More High Hopes for Billy
by Alan Domville
When Wilfred Hopkins self-published his first semi-autobiographical book, OUR KID two years ago, he had no idea it would ultimately project him to national fame. Perhaps Bryson, Archer and McCourt all felt the same on their literary debuts.
I rarely spot a winner myself but in this case, I wrote that his book would be a certain hit especially with anyone who grew up in the north west in the 1930s, 40s and 50s – and I looked forward to a sequel. Sales were rather better than Wilf, then writing under the name of Tim Lally, anticipated – but word then got to Headline, part of Hodder, who concurred with my view; two years ago it was republished under the more appropriate pen-name of Billy Hopkins.
Sales rocketed last Christmas and a few weeks ago, sales of that book had topped 150,000 putting him among the nation's top 12 most popular writers – and Wilf, who lives with his wife Clare in retirement in Southport, had become a literary success at 71.
That much-awaited sequel has now duly arrived in the bookshops. It's just right to capture the Christmas market – but not surprisingly it already appearing in the lists of top 10 best sellers compiled in the Sunday supplements and by our larger retailers.
HIGH HOPES, tracing the next stage of our Hoppy's life – firstly at teacher training college in London and then as a rookie teacher in a tough area of Manchester is even more riveting than Wilf's first book.
Our hero is stunned by treatment he receives at the hands of his utterly wayward and unruly first class comprising seniors only four years younger than himself – but how he wins them over is filled with poignancy and hilarity and the end of term farewell is pure Hollywood.
Most of this actually happened – though Wilf throws in a totally fictitious yet so meaningful old-fashioned romantic relationship with a staff colleague for good measure – and that features another round of hilarity at a musical "at home".
What was especially fascinating about Wilf's first book and also this follow-up are the continual reminders of one's past – the events of the time, the cars, the shows, the films, the advertisements, the cigarette packets and so on.
They add up to a veritable treasury of nostalgic, happy thoughts.
But Wilf also has a special gift for relating emotion be it happiness, hope, fear or despair and fully involving the reader.
Did I mention Bryson, Archer and McCourt? I bet each of them had wished they'd written this one. And guess what? – there's more to come.
Billy the Kid
Pensioner Billy Hopkins recently found fame with his first novel - a fascinating tale about his childhood. Here he speaks to Chris Arnot.
My taxi from Southport Station goes past any number of substantial, detached houses with two or three cars on the drive. Their lawns are almost as immaculate as the greens on the snooty Royal Birkdale Golf Club, which dominates one side of the coast road. This place seems a long way from Collyhurst in inner-city Manchester – not geographically so much as socially.
A tough old place, Collyhurst, as Les Dawson would have told you. He was brought up there and milked its grimness for all it was worth in the great tradition of northern stand-up comics. Actor John Thaw was born there, too, but became more associated in the public mind with the dreaming spires of Oxford through his role as Inspector Morse. It was left to Wilf Hopkins to put pre-war and wartime Collyhurst into print.
Wilf Who? Well, he’s better known as Billy Hopkins, publishing phenomenon. Already he’s being mentioned in the same breath as Josephine Cox and Meg Hutchinson, top-selling authors of what’s known in the business as northern sagas.
Now 72, he didn’t start writing until he was well PAST RETIREMENT AGE. Yet his first book, OUR KID (Headline £6.99), sold an impressive 150,000 copies when it came out in paperback in 1999. It spent several weeks in the national best-seller charts, despite having been rejected at first by every literary agent in London. Many of those 125,000 readers will be eagerly awaiting this month’s publication of the sequel, HIGH HOPES. It covers Billy’s college days and his first teaching job in a school that made Grange Hill seem like Eton.
It’s where he met his wife, Clare (Laura in the book), the woman now emerging from the Hopkins’ kitchen in Southport with two heft mugs of tea. “To lubricate your throat,” she twinkles at her husband, conscious that he can talk as well as write at length. So far he has published two volumes of an autobiographical novel, over 300,000 words in all, and we haven’t yet made it beyond 1950.
But Billy the kid has plenty of life left in his typing finger and no shortage of ideas or energy. This is a pensioner – 72, remember – who runs two miles a day, plays tennis twice a week and works out in his garage. “I used to teach PE, among other things, and I like to keep myself fit,” he says, patting his stomach and admitting that he’s much better upholstered than he used to be.
That’s hardly surprising. During wartime evacuation to Blackpool, he and his friends nearly starved to death. Their landlady was called Mrs Mossop but, in eyes of these Manchester teenagers, she could have been Mrs Hitler and she didn’t appear to feel under any obligation to feed the charges in her care.
