“Writing has nothing to do with pretty views”: reflections on the work of Barry Hines (1939-2016)

barry hinesBarry Hines is rightly lauded for his role in writing the Ken Loach masterpiece Kes, but his passing also offers us a chance to reflect on his wider legacy.

Like many, I first came across Barry Hines when I was at school. Growing up in a mining area meant that Billy Casper’s story and the situation that Hines described felt pretty authentic to my friends and me. But beyond its setting, A Kestrel for a Knave had a deeper political and emotional resonance: its lyrical exploration of loneliness and social isolation and its searing critique of an education system that pursues narrowly defined ‘excellence’ over holistic learning, makes it feel as much a story for now as then.

Fast-forward twenty years, and I’ve been lucky enough to return to Hines’s work as an academic. Here at the University of Sheffield, we’re privileged to house Barry Hines’s archive: a fascinating collection of material which offers multiple insights into the breadth and scope of his thirty year career as a writer. Together with my colleague at Sheffield, Sue Vice, we’re looking beyond Kes and discovering scripts that have received little or no attention, such as Billy’s Last Stand, a Beckett-like duologue about coal shovelling which stands as radical allegory of enterprise culture; or his trio of unproduced miners’ strike plays, that show us how Hines attempted to come to artistic terms with an event which had an indelible, traumatising effect on his community.

Hines was both a screenwriter and a novelist, and this impressive dexterity was arguably also a weakness. Critical hierarchies always position the screenwriter as secondary to the director or producer – for Hines, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. With Kes, Hines, Loach and producer Tony Garnett were at the centre of a dynamic creative team, as their socialist politics informed their collaborative working-practices. There’s no doubt, though, that Hines’s longstanding association with Loach, one of the most widely acclaimed and prolific British directors, has limited appraisals of the writer’s work on its own terms.

Yet when viewing Hines’s career in the round, it becomes obvious that he was no writer for hire, but an artist with a set of recurring aesthetic and thematic signatures. Most strikingly, perhaps, he had a remarkable gift to capture succinctly and with visceral detail the potential for beauty in everyday spaces and situations – as such, his screenplays often possess novelistic scope and ambition and his prose is distinguished by an image-led, filmic quality

Above all, though, Hines was working-class writer with a political viewpoint informed by his background. Unlike many of his contemporaries his focus remained fixed throughout his career on the people and stories of the Northern landscape from which he emerged. At its heart, Hines’s writing is interested in the structural relationships between social and political conditions and individual communities: between people and power. As such, even Threads, a masterpiece of cold war paranoia, should be viewed as an allegory of the harsh effects of Thatcherism on Hines’s region of South Yorkshire. The ‘threads’ of its title point to the bonds that unite communities and services in relationships of co-existence, their unequivocal destruction when the bomb drops sets in a motion a shocking vision of ‘no-such-thing-as-society’ 80s Britain.

Last year, we ran a module entirely focused on Barry Hines’s work for some of our third year English Literature students. What would the students of today find, if anything, in Hines’ plays, films and novels? The answer was a lot. They read his works as documents of their times, often angry pieces charged by a burning sense of social justice, but with much to say about Britain today; they found in his oeuvre a desire to elevate sport to the status of art, informed by his own deeply philosophical understanding of his first great love: football; they reflected on the many lessons that Hines had to teach us about education and the power of learning for learning’s sake; and they saw in films and novels like Looks and Smiles and The Gamekeeper realistic but expressive accounts of the struggles of working-class people in a changing society.

I’ll leave the last words to the man himself:

‘Writing is nothing to do with pretty views. It’s to do with commitment. If you know what you are writing about, and what you are writing for you could write it in a cellar. As it happens, the view from my window is very inspiring. What? they say. Those horrible blocks of flats, all those mucky factories and all that smoke pouring out? Those ramshackle houses down there, that faceless council estate? Well, yes, I say. Most people live and work in places like that. And I can’t think of anything more important to write about. Can you?

Barry Hines, This Artistic Life (2009)

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