Incredibly (how?) it is 50 years since the release of Kes, Ken Loach’s classic film about a rough and tumble working class kid, neglected at home and school, who finds, only fleetingly alas, beauty and purpose through the experience of training a hawk. Few works of art, even very great ones, manage to ink themselves indelibly into a generation’s consciousness, but Loach’s film, a faithful and detailed rendering of Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave, did just that, leaving a mark that endures as pervasive as coal dust worked into skin.
Untameable, an exhibition of material from the Barry Hines Archive curated by artists Patrick Murphy and Anton Want, offers a vivid testament to an unjustly neglected writer whose range extended far beyond his most famous novel. I urge anyone who happens to be near or in Sheffield, or even further afield, to make their way there post-haste before it closes on December 20. It is worth a detour.
Hines was a 25-year-old P.E. teacher when his first novel, The Blinder, the story of a teenage footballer, was published. He knew whereof he wrote having almost made it as a pro himself, one of the traditional paths out of working class poverty of course (in the days long before footballers achieved the pampered demi-god millionaire status of today, obviously). Good enough to play for England schoolboys and evidently a gifted all-round sportsman, Hines also possessed a deep compulsion to portray the reality of the world he had grown up in and the working class experience. On display in this exhibition, we see some of the handwritten manuscripts for the early works, vividly propelled by an unwavering determination to get his words out there in the world.
In his foreword to the exhibition, David Forrest of the university’s school of English makes the salient point that the opportunities available to the young writer were, sadly, almost certainly greater than they would be now in comparable circumstances. Legendary producer Tony Garnett was stunned to be turned down when he approached Hines with a proposal to write a screenplay. The writer replied that he was well on with a novel about a boy and a hawk and needed to get it finished.
Though this exhibition is essentially across just one open-plan room, it affords a comprehensive portrait. Hines, it is clear, was not a writer to glad-hand producers or schmooze his way around literary circles. It would simply not have been possible for him to do so. A video extract records him excoriating Frederic Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes and the Oxbridge-educated cabal who made programmes about the lives of successful middle class Oxbridge-educated people. For Hines, the lives of ‘ordinary’ people were every bit as fascinating and worthy of record as those of social elites.
His most-famous work after Kes is perhaps the post-nuclear-holocaust drama Threads, a terrifying show which appeared at an extraordinarily tense period of the Cold War. The title refers to the importance and fragility of communal ties, and Hines’s work taken as a whole might be the perfect rebuttal of Margaret Thatcher’s line that “there is no such thing as society”. An extract from the screenplay of Threads on display reads thus: “In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”
I came away from this show both moved and filled with admiration for a writer who was the very embodiment of the word integrity. Go now, you still have time (just).
Untameable: The Barry Hines Archive exhibition is at Sheffield University until December 20, 2019.