Ian McMillan: Of Market Hill Billy

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Yorkshire has produced many great writers, of course, and it’s always hard to name a favourite but I’ve decided that, in the end, it’s where you come from in the county and it’s the kinds of views you see out of the window and on your way to school and to work that define for you the writer or the book that you love most.

So for people who gaze out onto moors and wild cloudscapes, the Brontë sisters are the ones; if you used to have the view of a mill-scape from your kitchen door then JB Priestley tells it how it is, but if you’re from South Yorkshire in general and Barnsley in particular then A Kestrel for a Knave is the book for you, as it is the book for me.

If you wander around Barnsley you’ll often see car stickers with Billy thrusting two fingers in the air over the words BILLY SEZ THA TOO CLOSE

Barry Hines’s book is sometimes overshadowed by the wonderful film, with its Brian Glover football scene that many Yorkshire people of a certain age know off by heart, its assembly scene that everybody in Barnsley, whether they were born when the film came out or not, insists they were in, and the chilling scene where Jud, hoping to collect his winnings from the betting shop, finds out that his brother Billy hasn’t put the bet on and comes to the school to exact revenge. Very few people claim they were in that scene.

Marvellous as the film is, I prefer the book. It pins down Barnsley in the mid- 20th century with masterful ease. Here is an industrial place at the edge of wild countryside that draws Billy Casper into it, away from his paper round to the kestrel that is a symbol of freedom. Here is the idea of lives lived narrowly, from the school to the pit to the pub and back to the pit; at no time, though, does Hines patronise these people. He loves them. He feels like he is one of them.

If you wander around Barnsley you’ll often see car stickers with Billy thrusting two fingers in the air over the words BILLY SEZ THA TOO CLOSE and for us in Barnsley, A Kestrel for a Knave is our founding myth, our Moby Dick, our Great Expectations, our Things Fall Apart. Here is our dialect celebrated and not parodied; here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen and which can be, in a resonant phrase that I invented earlier, Available For Myth. In other words, myths and legends don’t just have to happen in Ancient Greece. They can happen in Barnsley.

The end of the book is different to the film; in the film, after Jud has killed Billy’s kestrel, Billy’s world collapses and the film ends in bleak tragedy; in the book Billy, runs into town and goes to a disused cinema where, in a piece of magic realism he watches a film that features the dad we never see and the kestrel “flying low, one rapid wide circuit, then gaining height, ringing up, hovering and sliding sideways a few yards, then ringing up to her pitch and waiting on while Billy walks forwards…” Beautiful writing in a beautiful book.