Interview by Yorkshire Post Journalist Daniel Wray About My Book, No Way But Gentlenesse. A memoir of how Kes, my kestrel, changed my life.
1] What was the impetus for writing the book? When did you start it and why?
When I was a hawk obsessed teenager I used to talk people to death, telling them about my kestrel, which came from a nest in the ruins of Tankersley Old Hall. I kept my kestrel, which I called Kes, in a Second World War air raid shelter in my older brother Barry’s garden. It was watching me train my kestrel which gave him the idea for his novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which Ken Loach made into the classic film Kes. Barry never kept kestrels, but when the book and film became famous, not surprisingly, Barry was the one associated with kestrels. People were more interested in hearing about the film and book, rather than my real life tales and fascination with hawks, so I no longer talked about them and went about my life. I’d worked as falconer on the film Kes in 1968, and in 2003, writer Anthony Hayward was writing a book about Ken Loach’s films called Which Side Are You On? And after Barry had told him I was the inspiration for his character Billy Casper, he interviewed me about my own experiences of keeping kestrels. He seemed intrigued by my story. I hadn’t spoken about it for over thirty years and it came pouring out as is if I’d been bottling it up. It was then that I got the idea that I might try and write a memoir when I retired, which I did, and was lucky enough to get it published.
2] The first thing that struck me was the degree of clarity you have surrounding your childhood. Have you just got an excellent memory or did you keep a diary? Or was it just a very vivid/formative period that has indelibly stuck with you?
Luckily I have an excellent memory. But I had such vivid experiences as a child living in a pit village surrounded by flower meadows, grazing cows, fields of golden wheat and skies full of singing sky larks, those memories are etched in my mind. And I can’t forget my time at secondary modern school, the disappointment of being dumped in a school where I soon discovered my education didn’t matter, and the beatings from of the teachers. Also the teenage memories of learning how to train hawks from a book I found in Barnsley library, and later flying my kestrel Kes to the lure in the fields surrounding our pit village, are so vivid they are unforgettable.
3] The undercurrent of the book is the class system and your relation to falconry is related closely to this. Is this something that has come with hindsight or do you think you were aware of it as a young person? Is there a single triggering moment?
After secondary modern school I passed an exam to do a new course at Barnsley Tech, where I gained a few O levels and then transferred to grammar school to do A levels. It was while there that I became aware of social class. I was the only pupil with a strong regional Barnsley accent, and I was still haunted by the sense of failure instilled in me by failure my eleven plus exam, I became self conscious and socially awkward. Even so it was the 1960’s and working – class books and films, such as Saturday Night and Morning were being written and made, and the Beatles northern accents were on the air waves and I thought things were changing and social class didn’t matter anymore. That was until I met my first falconer, who was upper- class, and had a posh booming voice. I was astounding at the different between our social classes and realised I’d been obsessed with an upper –class sport which at the time wouldn’t have welcomed me so I abandoned falconry and didn’t come back to it for many years, after a hawk had flown inches over my head and made me yearn to have a hawk back in my life.
4] You have a seemingly in- built notion of fairness and justice in you it seems. For example when you travel to Nigeria you seem to immediately pick up on the colonial hangover and pervading racism that exists there and you immediately dislike it. What was it that instilled this sense of fairness in you do you think? Just your upbringing and environment or something you learnt/ experienced/ witnessesed?
My dad, who was a miner and spent 8 hours a day on his knees shovelling sixteen tons of coal each shift, was a very gentle, kind man. He couldn’t stand bullying or bad manners and had a very strong sense of honesty, fairness and justice. I loved my dad and I think I must have got my notion of fairness and justice from him.
5] Another constant through the book, I think, is passion. You’re very clearly a man who throws himself into things he loves and when you don’t, you give yourself quite a hard time about it. I can only presume you really went all in with this book too? Was it a challenging process or something that came easy?
Yes, passion is an important part of the book and provides an underlying theme. It was my passion for hawks and falconry that sparked a voracious appetite for reading and learning which led to me becoming a teacher, filmmaker and university lecturer, and now an author of a memoir. But at secondary modern school I wasn’t any cleverer than any of the other boys and girls who had failed the exam for grammar school. There were lots boys at our secondary modern school who were cleverer than me. The difference was I found a passion, hawks, and I believe all of us have latent talents or aptitudes, which if we are lucky enough to discover them, could lead us to go on to do things we couldn’t have imagined. In the book all the main characters, except my family, have stories, like tiny subplots, to demonstrate this underlying theme. All of them are secondary modern school write-offs who found their latent talent – my wife Jackie discovered art, Towser drama and literature, and even my tough mate Budgie discovered a talent for naturalistic acting which got him film parts.
