There are certain books which, it seems, whole generations of young people have read as part of their secondary education. When it comes to English literature there really does seem to be a National Curriculum. Classics like Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird feature heavily on many teens reading lists (or at least they did before the latest round of changes in syllabuses – but let’s not go there…) and, from conversations I’ve had with customers about some of these books. they are popular. Not just because they are modest in terms of page count but also because they are great stories with plenty to say to both adults and children. I missed out on a lot of these books though – I was too young to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird when it first came out but it hadn’t quite got to ‘classic’ status by the time I was doing my ‘O’levels. I’ve read it since, obviously, but I wonder if I would have loved it as much as so many of the customers I speak to about it if I’d read it first in my teens. And, of course, another book which I could add to the list of exam favourites is Barry Hines’ Kestrel for a Knave. Which I also read as an adult rather than at school.
I was interested to read Richard Hines’ memoir, No Way But Gentlenesse, because it promised to give detail to the background to his brother, Barry’s, beloved novel. And it does this in the early chapters in which Richard struggles a bit at school and spends his summers raising and training wild kestrels which he finds close to his home on the outskirts of Barnsley. But there is so much more to both this book and to Kestrel for a Knave than just a boy and his hawks.
Both books are very clear about the inequalities of the education system which existed in the 60s. Bright kids who passed their 11+ exams went to Grammar schools and had a future which involved ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels and possibly university. They could look forward to decent jobs and the respect of their communities – and these are the advantages which are still cited today by those who’d like to bring back the grammar school system. Sadly there was a flip-side to this idyll – the Secondary Modern. From Richard Hines’ experience these schools could be brutal and demeaning – I can’t see a reason why it wouldn’t be possible to get a sound (if basic) education from these establishments but the reality seems to be that teachers saw them as an excuse to get the working classes ready for a life of doing what they’re told by their social superiors…Hines is obviously a clever lad (like his brother who did get to Grammar school) but he is made to feel ignorant and insecure. Interestingly he does, eventually, become a teacher himself and was, hopefully, more understanding for his own experience.
There is a fair amount in this book about the training of kestrels – and an interesting acknowledgement by Hines and other local lads that these are definitely not pets but wild, free creatures which they work with for a season and then release. But there is much more about what this could lead to: Hines trained Kes which led to his brother writing his book. This, obviously, led to the making of the film Kes on which Hines worked as a falconer and helped to inspire him to teach and also to become a documentary film maker. And all this despite his education rather than because of it…
It is easy for us to assume that baby boomers, those born in the post-war years have had it easy. But Hines, born in 1945, proves that a really great life was available for those who did well at school, either through class, background, brains or, like Hines, sheer determination. If people in their late 50s, 60s or 70s these days have advantages we can only dream of it seems to me that they really earned them.