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Books

“A Kestrel for a Knave” (1969) by Barry Hines

Kes is deservedly a lauded picture and cemented Ken Loach’s reputation as a film maker with plenty to say about social issues in Great Britain and the scene with Brian Glover as the demented PE teacher is as iconic as you can get in cinematic terms.

George Orwell’s description of Dickens displaying a “generous anger” in his work sprung to my mind whilst reading Barry Hines classic life in a day tale of a misfit teenager’s attempts to navigate his way through a dysfunctional Yorkshire working class upbringing due to the writers descriptions of the housing and relationships on display. There is no overt judgmentalising, even the boys Mother’s morals are not commented upon, and you get the drift that they are decent people trying their best. 

Billy Casper is one of English Literature’s greatest creations and he is the conduit through which Hines introduces the reader to the reality of our class system, and the endemic way in which the top pushes down to subjugate those at the bottom.

The sub prime crisis is a perfect example of this. The Keynesian economic model requires demand to stimulate the dash for “growth” . This, ideally should result from a high wage and a high skill economy where there is a distribution of wealth based on both usefulness as well as pragmatic support for those who can’t help themselves. Fairness I think it was once known as.

But that doesn’t suit capitalism, so instead we have been witness to a mind boggling explosion of wealth at the upper end and a gradual erosion of wages just below the average salary, but in order to keep the demand going debt has been the way that the top end control and exploit those at the bottom, done through the pretence of aspiration. This ends up with a family who once would have resided in social housing being carolled into taking out an eye watering mortgage for a mock Tudor place (with massive kick backs for the brokers and Banks). Then two years in the lender can quite legally re arrange the terms adding in one recent case £200 a month onto the bill, the family fall behind, get kicked out but the lenders never lose due to the fact that property prices are still going up.

So what we’ve ended up with now is a large rump of the population mired in horrendous debt, surviving on low wages whilst being fed a diet of unrealistic aspiration from the media. “Debt? Who gives a shit? Consolidate it all in one place and then go on holiday to the Caribbean whilst they fit the kitchen of your dreams! You deserve it!” They don’t mention the arrangement fees, or the compound interest which can be re “negotiated” at anytime. 

The answer to all of this lies in the education system and I thank my lucky stars that I went to school at the best time as, due to the Post 1945 settlement education was free to all at whatever level provided that you could cut the mustard academically. Thus the professions became open to us Marist lads in a way that would not be possible today as Middle Class manipulation of the system sees our kids into the best State schools where there are now massive gaps between establishments that never existed to the same extent twenty five years ago.

Billy’s mundane existence is enlivened by his acquisition of a kestrel whom he trains to perfection, impressing his English teacher no end.

I remember vividly trying to “teach” a bunch of lads about some aspect of the curriculum in Year 11, but as they were destined all to leave school with virtually no qualifications I soon wondered what they were really interested in. I asked them to do a show and tell. One lad brought in his boxing gloves and spent 50 minutes explaining how and why he loved his chosen sport. They were enraptured and the lad was proud. All this stuff works better when people talk to each other. Now it’s more and more of a syringe approach where the pupil has education done to them. 

The best bit of the book isn’t actually in the film and it features Billy writing about his ideal day. Heart breaking in the context of his life in this wonderful book.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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