BY MICK MIDDLES
The bestseller racks at our bookstores bedazzle the browser with a garish montage of books by Bryson, Welsh, Doyle and Hornby. Currently at the centre of this unholy splash of colour, smiles a young, precocious oik, clad in a dubious tank top and cotton shorts. The cover of the book he adorns seems profoundly lacking in such attention-grabbing hues.
Behind this ghostly image, a blackened terrace street scene confirms the notion that this is a book about a northern childhood set in a mid-century soot-blackened Manchester.
The book, 'Our Kid' by Billy Hopkins recently paperbacked and clawing its way up the best seller ladder, evokes the atmosphere, the tensions and, in places, even the smell of a Lowryesque city that seems increasingly distant. Skilfully carved from a block of Manchester dialogue, the book is proving infectiously accessible. Sales in Manchester are simply outstanding, as you might expect, but even shallow fickle, trend-following Londoners are apparently grasping this tome with unlikely enthusiasm.
It is, in short, a publishing phenomenon and one that seems all the more remarkable upon discovering that it was initially turned down by more than 30 publishers and agents.
"There's no demand for trouble in t'mill stuff," came one typically patronising reply. Our Kid, which is autobiography which shades into fiction, is the work of Wilfred Hopkins (AKA Billy) a 71-year old retired teacher now languishing in frantic retirement in Southport.
On the day I visited him he had just finished a session on the tennis court. He also cycles, jogs, writes, edits and talks! A natural and inspiring storyteller, he will swamp you with wonderful tales from a 40-year career in high level education, a career that took him twice, teacher-training in Africa as well as equally exotic Salford. It's easy to see how his enthusiasm has literally flooded into his writing. (There is a sequel, already finished, probably called High Hopes, and he is currently musing over a third, set in Africa).
The question may seem mundane, but had the desire to write always been there, welling inside him, desperate to get out?
"No, not at all," he replies with certainty. "I was just too busy. I lived a very full life, but I knew I wouldn't be able to accept retirement. You have to stay active."
The first few years of retirement were spent making dolls' houses, but not any old dolls' houses. These were elaborate Tudor mansions complete with lights. When the constant hammering began to irritate his family, he fell into another traditional retirement pastime - winemaking. This somewhat pointless hobby caused concern in the family when the bottles started to explode.
"Do something harmless," they pleaded. "Write your life story."
It was that simple. Soon visions of Ancoats were being tapped into his computer. Characters were plucked from memory and re-energised in text. Soon 150,000 words gathered together to form Our Kid.
Rather naively perhaps, he flicked through The Writers' Handbook and duly parcelled it off to those 30 destinations. Needless to say, after 12 months, just a dozen negative replies had trickled back. If they hadn't been so dispiriting, they would have surely been hilarious.
"You should try to write sideways," offered one agent.
"Someone left this stuff on my desk, I don't know why but I certainly don't have the time to read it," replied another.
"Charming story. What a pity you're not a little girl," said a third.
Most writers, however gifted, would - and do - crumble before the enormity of this apathetic barrier.
"I was tremendously disappointed," Wilfred admits. "But I decided to battle on. I decided to publish it myself, initially having three copies bound in imitation leather at £35 each and then a hundred in paperback format. Eventually I managed to sell a thousand and letters started to arrive back, incredibly encouraging letters. It seemed that I had touched a nerve."
This time around, Wilfred used the letters to surround copies sent to agents. It worked. An agent grasped the book with feverish enthusiasm and the curious cogs of publishing creaked into motion.
In October 1998, Headline published the hardback edition to an encouraging ripple of critical applause. It is now out in paperback, costing £5.99. And Wilfred writes on.
It is hard work, undoubtedly, but one senses he has a curious feeling of relief in the flow of words. The stories are important. He realises this. He realises also, how lucky he is to have such a richly stocked reservoir of memory to dip into. "I'm enjoying the success," he admits, "and I do watch the best-seller lists. If it makes a lot of money, then that would be fantastic but, in all honesty, that's not the important issue. Not at all.
"What is important is that incredible feeling when someone I don't know actually takes the trouble to write and say how much the book meant to them. At this very moment, somebody might be gleaning enjoyment from it. That is the most satisfying aspect of it all."
A tale from the north. Not the north as we now know it, peppered with retail parks, fast food joints, multiplex cinemas and shopping malls .i.e. much the same as anywhere else in the western world - but a distinctive, soot-blackened north, still shivering in the fading shadows of the industrial revolution. We may think fondly of a mythical, Lowryesque land, but, to be honest, bland modernity beats the dark Satanics, any day. But, as the old north becomes more and more distant, books such as this, which recalls a life in the grime of pre-war Collyhurst, seem increasingly valuable. This is autobiography shaded into fiction. Billy Hopkins, the central character, now relaxes in retired contentment in the soft atmosphere of Southport. The tale he tells could be from a different century - and it soon will be, of course - and one imagines that, as he potters in his idyllic garden, he can barely believe that such a contrast could exist in one lifetime. The book begins, perhaps not surprisingly, with his birth. Cleverly, the author lays out the family scenario as the birth is taking place - with the father downing pints, playing cards and head-butting his fellow imbibers in the local tap room. The scene is evocative. a smoke-filled room, packed with rogues. A male fortress, an escape from the hard times outside: an escape too, from the traumas of family life. At the same time, his wife gives birth to ..."another bloody mouth ter feed." Political correctness, one might presume, wasn't much of a force in 1928. Hopkins' subsequent childhood provides the true heart of the book. Encounters with school bullies, with schoolfriends who would die, with crazed parents...with girls! The world they wandered through was a land of canals (cuts) and warehouses, of giant Victorian 'ragged' schools, of alleyways and cobbles. Mercifully, Hopkins doesn't allow his storytelling to fall into the pitfall of nostalgia kitsch. This is no
folk song stretched into prose, though the barrage of 'Lanc' dialogue does tend to warp things into the surreal. The book follows Billy to war-time evacuation in Blackpool, but is is the Manchester pages that, for this reader at least, proved the most fascinating. Especially, as in our modern world, these streets still exist. In Collyhurst. In Ancoats. The terrible beauty of Manchester's past, it seems, can still be glimpsed in such areas. But how wonderful to have a book like this. A book that colours in the blank areas, that pulls the reader back to that different world. This is no Catherine Cookson style trudge into pulpy triteness. It's just a glimpse of a lost reality.
'Heartwarming fictional memoirs'