The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines. And Other Stories, 224 pages.
Few landscapes are as loaded with cultural and ideological baggage as the English countryside. Over hundreds of years, that green and pleasant land—those rolling hills and babbling brooks—has become so encrusted with the weight of signification that it’s difficult to know what it really is in itself, beyond its representation. And whether pastoral images have come down to us via the seventeenth-century country house poems of Ben Jonson and Thomas Carew, or from the grounds of Brideshead Castle and Downton Abbey in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or perhaps even from Henry Williamson’s poetical tale Tarka the Otter and the glut of contemporary nature writing that has followed in its wake, this landscape is always strangely peopled. It is envisioned as a place of repose, not labor; of paternalism and rank, not social struggle and common boundary.
Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” perhaps the most celebrated paean to a country house in the English language, captures some of the strangeness of this place at the moment of its development into a form we can begin to recognize. Once commonly read as a record of the organic English rural society that was later destroyed by the advent of capitalism, the poem and its imagery have cast a long shadow over narrative representations of country life. Yet as the critic Raymond Williams noted, Jonson can only describe what the house is not. What it is is clouded in this contrast: “Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,/Of touch or marble;” Johnson writes, “nor canst boast a row/Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;/Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,/Or stair, or courts.” Another negative goes unnoted here: the missing laborers who supplied the wealth needed to build and maintain not only the house, but also the lavish lifestyles of those within it.
So many fictional representations of the English landscape stop at the gates of the “Big House.” Beyond Hardy’s Wessex, it’s difficult to think of more than a handful of fictional representations of the countryside where it is seen as working landscape, not simply the organic totality of mythic wholeness it is often taken to be. If Hardy can be said to have a twentieth-century heir, in this at least, then Barry Hines has a strong claim.
Hines is a writer who, if he is known today, is known for what his work became in a different medium than for the writing itself. Hines’s second novel—and his most successful and enduring work—A Kestrel for a Knave, was released in 1968 and adapted into the film Kes by Ken Loach the following year. Kes is now considered a classic of postwar British cinema. Thanks partly to this, the book itself has become something of a minor classic, never out of print in the years since its publication and now a staple of British high school literature curricula.
In both novel and film, it is Hines’s sense of place, and the depth of his appreciation for landscape, that comes across most forcefully. The story follows the schoolboy Billy Casper who is searching for escape from his life in a working-class town in South Yorkshire, an area in the traditionally industrial North of England that borders the sparsely covered moorland of the Penine Hills and the Yorkshire Dales. With its wash of dense bracken, heather, and coarse grass, the region offers a bleak, grey contrast to the verdant greens of the traditional pastoral. If the English landscape is, implicitly at least, a Southern and romantic one of green fields set against crisp blue skies, then Yorkshire is not it. Yet nature here still offers a form of transcendence over the corruptions of modern life. Intoxicated by the flight of birds around his home, Casper catches and trains a young kestrel. In the discipline of falconry and the quite literal refuge from the brutalities of school and his dysfunctional home life, Casper finds a new form of meaning in the natural world.
A Kestrel for a Knave is a deeply felt book, and it is one that has not lost its emotional power in the decades since its first publication. In perhaps its most moving scene, Billy writes a “tall story” for a teacher, a tale so outlandish it couldn’t possibly be true. Instead of the adventures expected of him, Casper describes a loving domestic scene in which food is abundant, and “we lived in a big hous up moor edge and we add carpits on the stairs and in the all and sentrall eeting”: a sharp contrast to the domestic conflicts from which Casper escapes with Kes.
Hines knew the landscape in which A Kestrel for a Knave is set well. Born in 1939 in the town of Hoyland Common, in the traditional coal mining area between Barnsley and Rotherham in South Yorkshire, he grew up in the kind of town, and surrounded by the kind of people, that would come to dominate his writing. A talented footballer as a boy, he was never an academic child, nor did he seem destined for the life of a writer—as he later reflected, “football and running were the only things I was any good at.” For a time, he followed his father and grandfather down the mines, becoming an apprentice mining surveyor following school. In the short biographical essay “Tinker Lane,” published in the late 1970s, Hines recounts crawling underground past an older miner he’d known all his life. Expecting an eager welcome, Hines smiled at the man only to be sternly rebuked: “Couldn’t you find a better job than this?” he was asked. Not long after, Hines left for university. It was while he was there, studying to be a physical education teacher, that he first became interested in writing after a chance encounter with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book he later said was the first he’d read of his own volition, at the age of twenty-one.
