One of the aims of our research project has been to collaborate with and learn alongside communities who share an interest in the work and legacy of Barry Hines. With this mind, a year ago I went along with Rachel Hughes, a PhD researcher who is undertaking a study of Hines’s lost and unpublished works, to Hoyland library, just next door to where Hines grew up in Hoyland Common. We facilitated a reading group with a group of local residents, in collaboration with the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, a heritage and regeneration organisation that does really excellent work in the area. We read passages from Hines’s most famous novel A Kestrel for a Knave and discussed the ways that Hines’s writing, specifically his writing of the landscape, was interacting with the group’s experiences and memories. The illustrator, Jon Cannon, and the filmmaking collective Picture Story Productions, came along to those workshops and used them as the starting points for this film project. The result is A Cushion of Mist.
Some of the richest and most enduring elements of A Kestrel for a Knave can be found in Hines’s meticulous writing of the landscape: it is the source of much of the novel’s poetic energy. Of course, Kes (the film) is similarly reliant on such a treatment of space, but the images of David Bradley’s Billy in nature, as deeply evocative as they are, are anchored indelibly to the film. When we read the novel in 2017 we cannot help but think of shots like this as we turn the pages.
A Cushion of Mist intersperses Hines’s writing with contemporary images of the landscapes around Barnsley that inspired him. In effect the film functions as a contemporary adaptation of the novel and works to loosen slightly Kes’s hold on A Kestrel for a Knave. A Cushion of Mist helps us to think about the ways in which the novel does things which are distinct from the more famous film – placing greater emphasis on Hines’s intimate, sensory treatment of an underrepresented and under-appreciated landscape.
A Cushion of Mist also gets to heart of Hines’s interest in landscapes as political and economic symbols, rich with meaning. The semi-rural areas of South and West Yorkshire historically combined nature with industry and the toils of labour. In the postindustrial age the mines are ever thinning traces upon the landscape, with altogether more precarious and fragmented forms of work in their place. There is a sense both in Hines’s writing and in this film that external space is not be written as if it were a still photograph or a painting, but as something in motion and composed of multiple layers of narrative. Thus for Billy Casper, and for Shaun and Nancy, the acts of walking, reading and writing space become interlinked, endlessly symbiotic practices where meaning is made every day. In short, the landscape is not something merely to be looked at from a distance; it is to be felt.
Hines’s insistence on this kind of nature writing places a much greater emphasis on landscape as a canvass for the exploration of human emotion, as well as political understanding: as a way of reflecting upon and representing our inner lives. Just as Billy’s hopes and the possibilities for his life are tantalisingly suggested through Hines’s poetic transformation of the non-human world in A Kestrel for a Knave, so too Shaun’s and Nancy’s walks spark memories and philosophical reflections.
With this film we return to Kes’s literary origins and go some way to encouraging a consideration of its landscapes in the present moment. Shaun and Nancy read Hines’s now fifty-year-old interpretation of the Barnsley countryside against their own. Visually the film reflects something of Hines’s prose style in its willingness to rest and take time over its subjects, and through the use of illustration, signaling the ways in which for Hines, landscape was shaped of layers – both physical and mental – and departing from Kes’s realist interpretation towards something more conspicuously imagined. This appreciation of the depth of Hines’s landscape is also aided by the filmmakers’ collaboration with Martin Hogg, a sound artist, whose field recordings seem to bring out a granular, aural experience of landscape.