s passing, it is only right to celebrate his life and particularly his enduring book ‘Kes‘ – given that we are all better off for having read it.
Few books are so beloved as ‘Kes‘ for the generations of school children who were graced with the chance of reading it. It gave us all the furtive surprise of some proper swearing, fights, fags, and a portrait of a school experience full of a colorful cast of teacher villains and heroes we could so readily associate with. Right from the opening, where Billy’s brother Jud kicks him awake in bed, we get a sharp sense of lives so close to our own, with real voices and teenage woes.
‘Kes‘ proved one of a handful of books for me when I was a young lad that made sense of my own chaotic feelings and experiences. In books like Hines’ ‘Kes‘, ‘Son and Lovers‘, ‘Death of a Salesman‘, ‘Great Expectations‘ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘, I found stories that captured the confusion, betrayal, hope and idealism of my growing up. I know, in my more reflective moments, that one of the crucial reasons for my becoming an English teacher was to pass all this on – to read books like ‘Kes‘ just like I had experienced.
For me, ‘Kes‘ was something uniquely special as it is such an accurate snapshot of a working class world at once so familiar and now strange. Hines helped you understand that the lives of Billy, and those of us like him, really mattered. You can feel the imprint of Hines’ own working class upbringing with his brother, the loss of his grandfather in a pit accident, on each page. Billy’s story is beautifully fragile and tragically hopeless, and yet it is at once still hopeful and full of the milk of human kindness.
As I gloomily consider Hines’ family and friends at this time, I cannot but smile at what he has left us all, and how, with his tragic story of Billy Casper and his beloved bird, we are gifted with something that will endure and will continue to teach generations of kids how to live and deal with love and loss.
I started this blog with the quote from Billy’s bludgeoning older brother, Judd, who is incredulous that his brother would steal a book. Of course, Judd sees no material value in nicking a book. Happily, for the many thousands who have read ‘Kes‘, we can smile as we see the irony of Judd’s blinkered view of books as we read Hines’ words on the page.
I think I might nick a copy from our English department book store tomorrow and give it another read in memory of Hines’ genius.
I look forward to the next time I walk down a school corridor and hear the inimitable music of the great football scene from the film. I’ll no doubt pop in to catch a glimpse of Mr Sugden doing his Bobby Charlton impression. I’ll say a little thanks to Ken Loach, but an even bigger thanks to Barry Hines.
Here’s Sugden to make you smile.