Yes, my passion and ability to concentrate for hours without a break played an essential part in writing my book and getting it published. It was both extremely interesting and very difficult, and I obsessively wrote draft after draft, honing down, further and further, checking every word, every sentence, every scene had a purpose. If there was nothing at stake, or hadn’t a purpose, or was purely descriptive, out it came. I have well over 100 pages that I wrote and left out until I felt I’d got it exactly as I wanted it and it was the book I’d hoped to write. It took me about 4 years to manage this.
6] Each chapter is pre-faced with a quote. Are these all the ones that you’ve recalled from memory or did you re-read a lot of books as part of the preparation for the book? If so what was it like revisiting those books that had such an impact on you as young man?
I bought more falconry books when I returned to falconry to update my knowledge but I remembered a lot of the quotes from the past, although I checked them all to make sure I’d remembered then correctly, and to make sure I’d remembered the correct Shakespeare play etc. When I went back to falconry I was just as fired up and interested as I had been as a lad, and I found the quotes as fascinating as I had when I’d come across them in Barnsley library as a lad.
7] I was listening to the radio interview you did with Jarvis Cocker and you seemed to connect the wildness of these animals and their inability to be bullied as something that was such a connection for you. Did you see yourself in your kestrels at that time? Or is this a connection you made later in life?
I was always drawn to the wildness of hawks and it must have been an unconscious connection when I was younger and being beaten by the teachers, because if teachers treated me me kindly, I was the perfect attentive student. But when they beat me I rebelled, for example drilling out the screws of a hand vice when the metal work teacher nearly took my fingers off with the cane. And the funny incident when I threw the lad in the staffroom knowing I would get the cane. Violence didn’t work on me, kindness did. But it was only when I hacked my hawk back and saw how wild she’d become that I realised and could articulate the wild appeal of hawks to me; how cruelty or violence wouldn’t make a hawk submit, or in T.H. White’s words, “the mishandled raptor chose to die”. But through kindness an intractable hawk would allow you to spent time in its presence.
8] Do you regret being so intimidated by the first falconer you met and not hawking for 30 years or do you think you needed the break from it regardless of him putting you off falconry?
Being intimidated by the posh falconer and leaving falconry because I’d discovered I’d been obsessed with an upper – class sport and a world which at that time which wouldn’t have welcomed me, was one of the of the most important events in my life and shaped what I did and who I became. I developed a passion for the history of my own social class and its hardships and inequalities, and realised that history of disadvantage could still affect working -class kids, and I went on to work in schools in educationally disadvantaged areas and tried to help children improve their life chances. I also went on to make documentary films which spoke up for working -class people, such as the documentary that was the first on television to put the striking miners’ point of view in the 1984/85 miners strike, when they were trying to save their jobs and historic communities.
9] Do you think there was a link between your desire to go into teaching and a need to wipe out the sort of behaviour you encountered from teachers when you were at school?
Once again it was my passion for hawks that led me to do what I did. I felt strongly about the awfulness of how the noble falcons and hawks of medieval times had been shot, trapped, and poisoned into almost extinction in Britain by gamekeepers, and were now on the verge of being wiped out by poisonous farmland pesticides. This passionate rage at the damage being done to wild birds and the environment led me to apply to Teachers’ Training College to study Environmental sciences. My school experience at secondary modern school had led me to believe we all had latent talents, informed the way I taught, and of course from my own experiences I knew harsh treatment wasn’t the way to bring the best out in children.
10] What is do you think is the most fundamental lesson you’ve learnt from working with hawks over the years? What have they taught you?
Again, its my love of hawks and nature which has shaped my view on life, the world, and our place in it. I try to articulate this in a passage when I’m flying my merlin on the moor. Each time I pull on my falconry glove, like our hunter gatherer ancestors who painted handprints on the cave walls, I sensed I was reaching into the wild. Walking with my merlin on my glove on the moor I was made vividly aware that all of us, all species, share an evolutionary origin and live fragile transient lives, in which chance and the tiniest inherited advantage or the wrong decision can mean the difference between life and death. The most fundamental lesson my passion for hawks and nature has taught me is that we need to look after our world and respect all the creatures in it, and respect and help each other.
11] Have you had an issue with people presuming larger parts of Kes, beyond the training of kestrels, are about you and your family?
