Richard Hines grew up in a Yorkshire mining village. While his older brother Barry was in grammar school and seemed to be heading for great things, Richard had failed his 11+ and was left without hope of academic achievement.
Devastated, Richard spent his time in the fields and meadows just beyond the colliery slag heap. One morning, walking in the grounds of a ruined medieval manor, he came across a nest of kestrels. With a handful of books from the local library, some ingenuity, and his profound respect for the hawk’s indomitable wildness, Richard learned to “man”, or train, his kestrel, Kes, and in the process grow into the man he would become.
Richard and his experiences with kestrels inspired his brother Barry’s classic novel A Kestrel for a Knave, later turned into Ken Loach’s film ‘Kes’. Richard’s memoir ‘No Way But Gentlenesse – A memoir of how Kes, my kestrel, changed my life’ – will be published March 10th 2016 by Bloomsbury. In this exclusive blog for NiddFest, Richard tells the story of his life-changing and enduring love of birds of prey:
The son of a miner, I grew up in the South Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common. My older brother Barry had passed the eleven-plus exam and had gone to grammar school. I failed the exam, and, in 1956, I was sent to the boys’ secondary modern school where I was left without hope of academic achievement. I was crushed by this and beaten by the teachers. On the first morning as we lined up outside the classroom, our new form teacher slapped each one of us across the face and warned us that was what we got for doing nothing wrong, and then asked us to imagine the beating we would get if we did do something wrong. On another occasion, I was beaten so viciously by a teacher it felt as if the cane would fetch off my finger ends.
Fed up with school, and having no idea of the job I wanted to do when I left at the age of fifteen, I spent my time wandering the fields and flower meadows just beyond the colliery slag heap. I was fascinated by nature. I’d reared a magpie but after it had landed on the flowers and berries decorating an old lady’s hat, and her screams had brought out neighbours, mother had made me release my magpie into the wild. Afterwards, as I walked home I saw a hovering kestrel. Caught in the evening sun, the underside of its outstretched wings and fanned tail shone a brilliant white. Gazing up at that beautiful hovering kestrel, so aloof, so wild, I knew that I’d love to bring one into my life.
At the end of term in my final year in secondary modern school, I passed an entrance exam and was accepted on a new course at Barnsley Technical College. There, I passed a few GCE O Levels and then transferred to grammar school to study GCE A Levels. I’d managed to get myself into grammar school but the sense of failure and low self-worth brought about by my time at secondary school still haunted me. The only pupil with a strong regional accent, I became self-conscious, socially awkward. While I was there my beloved dad died, and I left grammar school in 1963, aged eighteen, to work in an administrative job in the housing department of the Town Hall.
One day I read The Goshawk. It was the story of how in 1937, the author T.H. White lived in a gamekeeper’s cottage in Buckinghamshire. There, using knowledge he’d gleaned from reading medieval falconry books, he’d trained a young imported German goshawk. Still enthralled by White’s book, my heart raced when I found a falconry book in the library. It was a reference book, and, as there were no photocopiers back then, I sat at a table and copied out parts of it out by hand; how to train a falcon, a glossary of ancient falconry terms. I felt like a scholar who had come across an ancient manuscript, as words from a long-lost age came to life:
‘BATE, BATING… fluttering or flying off the fist’.
Above all, I loved the line from a book written by Edmund Bert in 1619:
‘There is no way but gentlenesse to redeeme a Hawke.’
I was fascinated to read that in 1486, Abbess Juliana Berners had written about Tudor etiquette in her Boke of St Albans, and had allocated particular hawks to different classes of people. She’d assigned the female and male peregrine – the ‘falcon gentle’ and ‘tiercel gentle’ – to a prince:
‘Ther is a Fawken gentill. And a Tercell gentill. And theys be for a prynce.’
And, according to the Abbess, I wouldn’t have been able to fly a goshawk:
‘Ther is a Goshawke. and that hauke is for a yemen.’
Or a sparrowhawk:
‘Ther is a Spare hawke. and he is an hawke for a prest.’
The kestrel, because it hunts voles and insects was derided by falconers in the Middle Ages. So much so, that Abbess Juliana thought it unworthy of mention in the Boke of St Albans. It does get a mention in a medieval Harleian manuscript where it is assigned to the knave. The only hawks I’d seen were kestrels hovering over the meadows and verges beside the country lanes around our pit village, so if I was ever going to fly a hawk it would have to be a kestrel.
On a warm June evening in 1965, I came across a lad I knew gazing across a field of buttercups at the ruins of Tankersley Hall, a sixteenth-century manor. Kestrels nested there, he told me. Then, nodding towards the farmhouse which was in the grounds of the ruined Hall, he said he was going to get a young kestrel at night when the farmer had gone to bed, and that I could go with him and take a kestrel for myself. The moon was large and bright when a few nights later, carrying a ladder we’d borrowed from a building site, we headed across the field to the looming ruins and placed the ladder against the wall.
