There are several books that have been haunting me for years. Books that people (often my mum!) bought me when I was younger with the words “you ought to read this” and then they’ve sat on my bookcase ever since. I can never bear to part with them, but I also never seem to get round to reading them either. That’s exactly the case with A Kestrel for a Knave, or Kes as many people better know it.
Set in a mining town in northern England (always suspected to be near the Barnsley area as that’s where author Hines came from) in the 1960s, A Kestrel for a Knave tells the story of Billy Casper. A young working-class boy who has a hard life both at home (with him mum and older half-brother Jud) and also at school.
Billy is coming up to school leaving age and whilst he knows that he doesn’t want to go and work down the pit like his brother and so many other boys and men locally, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. The one area where Billy does show a passion, and a great skill, is falconry. He has found a kestrel, that he called Kes, and has learnt everything there is to know about keeping and training a bird from a book that he stole from a shop in town. He has trained Kes from wild in a way that is simply spellbinding.
At school Billy finds himself bullied by teachers who don’t understand him (especially his PE teacher), and being caned by the headmaster after daydreaming and falling asleep in assembly. His English teacher sees a different side of Billy though after a lesson about fact and fiction. Children are invited to stand up and share some facts with the class. Billy rises from his seat and tells them all about Kes and how he has trained him. The teacher is in awe of what this young boy has managed to do and asks to come and see him work with Kes after school that day.
I’m not to give away anything further about the plot, but suffice to say that the book is incredibly powerful in the way that it tells of Billy’s life and challenges, and also those faced by so many living in a northern mining town at the time. It’s clear to see why it has been on exam board syllabuses since the 1970s. Some of the language and dialect used in the text transports the reader to South Yorkshire and adds a layer of reality to the action.
The film Kes
The film version of A Kestrel for a Knave was given the snappier title Kes and is a film that many still regard as one of the best British films ever. Directed by Ken Loach, the film brought the gritty northern mining town and its characters to life and the use of a local cast helped do this with native Yorkshire accents. Many of the cast had never worked as professional actors before and it’s particularly interesting to see both Brian Glover and Lynne Perry (better known by many as Ivy in Coronation Street) in their first film roles. Glover actually worked as a teacher at the same school as author Barry Hines and Hines put him forward for the role of PE teacher Mr Sugden to the film’s director.
I’m not always keen on film versions of books I’ve enjoyed, but Kes does an excellent job of bringing the book to life and not veering away from the original storyline. There is a flashback at the end of the book which is not included in the film, which I feel is a bit of a shame as it adds an extra bit of context to much of what happens, but at the same time the film does stand alone without it too.
What does the title mean?
As I’ve mentioned, many people know this book simply as Kes, after the famous film version of it, but the slightly strange sounding original title A Kestrel for a Knave does have a meaning behind it. Apparently taken from a poem in the Book of St Albans, in medieval England the only bird that a Knave (a man of low-class or a male servant) was allowed to keep was a kestrel. Hence Billy, a working class boy akin to a Knave, keeping a kestrel in the story.
Where to buy A Kestrel for a Knave?
You can pick up a copy of A Kestrel for a Knave online here. I managed to find the film Kes available to watch for free on Channel 4 not long after I finished reading the book. It’s not still on there at the time of writing, but you can rent or buy it on Amazon Prime for as little as £3.49 (to rent). If you want to see how much it costs on other platforms, or set an alert for when it is next available for free, then I recommend the site Just Watch.
What to read next
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Kes, then why not see what other fiction I’ve been reading lately.
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