Watching me train my kestrels is what inspired Barry to write Kes, which led to the film. Had I not trained kestrels, the novel and film wouldn’t have existed, Barry acknowledged that, but as I say in my memoir, I told him I thought it was a bad idea to give Billy a kestrel and that he should give him a goshawk to train. If Barry had taken my advice and not given Billy a kestrel there would have been no novel or the film Kes. Of course it wouldn’t have made any difference to me had Barry not written the novel, my memoir would have been exactly the same except for the chapters on training the hawks for the film. But I’m glad he didn’t take my advice, as along with many others, I’m big a fan of the novel and film. To get on to your question, no, I didn’t mind if people presumed parts of the book was based on me and our family, I suppose its understandable. I was a school write –off who took a kestrel from a nest in a ruined Hall in the moonlight when the farmer was asleep. And found a falconry book in the library, the same used in the film, and taught myself falconry from it. But of course unlike Billy, I came from a loving family and my brother became a writer and was nothing like the bullying Jud in the film. To find out the true story of course people would have to read my memoir.
12] It’s a very non-judgemental book, very observational and astute at capturing character/ situations/ etc but free from judgement. Is that just you as person or did you set out to write the book this way? A lot of people use the form of memoir to settle scores or right perceived wrongs etc, but this book feels refreshingly free from such approaches.
My belief that it is chance that plays a big part in who we become, and my experiences that have shown that I’m no cleverer than anyone else, have made me realise success is not all down to personal endeavour, and this has given me what I hope is a generous understanding non – judgemental view of life. Due to my upbringing in a mining village and my experiences, my politics are left – wing. But I understand that all of us have different sensibilities and life experience, and come to see life from different viewpoints. My memoir covers almost seventy years, from when I was a wild teenager to the present. Over the years the experiences I’ve had, the loss of my parents, good times and bad, have, I hope, made me a little wiser over the years, and in my memoir I’ve charted the influences in my life that have taken me through change, which I hope has made me more understanding of other people, without losing my own strongly held views. For example, at one point in the memoir I’m critical of the aristocratic family, the last tenants of Tankesley Hall where my kestrel Kes came from. But when grieving for my mother, and reading how they lost their beloved 10 year old daughter, I sense a strange connection with them across the centuries. Although I don’t spell it out and explain, I hope people might get the underlying theme, that despite class, despite politics, in the end what really matters is common humanity.
13] I presume Barry was not well enough to be aware that you were writing this book to have any input into it? Or were you able to discuss it in anyway?
Unfortunately, Barry was too ill to read my memoir but I’d told him a few years ago I was considering writing a memoir about my schooling and passion for hawks.
14] Do you think we’ve progressed in terms of social class issues?
I don’t think class matters so much today as it did when I was young if you are lucky enough to have good schools and working –class parents who can encourage and help you. But even today statistics show white working -class boys often struggle at school. I still see myself as working-class, but I’ve done middle- class jobs all my life and our children have been brought up in a world of books, discussion and encouragement, and have had advantages I and my wife never had and they both went to university after A levels. Being well off and middle- class gives today’s children a massive advantage, as their parents can fund them to go to university and do internships that are increasing necessary to get jobs. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for working –class kids to get jobs in the arts, theatre, publishing, journalism, and other professions.
15] When was the last time you watched Kes, and how did it make you feel watching it? What emotions/ memories did it bring up?
I last watched the film a couple of years ago before writing the chapters about training the three kestrels for the film. I thought it had stood the test of time and was still great. Just as I had when I’d seen it first the time at the premier, and seen the same sequence in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. It was an exciting, but strange feeling to see David Bradley as Billy, raising his glove and calling “Come on Kes” just as I’d called in the very same field 50 years ago. Of all the surprising things that have happened in my life, to see what I did in real life all those years ago, captured on film, was the most surprising. Who could have ever imagined that.
16] So Barry passed away a week after your book came out. It must have been quite a strange and emotional time as I guess huge parts of your life have been wrapped up and concluded through both his passing and the finishing and publication of the book?
It was extremly sad of course. But in relation to Barry, I’m glad I wrote the memoir as it shows what an interesting, principled young man he was as he started his career, and records parts of his life that aren’t recorded anywhere else. To my delight Barry’s son and daughter love my book, and enjoyed seeing their dad as a boy and young man, and meeting their grandad Hines, our dad, who had died long before they were born, for the first time in the pages of my memoir.
Talking about his memoir No Way But Gentlenesse. A memoir of how Kes, my kestrel, changed my life.