Revisiting Kes: On Education, Edgelands & Eyasses
, November 15th, 2016 09:59
As Barry Hines' classic film Kes is given a re-release, Tim Cooke argues that its themes of a young man finding his true talents against the best efforts of an unforgiving education system are as relevant as ever
One afternoon, caught daydreaming by his teacher and threatened with detention, Billy Casper is forced to tell his classmates a factual story about himself. "Tell him about your hawk," his peers implore. He responds to the first of his teacher's prompts with a monotone sentence but soon finds his stride. Standing in front of the chalkboard, eyes ablaze, Billy captivates his audience as he riffs on jesses and swivels, explaining how he trained his beautiful kestrel.
This is a delicately underplayed and unforgettable scene, one of many such quietly powerful sequences that make up Ken Loach's anti-coming-of-age classic, Kes. There's the deeply symbolic scrap on a coal heap in the playground; the absurd football match driven by Brian Glover's sadistic PE teacher; and, of course, the unfair caning of a sweet-faced young boy.
The education system and its flaws were key to Loach and his co-scriptwriter, Barry Hines, who penned the novel A Kestrel For A Knave, on which the film was based. Set on the outer fringes of an unnamed northern mining town, the story follows Billy, a pale and shabby rogue at first glance, but one with bags of potential and good reasons not to trust authority. After failing his 11-plus and being branded a no-hoper, he's treading water at a brutal secondary modern, where his considerable, if unconventional, talents go largely unnoticed.
Just shy of 50 years since its release in 1969, the film's central themes are as relevant now as they were back then, especially given the Conservative government's recent enthusiasm for the return of grammar schools and selective education.
In another of the film's most memorable scenes Billy visits a careers officer and, asked whether he'd prefer a manual role to one in an office, explains: "I have a job to read and write." (The audience of course knows otherwise, having watched him spend evenings in reading about his beloved raptors while his mother and brother tear strips off one another in the background.) It's a difficult scene, knowing that were it not for his lack of self-confidence Billy could wax lyrical about his passion for nature and his accomplishments in falconry. Sadly, he only asserts that he wouldn't be seen dead down the pit.
Dai Bradley, the then-unknown actor who delivered such a wonderful performance as Billy, used a 2008 interview to criticise the lack of opportunities given to children to "develop what natural talents… they have". He explained: "I've always felt that given any child, if you find out where their interests lie, you can usually channel them towards that area in regards to [their] future employment… or at least make it a serious hobby."
In a 1999 postscript to his novel, Hines outlined his own perspective: "The eleven-plus system was ruinously divisive at all levels," he wrote. "In academic terms Billy Casper is a failure. He is in the bottom form of a rough secondary modern school… Yet once he becomes interested in falconry, he acquires a book on the subject… full of esoteric vocabulary and technical descriptions. He then goes on to successfully train a kestrel," which, of course, "requires both intelligence and sensitivity."
Bradley and Hines' views about education through the prism of Kes also find parallels in the film's exploration of the Yorkshire landscape. Billy inhabits a place where the urban and rural, the supposedly civilised and wild, leak into one another. A few years before Richard Mabey published his seminal The Unofficial Countryside and long before Marion Shoard introduced the term "edgelands", Loach and Hines were well attuned to the power of these strange and fertile marginal territories.
Hines wrote in 1999: "[A] question I am asked, particularly in the south of England, is how I know so much about the countryside if I come from Barnsley. It's an ignorant question but understandable, because many people still have a vision of the north filled with 'dark satanic mills', mines and factories, and not a blade of grass in sight. When I try to explain that the mining village in which I was born and brought up - just a few miles from Barnsley - was surrounded by woods and fields, I can tell they don't believe me."
It's these woods and fields, not far from the city, that are Billy's domain - spaces in which to escape, ramble and transform, where he can exist without the constant threat of ridicule and oppression. Marked by features like pylons, hedgerows and telephone wires, these neglected environments are often common land, allowing for a certain degree of freedom, both physical and spiritual. In this way, disconnected from the suffocating structures of school and society at large, such crossing places become democratic and up for grabs.
It's here, free from prying eyes, that Billy gets much of his unofficial education. Poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, in their non-fiction collaboration Edgelands, write of how giving these untranslated zones a name or signifier - and celebrating them - might help us see them. In turn, this might encourage people to explore and benefit from their unratified surroundings and "the edge" they offer. Paradoxically, though, celebrating them could undermine the edgelands, for it is not necessarily their cultural identity that gives solace to those who need and claim them, like Billy, but rather their covert wildness and their mysterious, unspoken magic.
