It has been said that Billy is part of the ‘limbo generation’ of the 1960s. One aspect of this period was the replacement of 19th century slums with monotonous council housing estates in which there was little sense of community. If families became dysfunctional there were few people who knew or cared. The men and women had repetitive jobs; the children attended comprehensive schools that were so large that the teachers had little chance to get to know individuals, and the children came home to empty houses.
They had few ambitions and, as Hines shows in this novel, the young men spent their free time “roamin’ t’streets doin’ nowt … just roam about t’estate muckin’ about, fed up to t’teeth an’ frozen. ” Hence the idea of a ‘limbo’ generation suspended between pre-war poverty and post-war prosperity. For families on such estates, supportive relationships were often replaced by indifference to each other’s needs, or by violence and abuse by those who saw no prospect of getting out of the narrow limits of the lives they led.
Such a family is the Casper family, as we can see if we consider the relationships between Billy and his mother, and between him and his elder brother, Jud. The main difference between Billy’s relationship with Kes and with members of his family is that Kes builds him up by bringing out the best in him, while his mother and brother’s treatment of him diminishes him. His brother abuses him physically and verbally. A good example of this is in the opening scene where Jud thumps Billy in the kidneys because he has to get up early and Billy doesn’t.
Jud strips the bedclothes off the bed they have to share so that Billy cannot sleep longer than he can. Verbal abuse is shown in Jud’s determination to run Billy down, for example, about his reading ability, or his interest in the bird, or taunting him about the future which will consist of going down the mine with the rest of the men. The most horrifying example of the lack of cohesion within this family is provided by the incidents relating to the bet Billy is supposed to put on the horses for Jud.
Billy uses the money to get some food after he has been informed that the horses Jud has selected are unlikely to win. When the horses do win, there follows a terrifying game of ‘hide and seek’ throughout the school as Jud searches for his brother. Tension is built up as Billy and his classmates hear the threatening click, click of Jud’s steel-tipped boots, and then the exercise books are collected in, with Billy counting the speeding seconds before he has to leave the safety of the classroom.
His frightened progress through the school is told with good sound effects, such as the banging of the cubicle doors as Jud searches the toilets. What Billy does not realise is that Jud’s unsuccessful attempt to take out his anger on Billy will lead to the death of the kestrel. Jud maintains it was the bird’s fault, as Kes would not leave the hut and he expects pity for his scratched and bitten hands. He has no understanding whatever of what the bird meant to his brother, his only thought being his lost cash. Billy fantasises about his family in the ‘tall story’ he writes as a class exercise.
In it, his mother brings him breakfast in bed, the sun is shining through the windows of the big, warm house they live in on the edge of the moors, his brother is away in the army, his father is home and the family all go to the pictures together. The reality of his life is that he has no satisfactory relationship with either his mother or his brother, and his father left home when Billy was still small enough to have to stand up to look over the back of the cinema seat. Although we might expect his mother to try to take the roles of both parents in these circumstances, we find she does not even fulfil the role of a mother.