My battle with Alzheimer's, by Kes author Barry Hines

Barry Hines has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Arts reporter Nick Ahad met the Barnsley writer behind A Kestrel for a Knave.

Barry Hines has come full circle.

When he turns 70 next month, he will do so in Hoyland Common, the former pit village now unrecognisable from the place he grew up.

As a boy he never read a book. Now he can't.

Poems, yes, but since the onset of Alzheimer's disease almost two years ago, a book is beyond the capacity of his fragile memory.

It is the cruellest irony that the man who brought stories from the pit village to the world can no longer read his own books – or anyone else's.

Standing at the window of his home in the Barnsley village to which he returned with his wife Eleanor shortly before being diagnosed, he looks across at a house which wasn't there when he was a boy.

On the other side are fields where he used to play as a child. Those, at least, remain unchanged.

He would often go down to those fields where he would find nests and "rescue" birds, taking them home and hand-rearing them before they were strong enough to fly away.

He relates these memories, and many others, in a new book, This Artistic Life.

Published by Hebden Bridge-based Pomona Books, it is a collection of writings from the Sixties and Seventies which sat in a box until they were discovered when he and Eleanor moved back to Hoyland Common two years ago.

The writings were always going to be significant. Now that Barry will not write anything again, they are all the more special.

When I speak to Eleanor, she warns me that Barry is changeable and she is not sure if he will want to talk on the day.

When I arrive, I find a mellow, placid Barry who is engaging, smart and often hilarious.

While his mind is sadly failing him, his spirit remains strong.

"He was always very fiery, but he has mellowed out over the past 10 years," says Eleanor.

Barry's devoted wife has become his protector. Ahead of my arrival, she has penned a few words that she wants to make sure I remember. She calls dementia the last medical taboo, and writes: "Because of this I am anxious to be open about the disease and help to get it talked about. If more people do this, it should eventually lead to more research."

She explains that in previous years she wouldn't have dreamed of sitting in on an interview with Barry, let alone helping to answer questions for him. Today she doesn't want to leave his side. She says: "Normally I never talk for Barry, but now I have to, don't I?"

With a mischievous smile, Barry says: "Not really," and laughs.

Eleanor says that, in common with the majority of people with Alzheimer's Barry does not accept that he is ill and "only admits to a poor memory which is getting better". When he speaks, though, he seems so lucid that it's difficult to accept that he doesn't understand his illness.

Born in Hoyland Common in 1939, Barry was a smart boy and a keen sportsman. He passed the 11-plus and was sent to grammar school. He left school at 16 and spent a brief time down the pits. He relates the story of his escape in This Artistic Life.

He writes: "When I went underground, I took a perverse pleasure in wearing my old school blazer, as if I was trying to prove to the miners that despite my education I hadn't deserted my roots. Bill Hawksworth wasn't in the least bit impressed. As I crawled by him one day, I smiled. 'Couldn't you find a better job than this?' he said, disgusted that a boy with a grammar school education should end up down the pit. By his reckoning, that's what grammar schools were for, to keep you out of the pit."

I ask Barry if he remembers this event.

He does, clearly. "He gave me a reet look," he says. "That's why I went back to school."

From there he went to Loughborough University – it was the first time Barry had read a book.

"I got there and there were all these books, I'd never seen so many," says Barry.

"I thought 'I better do something else'. Eventually I picked one up and I thought 'Ooh, that's not bad that'. It was right good that, when you've been a pillock then you're suddenly not... bloody pillock."

Eleanor prompts more memories when she says: "He was in an environment where it was okay to do that. To read. He hadn't been in that sort of environment."

In This Artistic Life the memories come flooding out. Barry's singular writing style – economic, honest – pares them down to their essentials. There is no fat on the stories, just honesty and South Yorkshire grit.

He went on to become a PE teacher, working in London for two years before returning north and taking up writing full-time.

His first novel, The Blinder, was written at Loughborough and finished while he worked as a teacher. Published in 1966, it was followed two years later by the novel which marked the arrival of a distinctive new voice and a writer who would tell the stories of those who could not speak for themselves, A Kestrel For A Knave.

Ken Loach turned it into the film Kes in 1969. Barry Hines went on to write novels including The Price of Coal in 1979 and Unfinished Business in 1983. His 1984 screenplay Threads, about the aftermath of a nuclear war, saw him nominated for a second BAFTA, following a nomination for Kes.

Today, Barry is lean and fit. He still enjoys walking around the village and often down to the fields where he used to play as a child. "I'm in good nick. If someone said run down there and back I could do that easy," he boasts. I ask if he's still writing. Barry's answer is heartbreaking. "No. I haven't found anything yet," he says.

Eleanor says: "That's the first time he's admitted that. That's the first time he's said no." He adds: "I haven't found anything, not yet. I don't know if I've got the same verve. It's like a footballer when they're not as good as they were. You try your best, but you think you're not going to be as good as you were. I think I'll be all right for five minutes."

I ask if that frustrates him.

"It doesn't worry me 'cos I've been at it a long time now, so I don't start crying or anything like that. I think I've done as much as I ought to have done. I keep saying I'm going to re-write. I'm 68 now, what am I?"

Eleanor tells Barry that he's 70 next month. He loses his thread and wants to explain what that's like. "I lose it. We'll be talking and then suddenly it just goes. But it doesn't worry me. Ten years ago I'd have gone 'Oh I want to die,' but I just get on with it. Most things I can do. I'm okay, I'm all right."

As heartbreaking as it is to watch Barry accept that these memories are just too tough to hang on to, it is even harder to watch Eleanor go through the process with him.

"It's not like in the soaps where someone gets diagnosed and then two episodes later they're in a home. It goes on for years," she says. Her dedication to her husband (she laughs when she tells the story of how they met – he was in Manchester giving a talk, she was a librarian. "It was a one-night stand!") is endearing.

She often refers to his arrogance and ego, which grew with success, but she refers to it with love. It was a part of the complex man that she has devoted her life to.

Although his mood is changeable, she does her best to keep his spirits up.

"He hasn't written a book for 10 years, but it's lovely because there's a hopefulness about him all the time and it seems like nature's way of saying 'I am getting better all the time, I can do this, I will do it'," she says.

Do you still read? I ask Barry. "I'm trying again. I've got a feeling I'm going to. I'll put me jacket on and think... (he gets up to look though the bookshelf) ... that's a nice one." Eleanor says she hears him often getting up in the night to read poems. In dark moments, she reminds Barry of his work.

"There's a shelf upstairs in the box room and I show him and say 'Look at that, you've got an oeuvre', it's a joke we have, we say 'you've got a nerve'."

As This Artistic Life shows, his life's work will be long remembered.

Barry's attitude remains the same as ever: "When I came back to the village a couple of years ago we went down to the club and the lads just said 'Alreyt,' like I'd never been away.

"I just get on with things. I don't mess about."

This Artistic Life, published by Pomona at 8.99, is out now. www. pomona.com. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or online. Postage and packing is 2.75.

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