MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS
AUGUST 10TH, 2001
BRILLIANT BILLY HITS THE BULLSEYE AGAIN
by Mick Middles
Kate’s Story by Billy Hopkins
As the Manchester skyline becomes increasingly stacked with (mostly) stunning modern architecture, and as new housing estates, cinemas and retail parks stretch to the suburbs, it becomes increasingly difficult to glimpse the city’s industrial past.
A dark past, both glorious and miserable, cruel and heartwarming. And the further into history this vision sinks, the more precious the works of Lowry…and indeed, books such as this become. Billy Hopkins is now well known as a phenomenon. The retired teacher who defied publishing trends by digging deep into his family history, and delivering a series of books that keep the spirit of that lost age alive. The initial reluctance of publishers was based on one ludicrous fact. Local history, they said, belongs in cheaply produced sepia magazines. But Billy Hopkins wasn’t interested in writing about “the pubs of Withington” or some such tedious account. He wanted to grasp the force of personalities.
He could remember a time when the human spirit was the most powerful force on earth…well, in Manchester anyway. It had to be…it was the only thing people had. No multiplex cinemas in 1897, only grim industry.
Billy Hopkins’ first book Our Kid, saw him rising from bleakness, attaining fulfilment against all the odds. Now Kate’s Story takes a step further back, telling of the life of his mother. This story concludes with a lead in to Our Kid.
On the face of it, this might not seem a difficult task. Billy Hopkins…or Wilf as he is known to friends…simply took a tape recorder into his mother’s room and asked her to tell him about her life. But however moving those words might have been, and however evocative the description, turning it into feverish page turning fiction is no mean feat.
Hopkins, like all the best authors, makes the task seem far easier than it is by writing in effortlessly simplistic prose. At times even stepping back and allowing the dialogue to carry along.
This itself is fun. People spoke a completely different language in Manchester 100 years ago. Some of it would be incomprehensible if certain phrases hadn’t survived a full century, carried along in nursery rhymes or just kept alive in local banter. Kate was eleven on the day of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This could just have been the happiest day of her life, as she states at the very beginning.
Soon after, her life would tilt into blackness as her family plunge into deep poverty, leaving Kate to claw her way through various workhouses before finding a trace of comfort in the service of the rich.
She hurtled through a great love story and glimpsed the highs before having to battle through the dark ages of World War One and the Great Depression.
Hopkins is a fascinating author. Preferring to allow a tale to drift at its own pace, he refuses to throw in some of the tricks of modern fiction. And as such, he seems to have few, if any, peers.