His first piece of writing that found an audience was “Billy’s Last Stand,” a radio play broadcast on the BBC’s “Third Programme” in 1965. This was followed a year later by a novel, The Blinder, about a young football prodigy, Lennie Hawk, caught between his sporting life and his intellectual pursuits. As the academics David Forrest and Sue Vice note in their book Barry Hines: Kes, Threads and beyond—as yet the only full-length study of his work—these early forays into literature, with their narratives of the working-class man struggling against the system, and with their often-regressive sexual politics, were somewhat derivative of the “Angry Young Men” of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The “Angries,” an artificial grouping of novelists and playwrights—chief among them writers like John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, and John Osborne, who each received a measure of both commercial and critical success during this period—appeared for a time to dominate the literary culture of Britain. If there is a classic Angry text, then it is Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the story of Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator at a bicycle factory, kicking against the pricks of the newly affluent, albeit conformist, society of postwar Britain. But it was another classic novel of this period that Hines was reacting to. The Blinder was football’s answer to a book published six years earlier, David Storey’s This Sporting Life, which also follows a sportsman, this time a professional Rugby League player, caught between artistic pursuits and athletic achievement. Yet Hines was a decade younger than the regional novelists of the 1950s, and his later work diverged markedly from this cohort.
A Kestrel for a Knave marked something of a break in Hines’s work, one that was confirmed seven years later by The Gamekeeper, recently reissued by the Sheffield-based publisher And Other Stories. The novel narrates nine months in the life of a gamekeeper on a ducal estate somewhere in the North of England, almost certainly on the moorland in South Yorkshire that surrounded Hines’s childhood home.
A Kestrel for a Knave is written in clear, often stark, realist prose—a style that betrays the influence of Hemingway—interspersed throughout with the lushly poetic imagery of the natural world: a drop of dew clings to a blade of grass “like the tiny egg of a mythical bird.” The Gamekeeper deepens this approach, reading at times like a handbook on the art of bird-rearing. It’s a style that is difficult to capture, and without Hines’s subtle eye for the texture of the natural world, it could easily become mundane, even tedious. The book follows the eponymous keeper, George Purse, from February until the end of the hunting season in November. In it, we see the countryside through the eyes of someone for whom nature is a working environment, whose relationship with the land is deeper than that of the weekending tourist or the aristocrat whose sport of live game shooting he must work to maintain. Through Purse, we see a living and ever-changing land.
Purse’s life is structured by the rearing and breeding of pheasants. He lives in a cottage on the Duke’s estate, where he is in charge of a five-thousand-acre plot studded with woodland and open fields. The Duke is obviously an extensive landowner: Purse is one of five such gamekeepers on the estate, and the Duke has another, larger estate in the South of England, as well as several smaller plots of land in both Britain and Ireland. His relationship to the land is altogether different from Purse’s. Walking out from his cottage early one morning, Purse hears the call of birds, a sound that he has heard hundreds of times before, but one that he has never learned to recognize. While the Duke, for whom this land is a site of recreation, might have been spurred by these calls to reel off a list of the local fauna, Purse’s knowledge is not that borne of idle contemplation: “He had never had the patience to stand with binoculars and watch a bird singing, then imprint the sight and the sound so that next time he heard those notes he could name the bird without looking for it. He knew them all by sight.”
There’s little by way of plot in The Gamekeeper. Instead, time drifts through the narrative in an uneven manner, reflecting the periods when Purse’s work increases and then recedes again. We see him and his two young sons heading out into a frosty late winter morning to catch the pheasants that have survived through the long dark months and who will be bred in a plot near the gamekeeper’s cottage to produce young for the shoot later in the year. We get deep descriptions of the gamekeeper’s work: how he holds the birds to attach brails—the small leather fasteners that prevent pheasants from flying away—by wrapping “two short straps around the bird’s wing just above its elbow,” then fumbling with his “big cold fingers” to push “a paper fastener through the appropriate holes to secure it”; how he patrols his plot late at night, wading “chest-deep through the bracken in the copse” to deter the poachers out to catch the Duke’s birds; how he kills foxes that would threaten the young pheasants and rabbits that he’ll sell to the local butcher or trade for “a length of timber, or a roll of chicken-wire” around the local village.
