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Sunday 17 March 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)
Keith Waterhouse
Billy Liar (4*)

Another book from the list of those I should have read in my teens and early twenties, but didn’t because of the television we got when I was around twelve, which cut my reading from two or three books a week down to zero for the next ten years. I’ve never read the 1959 book, or seen either the 1963 film or the 1973 television series.

I could easily have become wrapped up in Billy Liar. He might have been me, or at least the rebellious subversive I wished I could be. You have to remember we were under the anarchic influences of The Who, Jethro Tull and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Billy Liar would have been another

Billy lives in a dismal Yorkshire town, cares nothing for his job as a clerk, has only contempt for his parents and keeps three girls on the go at the same time. He tells outrageous fibs to suit his shifting impulses, acts out jokey sketches with a chum from work and escapes into fantasy where, among other things, he dreams of being a comedy writer. Almost me, except for the three girls on the go: wouldn’t chance have been a fine thing, even just one?

This was nineteen-fifties, working-class Britain, not quite on the cusp of the youth consumer boom, before the upsurge of opportunity, when people worked long hours and made do: such as with the old raincoat Billy uses as a dressing gown. There isn’t a television set or record player in sight, and an Italian-cut suit is the only mention of fashion. Remnants of this life were still around in the late nineteen-sixties when I left school for office work instead of university, especially in office work, but things were beginning to change. I had more choice and was able to get away. Billy couldn’t. I felt disappointed at the end when he bottles his chance and goes back to his home and job.

Keith Waterhouse is often described as one of Britain’s funniest writers. “I don’t mind dark satanic mills,” says Billy, “but by gum when it comes to dark satanic shops, dark satanic housing estates and dark satanic police stations –”, although Billy has no ending to this pre-prepared sentence (p90). He keeps one girl friend’s postcards from her trips to various places around the country because they are at least literate: “I felt mildly peculiar to be treasuring love-letters for their grammar,” he says (p19).

Some of Waterhouse’s descriptions remind me of his contemporary, Les Dawson:
It was quiet outside the Roxy. The evening was warm, but on the crisp side. The sodium lamps were beginning to flicker on and off, dismally. The old gaffers who manned the Alderman Burrows memorial bench at the abandoned train terminus were beginning to crane themselves stiffly to their feet and adjust their mufflers… (p142)
His mimetic rendering of Yorkshire accents is a joy:
Does ta think ah could climb down yon ashpit?
Nay, tha’d break thi neck, Councillor!
Aye, well ah’sll have to manage it, whether or no. Ah’m bahn down to t’ police station.
What’s ta bahn down theer for, then?
We’re pulling t’ bugger down.
Tha’s not, is ta?
Aye, we are that. All yon cottages anall … It’s all change. All change, nowadays. T’ old buildings is going. T’ old street is going. T’ trams, they’ve gone.
Aye …
It we’re all horse-drawn trams, and afore that we had to walk. It’s all change. T’ old mills is going. T’ old dialect, that’s going, …
I think I know where Monty Python got the idea from.

Many accounts of Billy Liar make more of his grand fantasies about the imaginary country of Ambrosia, but I found this merely a contextual element, one of several running through the book, a device now well-used by writers to milk for laughs.

Billy Liar is fun to read. It is one of the great nineteen-fifties novels which, along with others by Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow and others, paved the way for a new style of fiction. Waterhouse’s later novel, Billy Liar on the Moon, set in the nineteen-seventies, might be a good follow up.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

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