If the edgelands are Billy's relief, the kestrel, then, is his natural kindred spirit. James Macdonald Lockhart, in his study of Britain's raptors, writes of the species: "From the town I keep looking back towards the moor and the wooded slopes… It is not so clear cut, the switch from moor to town: the two can mingle and fuse with one another. Kestrels move easily between the two spheres, hunting over the moor, nesting on the town's buildings, on its disused factory chimneys."
To me, this sounds very much like edgeland speak. When Billy first encounters the birds in A Kestrel For A Knave, one swoops from its nest in a ruined monastery wall to alight neatly on a nearby telegraph pole. In the film, it's exactly the same; the boy, chewing grass, his face coated in dirt, watches enraptured as it soars. Loach caught this realm - this frayed strip of "bastard countryside", as Victor Hugo appropriately called it - perfectly, with his protagonist perambulating the unnamed zone, stick in hand, to the owlish melody of a fairy-tale flute. It's evocative and captivating.
The actual training process is afforded relatively little screen time in Kes, as if we are expected to already know about the skills, expertise and patience it can take to man a bird. During a conversation with an uncommonly benevolent teacher, Billy explains that he's been reading about goshawks and wants to get hold of one. I like to think that this was Hines nudging us towards TH White's flawed masterpiece The Goshawk, which he read growing up, for a better idea of the difficulties the aspiring falconer, or austringer, might experience.
White was less adept than Billy, but they have more in common than you might think. Helen Macdonald, in her enlightening and wildly popular H Is For Hawk, writes of how to White pets meant dependency, which he had a "terror" of. She explains: "He bought two Siamese cats - a breed renowned for its independence - and tried to 'train them to place no reliance or affection upon anybody but themselves'. It was what he had been trying to do himself for years." Billy, also a self-reliant loner, has little interest in pets - a hawk is nothing of the sort.
Like Billy and White, Macdonald is a keen falconer. At one point in her book, she recalls a childhood pencil sketch of a kestrel attached to a glove via a thick, exaggerated leash fastened to its talons. "Here, says the picture, is a kestrel on my hand. It is not going away. It cannot leave." She goes on to draw comparisons with a Winnicott paper on fear of abandonment, something she, White and, of course, the fatherless Billy all experienced in some form or another.
Raptors are also at the heart of JA Baker's classic of modern nature writing, The Peregrine, an ecstatic, psychedelic exploration of landscape in Eastern England. The narrator describes months spent navigating the flat countryside - that was then being decimated by new industrial farming methods - in pursuit of the birds, tracking them by the fallen feathers left behind by the carnage of their hunting. Baker's masterpiece is a vivid, at times existential, read - it should come as no surprise that Werner Herzog is an avowed fan.
The attraction of raptors and the hold they have on the creative imagination has often been returned to in nature writing, art and film. It's as if there is something in their prehistoric indifference to humanity, their otherness, that appeals to a fundamental aspect of our nature; they are a symbol, an embodiment, of a wilderness that we long for but, in the UK at least, is hard to come by. The kestrel is perhaps the one of these emblematic birds that we are most likely to see, as we drive from city to city, hovering with intent over motorway verges.
While Loach's film is more about one boy being failed miserably by those around him, it certainly knows what's special about the raptor - or, at least, Billy does. In the aforementioned conversation with his teacher, he explains - in his unrefined and regrettably un-academic-sounding Yorkshire dialect - just what it is that enthrals him so. His thoughts are astute and sophisticated: "Is it heck tame, hawks can't be tamed, they're manned. It's wild, an' it's fierce, an' it's not bothered about anybody, not bothered about me, right. That's what makes it great."
Kes is at once complicated and fine-tuned, a tragic and sympathetic masterpiece of wild landscapes and missed opportunities. Bleak, yes, but vital for it. As with much of Loach's work, there are contemporary lessons to be learned - not least about siphoning off children from their peers at a formative stage, according to clumsy notions of intelligence and potential.
I recently described the plot of Kes to my father - who, fortunately for him, passed his 11-plus - over a pint of beer. When I'd finished, he asked hopefully: "And then what?" That was it, I explained: reality. He looked crestfallen, devastated by the story of one too-quietly promising youngster - and a thousand more just like him - on the cusp of an adulthood of toil and ridicule, hardship and injustice. While the crackling, grainy picture gives Kes a charmingly old-fashioned look, in many ways it hasn't aged a day.
A Blue-ray special edition of Kes is to be released by Eureka Entertainment on November 7th.