Ian McMillan: Why we should celebrate Barry Hines by digging out his forgotten works

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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Like many readers in Yorkshire and beyond, I was saddened by the death of the great Barry Hines, a man who put Barnsley on the literary map with A Kestrel for a Knave, memorably filmed as Kes. It seems strange that in a column a couple of weeks ago about sports writing I referred to Barry’s early novel The Blinder and it strikes me now that many of the other books he wrote have fallen under Kes’s fluttering shadow, and maybe it’s time to bring them back into the light.

The enterprising Yorkshire publisher Pomona Books brought out new editions of The Price of Coal and Looks and Smiles a few years ago and they’re well worth hunting out. The Price of Coal was also a TV film that breaks naturally into two halves, the first part being a hilarious account of a royal visit to a pit that leads to the distribution of soft soap in the baths, and the second detailing in harsh, unflinching prose a disaster at the same mine: “Syd was walking back to the tailgate with Alan to fetch another ring. He turned to face the terrible roar, saw a blue flash, was lifted by the burning blast of air. Harry felt the ground shake, heard the rushing air, was knocked down by it.” Given the death of the coal industry this could almost feel like a historical text, but it was first published in 1979; that’s history now, I guess.

I was saddened by the death of the great Barry Hines, a man who put Barnsley on the literary map with A Kestrel for a Knave, memorably filmed as Kes.

Looks and Smiles, from 1981 and also filmed by Ken Loach, features a character called Mick Walsh, who is almost a reinvention of Billy Casper, the protagonist of A Kestrel for a Knave. Mick leaves school and goes to what used to be called the Social Security Office: “Mick signed the form: Michael Walsh. It looked incomplete without his class after it, 5G2, but this wasn’t a school exercise book, or a new examination paper. All that was behind him now. He was signing on the dole.” This is a bleak book, as bleak as the times Hines is writing about, and although we feel great sympathy and affection for Mick and Karen, the love of his life, at the end there seems to be no redemption available at all. The last paragraph of the book is back in the dole office, and the last sentence is “The queues were longer every time he went.”

There’s writing of a more lyrical, but still politically charged, kind in The Gamekeeper, the story of a year in the life of George Purse, a ’keeper on the estate of Lord Dronfield, a thinly disguised Earl Fitzwilliam. Hines’s observation of nature is precise but beautiful: “Buttercups were in flower in the meadow. The hedgebank was white with beaked parsley, and their colour merged with the blossom on the hawthorn hedge. From a distance it looked as though the white rosettes which studded the bank had fallen from the hedge.”

Barry Hines was a wonderful Yorkshire writer, and let’s celebrate him by reading his lesser-known works.