Whether for pleasure or for studies, I’ve always had a penchant for working-class literature and film. Throughout my undergraduate degree I would regularly attempt to shoehorn the films and novels of the ‘angry young men’ and British New Wave into my essays, finding any excuse to link them to the topics and themes of my respective modules. The reason for this fascination isn’t particularly difficult to pin down. As a person who identifies as working-class, seeing stories that I can relate to – ones of escape, injustice or the minutiae of working-class family life, affect me in a particularly significant way. But for all this talk of being a lover of the genre, there was one text I still hadn’t gotten around to reading: Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave.
It’s one of those books that has become bigger than itself, adapted first by Ken Loach and becoming synonymous with social realism, what self-respecting socialist hadn’t read the book – or seen the film – and railed against the injustices of a failed education system which couldn’t recognise the talents of Billy Casper? The answer? Me. I was scared: what if I thought it was too hammy? What if I got bored? What if I just didn’t like it? I even read two of Hines’ lesser known novels, The Blinder and Elvis over England, as a sort of compromise to allay my own guilt.
Thankfully, my fear was proven unnecessary, and as soon as I turned the first page I was hooked. The depiction of two brothers fighting reminded me of squabbles with my own sibling and the pair being piled into a single bed called up stories my mum told me about her upbringing. Even that horrible, early morning paper round I could relate to – minus the thieving – but this is where the similarities stopped. Where was the warmth? Where was the happiness?
What struck me reading A Kestrel for a Knave for the first time was the utter hopelessness of Billy Casper’s life. It is by far the bleakest, saddest story I’ve ever read. A loveless, abusive family life; an utterly miserable education and the promise of nothing but even more hardship once those pitiful school years are over. What’s even more depressing is the fact that Billy has accepted his fate at the age of 15:
“Have you got a job yet?”
“No sir. I’ve been to see t’youth employment bloke this afternoon.”
“What kind of job are you after?”
“I’m not bothrered. Owt’ll do me.
“You’ll have to do something that interests you though?”
“I shan’t have much choice shall I? I shall have to take what they’ve got.” (p. 103)
I found myself on the edge of tears when Billy finally shows pride in himself, and speaks with Mr Farthing about training his bird, because even these fleeting moments are tainted with the knowledge of the horror of the book’s final act. Perhaps my response would have been different if it wasn’t for this insight, and perhaps I would have read Casper’s amateur falconry with the innocence with which he performs it, but still, even then, the helplessness of the young Casper ‘panting and sobbing’, ‘his call […] pitching up to a scream’ as he looks for his lost bird would have broken my heart (p.176).
Reading the novel now, it’s easy to dismiss it as a product of a different age, but children like Billy still exist – I know, I went to school with some of them – and it’s here where the novel felt most powerful. We live in a time where children like Billy, and their families, would be described as ‘scroungers’ or ‘chavs’. Those in poverty, and those less able, are villainised and denied any accurate representation in the media, instead being turned into one-dimensional caricatures to be mocked and preached to, told it’s all their fault, or displayed like animals to be prodded and baited for entertainment on The Jeremy Kyle Show.
It is impossible not to sympathise with Billy once you learn of the difficulties of his life, and if there were more faithful representations of the modern Billy Caspers – those who are struggling in Britain today – perhaps we would find a more empathetic, caring public. The novel is still on school syllabuses, and as one of the few, sympathetic representations of working-class life that many will come across, I hope that it encourages people to challenge the dominant narratives of our time.
A Kestrel for a Knave, is a powerful, enduring piece of literature, but the fact that a book that was published 50 years ago still feels painfully and hopelessly relevant shows that Britain has a long way to go to solve its class problem.
by David Ewing
David Ewing is an English Literature graduate of the University of Sheffield where he is currently undertaking an MA in Public Humanities. He edits the Localcheck section of Now Then Manchester and his interests lie in class and society, and working class art and literature.