I called my kestrel Kes, and kept her in a Second World War air raid shelter in my brother Barry’s garden. Throughout the summer, in the field behind Barry’s house, I’d call ‘Kes… Come on, Kes’, as I swung the lure in vertical circles by my side. Then threw it out to her and kept it just out of her reach as she dived head first through the air, levelled out, and curved upwards into the sky.
It was October, time to ‘hack back’ Kes to the wild. After she’d eaten her fill of meat I cut off her jesses, the leather straps around her legs, raised my glove, and watched as on flickering wings she powered into the sky. Next day at the same time I was back in the field swinging the lure. She grabbed the lure and tried to fly away with it – she’d never done that before. And she only let go when I threw out a piece of meat which she carried to a fence post to eat.
I was struck by how wild she’d become. And witnessing this brought home to me the appeal of hawks, why I was obsessed with them. They have no understanding of hierarchy, of social subservience; it’s not in their make up to be herded or controlled. Shouting or bullying or using physical force won’t make a hawk submissive. One of my favourite quotes came from The Goshawk: ‘The mishandled raptor chose to die.’ Yet over the summer flying Kes, I’d shown how a hawk’s intractable nature can be won over. I loved the advice given by Nicholas Cox in his 1674 The Gentlemen’s Recreation: ‘You must by kindness make her gentle and familiar with you.’ It intrigued and delighted me that by treating Kes kindly while keeping my side of the bargain to provide her with food and fly her free in the fields, I’d been allowed to spend a summer and autumn in her presence.
Each day at the same time, I returned to the field and swung the lure. Some days she would turn up and grab the meat I threw out to her. Increasingly there were days when she didn’t show up until, finally, after she hadn’t returned for over a week, I stopped going into the field to swing the lure. Kes had been ‘hacked back’.
In the summer of 1966 I trained another kestrel, which I also called Kes. One evening after I’d flown her and put her away, I was locking the ‘mews’ door – the air raid shelter – when Barry approached me. He told me he was going to write a novel about a secondary modern school lad who trains a kestrel. His novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, became a Penguin Twentieth – Century Classic and was made into the film Kes. I worked as falconer on the film, teaching falconry to David Bradley, who played Billy Casper, and training the three kestrels used in filming.
My obsession with hawks, and my anger that after centuries of being persecuted by gamekeepers, they were now being wiped out by pesticides had led to me leaving my job in the Town Hall to study Environmental Sciences at Teachers’ Training College. My third year dissertation was about how hawks had fallen from grace over the centuries, and as part of my research I visited a recently opened Falconry Centre which had a falconry museum. While there I spoke to the falconer who had set it up, and the way he answered my question, in his posh, loud voice, intimidated me so much I could hardly take in what he was saying. I thought social division was a thing of the past, but as I stood listening to the falconer I was astonished by the gulf between our classes. It wasn’t just his accent – which was much posher than today’s royalty – that intimidated me, but his confidence, that sense of effortless superiority instilled by a public school education, and his lack of inhibition and his booming voice.
One weekend, when I was home from college, a lad who kept a kestrel himself told me of the experience of a miner he knew. The miner had let it be known to a group of middle-class falconers that he was interested in joining their ranks, only to be mocked and snubbed by them. Meeting the falconer at the Falconry Centre, had made me realise that I’d been obsessed with an upper-class history and a world in which I wouldn’t be welcome. I abandoned falconry.
I thought I would never fly another hawk, until years later I drove into a school car park to pick up my wife from work. As I locked the car door, there flying towards me several feet above the tarmac, wild yellow eyes fixed on my face, was a sparrowhawk. To my amazement I found myself remembering a line from T. H. White’s The Goshawk: ‘the horrible aerial toad, the silent feathered owl, the humped back aviating Richard the third, made toward me…’ That’s how White described his goshawk flying towards him. In the book White ducks. I didn’t. I stood in awe as the sparrowhawk flew a couple of inches over my head. There was something in that moment, the sudden closeness of a hawk, the rush of air on my face from its wings, the recalling of a line from the book that had stoked my love for hawks. Whatever it was I suddenly felt a desperate need to have a hawk in my life once again.
By now falconers were breeding hawks; you could buy any hawk you wanted. I went on to fly another falcon, a merlin, on the purple heather moors a couple of minutes’ drive from where I now live in Sheffield.
No Way But Gentlenesse is available for pre-order now.
Pre-order from Bloomsbury and receive 20% off by entering GENTLENESSE at the checkout.
More about the author – Richard Hines has worked as a building labourer, in an office, and he was Deputy Head in a school but has spent most of his career as a documentary filmmaker, starting his own production company and working for the BBC and Channel 4, before becoming a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.