Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Barry Hines: A Working Class Voice

by Simon Farquhar
IN his final years, Alzheimer’s disease robbed Barry Hines of the pleasure of reading. It also robbed Britain of a writer of fierce compassion, tough integrity and proud authenticity, a voice never corrupted by concession.

 Hines left his mark on generations of schoolchildren through his widely taught and quietly devastating novel A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which continues to startle and disturb with its bleak brutality and relentless ennui. And in the wonderland that was BBC television’s drama department of the 1970s, his commitment to telling truthful and unpretentious stories about life at the coalface found a perfect home.

 The son of a coal miner, Hines was born in 1939, in the mining village of Hoyland Common, near Barnsley. He left Ecclesfield Grammar School with no qualifications but keen footballing skills, having played for the England Grammar Schools team, and began work as an apprentice mining surveyor at Rockingham Colliery. He wore his school blazer underground, “as if trying to prove to the miners that despite my education I hadn’t deserted my roots”, only for one of them to chide: “Couldn’t you find a better job than this?”

The only opinions that mattered to Hines were those of his own community, and on this occasion they prompted him to go back to school, where he gained four A-levels. He then trained as a PE teacher at Loughborough College, where he fell in love with books and devoured the works of vivid new working-class voices such as Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow. He taught, first in London, then at Longcar Central School in Barnsley; there he would sit in the library after the pupils had gone home each evening and experiment with writing.

 The first work he had accepted was the fable-like Billy’s Last Stand (1965), a radio play about an ageing labourer whose life has been spent shovelling coal. 

 When Billy is tempted into a business partnership with a ruthless entrepreneur, it ends in tears and bloodshed. In 1970, the play appeared on stage at the Royal Court, and in 1971 on TV, in Play for Today.

 His first novel, The Blinder (1966), was the energetic story of a young footballer torn between being the saviour of his ailing local team and realising his academic potential.

 The novel also captures the dying days of a more innocent age for football, when players were working-class heroes rather than celebrities. It was a modest success, but meanwhile, Billy’s Last Stand had so impressed radio producer Alfred Bradley that he recommended that the BBC’s Northern Region give Hines a bursary. With this reward he took a trip to the island of Elba and wrote A Kestrel for a Knave.

Unlike most Sixties heroes, Billy Caspar, a latchkey kid bullied by his hated brother, despised by his schoolmates and dismissed by most of his teachers, has no ambitions and no hope. At one point, the class are asked to write “a tall story”: Billy’s poorly spelt, heartbreaking fantasy is simply of waking up to find his dad has returned, his brother has left, everyone at school is nice to him and his house has carpets and central heating. His world is summed up when he finds himself in a derelict cinema where 'the Forthcoming Attractions board advertised nothing'. 

Hines resisted an offer from Disney to film the novel (‘they offered to do it on the condition that the hawk recovered’), and instead it was done by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. Kes (1969) remains as respected and powerful a work as the novel itself.  ‘I’m a man for communities,’  Hines said. ‘When you go to the pub in a place like this you don’t get any literary talk. It’s all talk about the pit and the dogs and horses. It’s the kind of talk that I like. It’s their problems that interest me very much.’

He continued to write novels set among his own people: The Gamekeeper (1975), and Looks and Smiles (1981), a story of the desolation at the heart of Thatcher’s Britain, were filmed by Loach for television; the latter, Best Contemporary Screenplay at Cannes in 1981, is a banshee cry foretelling the changes that were about to blight the mining and steel industries.

 Other original works for TV included Speech Day (1973), about the broken promises of comprehensive education, and The Price of Coal (1977), which he novelised Other original works for TV included Speech Day (1973), about the broken promises of comprehensive education, and The Price of Coal (1977), which he novelised and which was staged in 1984. Inspired by Hines’ grandfather, who had died in a mining accident, it depicted preparations for a Royal visit to a colliery, then, beneath the surface, a catastrophe. His grandfather’s inability to pursue his footballing promise also inspired Two Men from Derby, a 1976 TV play he considered his best work.

 In 1984, as the Cold War looked to be warming up for a nuclear winter, Hines delivered his most powerful work, Threads. The final blast from an era of uncompromising, angry drama from the BBC, it showed the horrors of a nuclear attack. Set in Sheffield and utilising Hines’ skill at depicting ordinary, unremarkable lives wrecked by political decisions, it scarred a whole generation.

 This Artistic Life (2009), an anthology of unpublished early writings, was a wonderful parting shot, chronicling the beginnings and the blossoming of a man who in 1971 revealed that he had not yet given up teaching because ‘being at home I could become very isolated. I could finish up writing about blokes writing novels.  There are more important things to write about than that.’

Melvin Barry Hines, teacher and writer: born Hoyland, Yorkshire 30 June 1939; died Barnsley 18 March 2016.

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