Caught by the River

German Bight

7th May 2008

The piece below, written by Mark Hodkinson, is an insightful tribute to the writer Barry Hines.
Mark, in his role as proprieter of Pomona Books has recently republished a couple of Barry’s lost titles and this piece is the first draft of the introduction to an anthology he is publishing next year.

Like a lot of folk of around my age, “A Kestrel For A Knave” was one of the books that “got me in to reading”. Yes there had been the Famous Five and The Lion, The Witch and the blah blah blah, but “Kes” was real.

Mark kindly sent us this;

I first met Barry Hines about 10 years ago. I’d been sent to interview him by The Times. He asked me to meet him at his writing den, a small office on the campus of Hallam University, Sheffield. I remember being struck by the starkness of the room: a postcard on the wall, a desk containing a pen and a few sheets of paper, and that was about it – no books, no computer, no
telephone. On the floor was a tiny kettle, able to contain just enough water to fill a single mug; I’d never seen one of these before.

Barry wasn’t unfriendly but a bit gauche – a word he’d never use, of course. There is angularness about Barry, in his movements and manner, that takes a while to get used to. He doesn’t go in for social protocol, asking how you are and whether you’ve had a pleasant journey. This isn’t for affect or to invoke any kind of power-play: he probably just forgets. After a few minutes, it doesn’t matter anyway because he has an aura that coalesces kindness with straight-talking. In short, he feels good to be around.

During our conversation he often repeated the word ‘wondrous’. A lot of things were wondrous: being able to work as a writer and not down the pit; Barnsley FC’s current form; the standard of script-writing on Coronation Street; American crime novels. He sang the word, much like a kid would having just learned it.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Barry. I couldn’t resist. He, among a handful of others, had made me want to be a writer in the first place. Every day he is with me, his influence, as I try to emulate the honesty and compassion he brings to his work, in my own. Also, we are brothers, working-class brothers. Although he is a generation older, I know so well the people of his novels because they could be my family. My granddad worked on the railways, my mum and gran in sewing factories. The
grind, the humour, the ups and the downs – it is a common history.

When I set up Pomona a few years ago I asked Barry if I could republish two of his old books – Looks and Smiles and The Price of Coal. At this point, I imagined I might possibly encounter a more anxious and vain Barry Hines: writers can be very fussy and precious about their work. He remained the same Barry I had met in that tiny room. He was flattered by my interest, trusting me with the covers and contract, happy to help in any way.

I was delighted to learn that he had a folder of unpublished work labelled, ‘Early poetry, short stories.’ It is from this folder that This Artistic Life is drawn. The stories date back many years, some to the late-1960s and early-1970s, when the success of Kes, the book and the film, had elevated Hines to the unexpected position of feted writer.

Much of the work is nostalgic and mentions of ‘secondary modern’; recs’; ‘two-bob’; ’11-plus’; ‘silly buggers’ and kids saying, ‘Soz’ when they mean, ‘Sorry’, feel like a portal to another world. He writes a great deal about the mining industry and two incidents in particular that have stayed with him always – the death of his granddad in a pit accident and the time he was berated by a neighbour for choosing (briefly) to work down a mine.

Tinker Lane, one of the longer pieces, feels like the first draft of an autobiography. In his trademark unadorned style, Hines tells us about the people that lived in his neighbourhood, the scrapes they got into. The writing is effortlessly simple, a sense of time and place and person brought to life within a few short sentences.

The football stories are largely on a similar theme. Another Jimmy Dance, Tottenham Hotspurs and The Turnstile Man effectively feature the same protagonist – an ex-hero returning to his former club with his latest team, now older and slower, facing the ridicule of the crowd. The players – Eddie Royle, Jimmy Dance and Jackie Moon – are, above the colour of their shirt,
brave men running their hearts out, one of a team but alone when they receive the ball. In all his work Hines innately sings the song of the underdog and in these stories he is calling on the reader to consider issues of loyalty and decency.

There are little cameos within the stories that show off both Hines’ sharp eye and the power of under-statement. In The Turnstile Man, we learn that the boy’s father is estranged from his mother. This merits just a few lines but resonates loudly. Without revealing any more, the reader is left wondering about the family’s home life, how the separation occurred, how
they are working things out between them.

A father-son relationship is complex and, again, Hines states this without addressing it head-on. In Another Jimmy Dance the father, exasperated by his son, scolds him and then, a few minutes later, pulls up the lad’s hood when it starts to rain. Any parent will recognise this see-saw between anger and love that a child can set in motion.

The poems which intersperse the stories reveal a hitherto unseen side to Hines. Much like his writing, they are succinct, whether playful as in Prudence Dowd or sombre in the sketches about mining and the loss of the communities that formed at pit-heads.

Once, while we were talking about books, Barry mentioned an admiration of the American writer, Bernard Malamud, in particular his novel, The Natural. In Barry’s stories, The End of Sammy’s Career and Billy Peak he veers from his usual style and touches upon what became known as ‘magicrealism’, of which Malamud was masterful. The short story lends itself less
well to this approach but it shows Hines’ willingness to embrace an idea that was very much in vogue in the late-1960s.

There is, in the very best work, always a moment. That point where head and heart collide. It can be a chord change in a song or a line of dialogue in a play or film that is brilliant and true. This comes, for me, in this book in the short story, Tottenham Hotspurs. The father is telling his young son how to negotiate getting into a football ground. The boy wants to go through the same turnstile as his dad, but i
s told he can’t. He asks why;

”Because that turnstile’s for misters,” his dad says.

In this simple sentence Hines shows us everything: the clarity of his memory; his ear for language; and his ability – perhaps a writer’s greatest skill – to take us back there, making us believe whole-heartedly in the story and the storyteller. ‘Back there’ is a very specific sense of place, in this case to a time when we were kids and our dads took us to football matches and used words like ‘misters’.

Many years ago another writer, clearly an insightful soul, congratulated Hines on his ‘iron integrity’. This little collection forms an eclectic hotchpotch of stories and poems, some of them nicely formed, others sketchy and whimsical, but that iron integrity is across it all and through Barry Hines, the man, too.

Mark Hodkinson