It was at writers’ retreat in sunny Oxfordshire, organised by a wonderful online community to which I’m blessed to belong, that I first bumped into Barry Walsh. As I chatted with other writers about our work, quite a few people mentioned Barry’s book, The Pimlico Kid, and there seemed to be a really buzz around it. So, when I finally bumped into him as we were all helping ourselves to red wine and homemade cous cous, I couldn’t wait to ask him about it. He says he grew up in Pimlico, a small area of central London where Winston Churchill and Laurence Olivier once lived, and tells me how his experience of some of the more hard-up parts inspired the book. Listening to him talk about the area and his characters with such passion, I knew this was a novel I just had to read.
The Pimlico Kid is set in the sixties, a decade I felt I was living in from the very first page, even though I wasn’t born until the eighties. Billy Driscoll and his best mate, Peter Rooker, have the run of the street and, when Billy takes an interest in the pretty girl next door, he must do something drastic if he’s to beat his greatest rival, a rotten cheat, to her heart. It’s a summer that will change them all forever. At first the story seems to be about a few boys and their lustful small talk but there turns out to be much more emotion brewing under the surface and it becomes, by the end, sentimental, yet profound.
The voice is athletic and daring. It feels so authentic that I had to ask Barry if the novel is, in part, autobiographical. He says he’s fortunate to have vivid memories of his childhood in Pimlico and could recall even the finest details about the time, the slang and the street which he only discovered was known as a slum after it was bulldozed years later. Despite this, he says Pimlico is home to him. He feels stronger and younger just being there.
The characters are completely fictional but nonetheless very much alive. Even minor cast members are characterised, in little more than a line, such that they and the culture in which they live are so vivid. There is, for example, a short neighbor with a “potbelly over which braces hoist his trousers to within an inch of his armpits,”, the nit nurse who “calls as often as the rent man” and a kid who Billy had witnessed “pull the front bumper off a Ford Anglia.”
Dialogue jumps off the page in the same way. Although some sections are almost spelled out, they’re not lengthy so ultimately add authenticity without become tiresome. I found this also an effective way of getting across the class differences from a woman who asks for “ten Weights and a tanner’s worth of whiting please, ducks’ to a Jaguar driver who passes through and calls: “I say, you…You there. Do you know this boy?” Some crass language is to be expected in a novel like this but it isn’t overdone and fits to the occasion.
I loved the short chapters and their intriguing titles from “Fish, Fags and the Devil Cat” to “Kissing Khrushchev”. Pacing is great throughout and this is helped further by the punctuated writing style. There are some great pauses, which just escape the dreaded saggy territory, used in contrast to action so that it feels almost explosive by the time it reaches the climax.
Barry’s the first to admit that he’s ‘late to writing’. He’s hardly past it though. Age, after all, is just a number. He says he has many more books in him yet and I think his vast life experience is one of the reasons he’s able to characterise so masterfully. And, although he’s a perfectionist, he has a sense of impatience with himself. He’s learned not to waste time waiting around for inspiration for his best ideas come as he works away. Family support is invaluable, he says, especially when you’re just starting out and, in addition to this, his writing group, made up of members of a creative writing course he once attended, gives him valuable feedback. He looks forward to their meetings. External endorsement, he continues, is so important in the early stages when you’re wondering if your work is any good. He certainly got that when, a few years back, he submitted the first three chapters of The Pimlico Kid into a novel-writing competition and won. To add to his fortune, one of the judges was a literary agent who stayed in touch and later came to represent him, sparing him the pain of the slush pile.
With a great editor at Harper Collins, The Pimlico Kid was finally published in 2013 and Barry has another on the way. Book two is proving more challenging as he’s determined to make sure it’s even better than the first. This determination meant he missed a deadline to which he committed while riding high on the excitement of getting a two-book deal. It’s more important to him to make sure he delivers his readers the best book he can, one that’s even better than the first, rather than rush out something half-baked. I have to admire him for that.
Bettering The Pimlico Kid is going to take some work! I can imagine people who love Billy Elliot the musical, although very different, might love it too as it’s about a lad growing up in a working class environment who, despite the pressure to be ‘hard’, finds his own way of being a hero with both humour and heartache along the way. Truly a treasure of a book.