Throughout, we’re never in doubt as to whose perspective we’re seeing the land through. An early morning is described as “dun-coloured,” the greyish-brown hue of a working horse. The bud of a horse chestnut tree is “as sticky as a toffee apple”; a clear, spring sky is “as blue as a dunnock’s egg.” These are a worker’s descriptions, simultaneously everyday and extraordinary. Hines’s immersion in the details of a gamekeeper’s work was achieved with a level of research that we can glimpse from the novel’s acknowledgment page, where he thanks such books as The Case Against Badger Digging by the League Against Cruel Sports and Churchill’s Game Shooting by Macdonald Hastings. Only rarely does Hines’s prose falter. As John Berger notes in an essay on The Gamekeeper, published in And Other Stories’ new edition for the first time as an introduction, Hines’s description of a fried egg hanging from the prongs of a fork, looking “as languid as a Dalí watch,” shatters the scene: “it belongs neither to narrator nor narrated.” But, mostly, the book is a deep, immersive study of the life and labor of a working man.
If it fits anywhere in the tradition of British writing, then it’s perhaps as a kind of photographic negative of the traditional country house novel. The Duke and the “Big House” exist in the pages of the book but slightly off-screen. They structure the work of those on the land, but their presence is felt only obliquely. The Duke owns the cottages that the keepers live in and the land on which they work, his estate colors adorn the buildings in the local village, but his actual presence is rare. Mostly, the Big House is empty, except for those occasions when he is entertaining, or for the few weeks each year given to the shooting season.
The closest The Gamekeeper has to a narrative center is the two shoots that structure the keepers’ year: one in September for grouse on the upland moors, and a later one for pheasants. In these scenes, the absurdity of Purse’s work becomes clear. His year-round labor of early mornings and late nights, low pay and little leisure, all culminate in the ridiculous spectacle of the Duke and his friends standing around, guns aloft, waiting for a line of men to drive birds toward them with sticks and flags. These men of wealth and power—many of whom are aristocratic landowners like the Duke, whose ancestors stretch back in an unbroken line to the Norman invasion in the eleventh century—are not mere anachronisms. One is a local brewery owner who has bought his way into the country set, another a retired Portuguese ambassador. There is no question here about where power lies in Britain.
As Purse watches the pheasant shoot, the scene’s absurdity is only heightened. The birds fly out from the woodland into the field where they will be shot en masse, birds that he has hand-reared and cared for over nine long months: “he sometimes wondered what it was all about.” And yet for Purse, as much as for Billy Casper, nature does offer a form of freedom. On leaving school, he had only two options: work in the local steel mills, or go down the coal mine. Initially he chose the former, but ten years before the book begins, he left that work behind him for life on the Duke’s estate. There seems to be little regret in this decision. Purse’s wife grouses him about the pay, which was better in the mill, where they also had more security. But it was work he hated. Walking with his dogs across open fields, nurturing the birds and animals on the land, is perhaps as close to a self-regulated activity that Purse can find in a world in which class and money determine all.
There are lacunae in Hines’s writing from the late 1960s, not least the position of women and the relationship between the sexes in working-class towns. George’s wife Mary is only glimpsed, never fully revealed. Hines’s later work—particularly 1983’s Unfinished Business, the story of a working-class mother who chafes against the traditional gender roles of the working-class home and reenters education as a mature student at a local university—goes some way to correcting this. But even with his shortcomings in mind, few works published in the years since The Gamekeeper have offered such a powerful and rounded view of life in the British countryside.
Half a century later, the nature cure has gone from a crank concern to the forefront of the literary world, and it is a scene that has been brilliantly anatomized by the writer Richard Smyth among others. Such work, usually written in the first-person present, extols the mysterious virtues of the British countryside. Yet, like the country house poems of old, it’s a landscape often emptied of people other than the lonely wanderer. As Smyth quips, “I’ve always imagined that if you could walk around to the other side of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, it’s [Robert] Macfarlane’s face you would see staring back at you.” Love of nature is, as Smyth admits, very much a good thing. The problem with so much contemporary nature writing is “to be so transparently pleased with yourself for loving it.”
Often, the genre skirts dangerously close to what British journalist Steven Poole terms “nostalgie de la boue,” or nostalgia for the mud, “the French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery.” But there is a counter-tradition to this performative pastoralism, however submerged it may appear. Hines’s The Gamekeeper is a brilliant example, one that refuses the usual tropes of nature writing while asking deep questions about the meaning of the natural world. For Hines’s countryside is one that inverts the country house literary tradition and all its successors. The manor and its associated Dukes and dignitaries are relegated to the background, while those oft-forgotten laborers and ordinary people come to the fore. Yet never forgotten is the power of the landscape to change and be changed, nor its transforming potential for those who love it so. If only more would follow his example.