For young Wilf (alias Billy) it must have seemed particularly hard to come to terms with a permanently rumbling tummy. Although he was the youngest of six and times had been hard in 1930s Collyhurst, the Hopkins family didn’t want for food.
The Sunday midday meal, for instance, was a ritual which never varied: Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, cabbage – or sprouts or cauliflower, whichever happened to be in season – green peas, boiled potatoes and one – and only one – roast potato each. The whole lot being covered by a generous helping of ‘Ah, Bisto!’ gravy.” That was followed by rice pudding and, come tea-time, they were tucking into middle-cut red salmon.
Perhaps it helped that Billy’s dad worked at the market. Even if much of his wages went in Player’s Weights and mild ale, he knew how to keep his growing brood well fed. Not that he did any of the cooking. That was Mam’s department. It was Mam, too, who scrimped and saved enough to ensure that our Billy could have a uniform when he passed the exam to go to the ‘posh’ school. Not to mention 10 bob a week (50p) to see him through teacher training in far-away London.
Mam was born into extreme poverty in Ancoats, Manchester in 1886, yet she lived until 1980. “When she turned 90,” Wilf recalls, “I sat her down with a tape recorder and said to her, ‘Let’s talk’. Her memories filled both sides of two tapes.” He’s using them as the basis for another novel called KATE’S STORY. This time he should have no trouble in finding a publisher – Headline, his existing publisher, already has first option.
“I wasn’t desperately optimistic when I first looked at OUR KID,” admits deputy publishing director Marion Donaldson. “But when I sat down to read it, I couldn’t get off my sofa. It seemed a bit like a cheerful ANGELA’S ASHES. All the same, we would have been happy with sales of between 20,000 and 30,000. To sell 100,000 more is remarkable. We’re thrilled.”
Back in Southport, Wilf unearths some of the rejection slips he received from 30 London agents., One says, “There’s no demand for stories about nostalgia, northern slums, and ‘trouble in’t mill’ stuff.” Oh, really? “What about Coronation Street?” shrugs Wilf. “What about Catherine Cookson?”
Quite. Her death hasn’t dimmed the demand for her clog-and-shawl- sagas. Nor indeed, the supply. Her publishers appear to have plenty of material in hand, and every new release goes straight to the top of the best-seller chart. Marion Donaldson has little doubt that northern working-class nostalgia for wartime and pre-war days is what shifted so many copies of OUR KID. So what’s the appeal?
“Childhood innocence, a lack of materialism and a sense of being in it together,” says Marion.
Wilf goes along with that. “Materially, people are much better off than they were when I was brought up but, somehow, they’ve grown distant from one another.”
So frustrated did he become by the response from literary agents that eventually he bought himself a computer and published 800 copies of OUR KID himself. They disappeared almost as quickly as a pint down his father’s throat.
One copy, luckily, found its way into the hands of John Sherlock, a Hollywood screenwriter who had been ‘creative consultant’ on DALLAS and DYNASTY. He was also a commercially successful novelist and writer in residence at five American universities. Crucially, he was born in Salford, England, four years after Wilf Hopkins and just across the River Irwell from him. No wonder the world of Billy the kid from the slums, seemed familiar to him. “Wonderfully written, deeply touching, extremely heart-warming,” he gushed in a letter to a contact at the Blake Friedmann literary agency in north London.
The agency had already rejected OUR KID once, but they couldn’t ignore Sherlock’s recommendation. This time, the manuscript was handed to Isobel Dixon. She was less than half Wilf’s age and her middle-class upbringing in South Africa was so different from his that they might have come from different planets. Yet she soon found herself immersed in a world of polluted canals, grim tenements and tripe suppers. “There was warmth and humour,” she recalls, “and the appeal of a poor boy made good.”
Very good, as it’s worked out, because her letter persuaded Marion Donaldson to read the book and commit herself to publishing it. Sot it came to pass that Billy Hopkins was launched. He’s already planning to resume his own life story after he’s paid tribute to his Mam.
Still to come is the saga of how he, Clare and the first three of their six children set off for Kenya in 1958. “We’d never been beyond Ireland before,” he grins, “so it was quite an adventure.” The first of three. He also taught in what was then Rhodesia and finished his career as lecturer in education at the University of Malawi. “Once you’ve been bitten by the African bug, you want to keep going back,” he says. “It’s difficult to settle in Salford when you’ve seen Kilimanjaro.”
Africa taught him that poverty was relative. “In Kenya,” he recalls, “we had boarders whose families had great trouble paying fees of £15 a year.” In other words, they were even worse off than the kids he grew up with in Collyhurst. And that’s saying something.