Sad today to hear about the death of writer Barry Hines. He’s not someone I’ve thought about recently, but he is an author who had a profound effect on my childhood, for two reasons. We’ll get to A Kestrel for a Knave in a minute, but the first time I encountered Hines’ work was when my parents inexplicably allowed me to watch his television drama about a nuclear attack on Sheffield, Threads. I would’ve been about 10 or 11 at the time, and utterly fascinated by the idea that the world contained weapons powerful enough to destroy it.
I don’t remember much about Threads (even though I’ve certainly watched it since), but one memory that has stayed with me is how terrified I was when I went to bed that night, convinced that the planet would be blown to smithereens whilst I slept. It was a feeling that stayed with me for some time, and thinking back there’s still a vague tremble in my stomach when I think about it. Such is the power of good drama, and good writing in particular.
The next time Barry Hines loomed over my personal horizon was five or six years later. I was studying for my GCSE in English, and one of the texts we looked at was A Kestrel for a Knave, Hines coming-of-age tale. I remember reading the book in class, as well as watching Ken Loach’s film version, and – like Threads – it seemed like an alien world. You have to bear in mind that at this point I was only fifteen; I’d spent the majority of my life growing up in a leafy Garden City just north of London, a place smothered with greenery and no significant local industry to speak of.
Hines descriptions of the mining communities in the north of England were completely new to me, but the bleakness of the environment was clear enough. This was tempered by the fact that much of the novel takes place in and around school, and which gave it sufficient familiarity. And little Billy Casper’s (ultimately futile) ideas of escape were also powerful enough for anyone who had felt the restrictive hand of an adult, whether parent or teacher.
One exercise I particularly remember was when pupils took on the roles of the characters from the book. I was somehow persuaded to play Billy’s thuggish older brother, called to explain why I was so intent on stamping on his dreams. What surprised me at the time was just how easily I slipped into the role – something which, looking back on it, owes as much to Hines’ key eye for character as any acting ability I may have had.
The classroom in which I first read A Kestrel for a Knave is one I now find myself teaching in, to a group of pupils of about the same age. The teacher I had at that time was Mrs. Henderson, one of my favourites. I was devastated in 1990 when I learned that she would be retiring, and therefore not around to guide me through my A-levels. In thinking about the kind of teacher I would like to be, Mrs. Henderson is at least partly responsible for my own change in career last September – although I don’t hold that against her.
Hines also spent some time as a teacher, and I was delighted to learn today in one obituary that, whilst writing A Kestrel for a Knave, he read sections of the novel to his pupils and asked for their feedback. They’re the real experts Hines believed, a warm and generous comment that says much about the man behind the books.