Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review - The Blinder, by Barry Hines

Barry Hines' debut novel The Blinder focuses on 18 year old footballing prodigy Lennie Hawk. Lennie is on the verge of becoming a star in the First Division for his home town team, the representatives of an unnamed northern English mining town, who haven't seen success of any sort since the end of their golden generation some 40 years prior.

But Lennie is not just a great footballer - he's also academically gifted, and a large part of the novel deals with the decision he has to make on whether to take up a full time football contract or pursue university studies. And he has to do this while dating the daughter of one of the club directors, while also seeing the lonely wife of one his teachers on the side.

Written and set in the mid 1960s, Hines describes a football scene on the cusp of entering its modern era - the maximum wage cap for footballers is gone, but players are still by and large ordinary people, being able to walk down the street, have a drink at the local pub, and date local girls without the paparazzi tracking their every move.

Clubs from smaller towns can still make an impact, if not so much in the league, then in the cup. The spectators are split between the haves and have-nots - those who can afford the seats in the stands, and those who must survive the crush on the terraces behind the goals. In a terrifying scene late in the novel, police are helpless to prevent ticket-less fans storming the gates of a sold out match, trampling each other to see the big game.

Hines himself played for the English Grammar Schools side, and he ably conveys Lennie's on field joys and frustrations. Where some see Lennie purely as a commodity, Lennie sees himself as something akin to an artist - talented and unorthodox, the latter attribute is useful but also dangerous. It doesn't help that Lennie's also a smartarse, always ready with the quick reply. No one is immune from his unnaturally cool detachment or ready wit.

For much of its duration, The Blinder veers uneasily between social realism and boy's own adventure. Hines (who grew up near Barnsley) throws a little bit of dialect in, but not very much - it's still a long way from Trainspotting or Purely Belter. The most experimental part of the novel occurs when there are several voices in conversation at once, without much indication of who's saying what - but after a bit, the reader become used to it.

Class conflict plays a major role, most notably in the contrasting depiction of Lennie's father, recently laid off from his colliery job, and that of Mr Leary, club director, paper mill owner, and father of Jane, Lennie's girlfriend. But for the most part the working class don't exist in abject poverty, even when they're unemployed or complaining about conditions at the local factories. Indeed, Lennie's father is more in awe of the coaches and staff of the football club than he is of Mr Leary.

Most of the secondary characters have little depth, being mere caricatures. While Lennie complains about everyone wanting something out of him, he also uses and discards many of those around him for his own ends, or his own amusement. Lennie is a problematic hero, one that we want to to cheer for, but whose actions and manners often coerce the reader into wanting to grab him by the scruff of the neck to shake some sense into him.

By the book's final act though, Hines has decided to choose one narrative style over the other, and thankfully the right one - providing both Lennie and the story with a moment of lucid clarity. While The Blinder is often uneven, it's also entertaining and well worth a look.

A Brief Note
I had borrowed this book four or five years ago from Ian Syson. Why it took me so long to read I don't know. Very poor form from me. The novel is long out of print, but seems to be easily obtainable secondhand from online sources.

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