Improving my understanding of other subjects - English Literature

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
August 20, 2022
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This is the third and last in a series of posts concerning subjects I found difficult as a result of my language difficulties, but now find more interesting since my language ability has improved. If you wish you can have a read about my posts concerning my improvements in understanding topics in geography and history.

Below I’ve taken this opportunity to write about a book I studied for GCSE English Literature in my own words, which has now become one of my favourite novels, since I can now understand it better. 

A Kestrel for a Knave, known as Kes, is set in the late 1960s in the small mining town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, UK.  In the novel, a teenage boy named Billy Casper lives in a house with his mother, and a half-brother named Jud.

People living in the same area as Billy aren’t meant to rise much above the poor standards of living set there. Billy finds, and develops a close bond with a kestrel hawk, whom he trains successfully. He sees this as some respite from the harsh environment in which he finds himself living. 

Billy’s home life is very tough, and is pretty much left by his mother to fend for himself. In the house there are no curtains up in his room, indicating that the house may be cold. He has to find his own source of heat. 

In the film we see that Billy dresses untidily. His clothes are dirty, torn and shabby, and that his hands are filthy, indicating that he doesn’t pay much, if any attention to personal hygiene.  Sometimes he resorts to stealing things, such as milk from a milk float, and a book about how to train a kestrel hawk. He simply has to do things like this. For me, this can be reminiscent of someone being in a fight for survival. 

All of the points in the paragraphs above point to the fact that he likely had a poor upbringing, during which time he was probably set bad examples.  Of course it also can’t obviously have helped matters for him that his father left him when he was younger. 

We see that Jud frequently gambles on horses in an effort to try and make some extra cash, indicating that the wages for the miners must be very poor.  Billy maintains he doesn’t want to work down the pits, but what choices are there for him realistically in an area largely affected by poverty, and without any qualifications.  

During the film, we hear Billy’s mother classing him as “a hopeless case” after mentioning that he could possibly have made more of himself if he’d lived in a better environment with access to better education.

In addition, we probably see the effect working in the mines has had on Jud, who regularly bullies Billy.  In the film, Jud is seen chatting to one miner, telling them that he isn’t feeling great, maybe because he isn’t looking forward to going down into the pit, where it is dark and dirty.

Billy’s life at school isn’t much better either. He gets caned by the headmaster Mr Gyce after being caught daydreaming in assembly when perhaps a telling off would have sufficed. Mr Gryce also caned a boy who was doing nothing more than bringing a message from another teacher, some indication of a lack of care on the children’s education there.

If you have the novel and/or have read the tall story Billy wrote during his English lesson, we can see the standard of his written English isn’t good. You can’t help but note the many spelling and grammatical errors.

Billy finds mathematics to be very difficult, particularly as he receives no help from his teacher.  During PE he gets humiliated by his teacher Mr Sugden for his lack of a proper PE kit. Billy is not good at sports, and Mr Sugden humiliates him further by giving him an ice cold shower after he lets the winning goal in.


During breaktime Billy mentions to his English teacher Mr Farthing how the teachers don’t care about the pupils. It is during Mr Farthing’s English lesson when Billy gets the opportunity to talk about how he trained his kestrel hawk, something which impressed Mr Farthing. This, along with the fact Billy was able to read and understand the written material about training a kestrel hawk, shows that he does have some kind of intelligence in him. We are told in the book that training hawks is no easy task.

Mr Farthing takes his interest further by turning up to watch Billy flying his hawk. For me, this kind of nurturing can lead to prosperous futures. He is seen to be a kind of father figure to Billy, something which has been badly lacking in Billy’s life.

However, the story ends on a tragic note when Jud kills Billy’s hawk in revenge for Billy not placing bets on horses that won their respective races. Billy had spent Jud’s betting money on food for himself after being told by another punter who thought it was unlikely that both horses would win.

For me, on the whole this is a sad story. At that end there is seemingly little hope for Billy given the unfortunate situation he’s found himself in. He’s lived a difficult life in a poor family in an area of high poverty. He did not have that great an education either, shown by his difficulties with maths and written English. Competent maths and English skills are seen to be important in the world of work, especially for effective communication, and in jobs where numeracy work is involved, such as in finance. 

And he’s been in trouble with the police for theft too, something which can greatly hinder employment prospects.

For somebody in Billy’s position, to have any hopes for a brighter future, they’d have to move away from the area to somewhere with considerably better standards of living, education, training and employment. Or the town in which they’re residing would have to have significant investment in housing, education, training, and employment opportunities.


If any readers have experienced language development delays themselves, and found certain subjects difficult as a result, please share your experiences below. And if you have noticed improvements in your language ability which may have helped you to find such subjects more interesting, I’d like to hear about these as well.

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