Ken Loach’s film Kes is 50 years old this year. For me, that is an incredible fact. The book the film is based on, A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, is one year older. And, just for the record, I am one year older still.
My introduction to Kes was in my first year at secondary school. It had been included on the UK educational syllabus in the 1970s and my form would have been early Kes pioneers. As naïve eleven-year olds, we read and studied the book during English classes; watched the film on the school’s solitary, small TV.
And I hated it. Hated the book; hated the film; began to develop a hatred for the entire north of England. At the time, it was easy to interpret the hatred as a schoolboy’s natural automatic aversion to being required to read a ‘set-text’; it could have been any book and the reaction would have been the same. But that is not quite true.
Now that I am older, I can analyse more objectively my strong adverse response to Kes.
What had appeared as hatred at the time, I can now better recognise as fear. I found A Kestrel for a Knave a frightening novel. It depicted a scary, brutal Northern way of life, for which my soft Southern sensitivities had no previous experience.
The principal protagonist of A Kestrel for a Knave is fifteen-year old Billy Casper. In the film he is played by actor David Bradley. My copy of A Kestrel for a Knave was a slim Penguin edition, and on the cover was a close-up still of Bradley’s gaunt teenage face, as he defiantly flicks a V-sign. It remains a haunting image.
In the book, Billy Casper is bullied; brutalised; driven to the extremes of society. Was this to be my future? Was this the life of the fifteen-year old that awaited me? As an impressionable eleven-year old, it was a worrying prospect.
For me, the only redeeming feature of the novel was the kestrel. The one thing I appeared to share with Billy Casper was a love of nature. But where did this end? SPOILERS. Not well.
As an eleven-year old, Kes embodied everything in life that I didn’t want to happen. As an adult, I recognise that both the novel and the film have inspired such diverse personalities as Chris Packham and Greg Davies but, for me, I cling on only to the fear and hatred. It is neither a book nor a film experience that I have wanted to return to.
And, to this day, my journeys north of the Watford Gap remain problematic at best.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow is in Kes therapy.