Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)

‘The trouble with you, cocker, is you’re a pathological bloody liar,’ said Arthur. (p.43)

Billy Liar

William ‘Billy’ Fisher lives in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. He is 19, still lives at home with his mum and dad and Gran, and works at a local undertaker firm, Shadrack and Duxbury. He is a pathological liar and the novel opens with his lies having got into several fixes:

  • when tasked with sending calendars publicising the undertakers to every other firm and important person in the town, Billy hides them under his bed in order to keep the postage money for himself
  • his mum asks him to post a letter to a radio programme but he keeps it, opens and reads it himself
  • he is carrying on with three local girls, Liz, Rita, the Witch and promises them all he’s engaged to them, recycling a cheap ring to each in turn
  • he has lied fluently and creatively to the mum of his mate, Arthur, telling her that he (Billy) has a sister called Sheila, who’s married to a market trader named Eric, who has three shops, they have two children, Norma and Michael, the latter born with a deformed foot which was miraculously cured by one Dr Ubu, an Indian at Leeds University – all completely untrue, so that Billy is petrified of Arthur’s mum ever meeting his mum and finding out
  • he’s told his friends, his employer and his family that he’s been offered a job in London, script-writing for comedy entertainer Danny Boone – but he hasn’t

The novel chronicles the Saturday – starting with being roused out of bed and following to last thing at night, after the Saturday night dance – when all his chickens come home to roost, when all these fixes are exposed, his enemies gather round him, his girlfriends find out about each other, and Billy must face the reality behind his fantasies.

Billy’s fantasies

All this would be the stuff of a gritty 1950s kitchen sink novel but it is transformed by – the text is completely dominated by – Billy’s bright, vivid and hilarious fantasies – his mind is an unstoppable producer of amazing fancies and visions, comic scenes and scenarios, soaring far above the disappointing limits of ‘real life’. They come in a prolific flood of sketches, routines, phrases, gags, one-liners and extravagant visions.

Probably the largest is the well-worked-out alternative country of Ambrosia, where Billy is President, King, decorated war hero, whatever his mood requires, building a brand new capital city, celebrating Ambrosia’s recent triumphs in war. He carries (in his imagination) an Ambrosian machine gun which can be pulled out at the drop of (an imaginary) hat to slaughter anyone and everyone who is frustrating his day or looks like exposing his various scams.

Then there is a large number of ‘routines’ he can go into, merging seamlessly with ‘normal’ conversation and situations:

  • the trouble at t’mill routine, with Arthur taking the part of Olroyd and Billy the wayward son
  • the two Yanks in a drugstore routine
  • the Winston Churchill routine
  • the (impersonating his elderly Yorkshire employer) Duxbury routine
  • the Bible routine (‘And a voice spake…’)

Encompassing

The marvellousness of the novel, still fresh and laugh-out-loud funny after all these years, is due, I think, to two factors:

The faultless comic timing of these sketches and routines, the way one encounter, conversation or event effortlessly spawns witty one-liners or larger routines, all weaving in and out of Billy’s permanently-wired consciousness.

My heart missed a beat, and I wondered quickly how many beats it had missed this day, and whether it could only miss so many before you were dead, and if so how far was I off the total. (p.88)

And the fact that almost everyone is at it – the entire world is involved in the comedy. His workmates, his bosses, passersby, shop assistants, his three girlfriends, his family, everyone is reciting lines and playing parts and working routines.

The Witch turned away with a quick movement of the head, bringing tears to her eyes without difficulty. I suspected that she had perfected the whole action in front of a mirror. Its point was to make it quite evident that she was turning away and not just looking away. (p.99)

It is an embracing vision of a world completely transformed to become an endless source of humour and wit:

Stradhoughton was littered with objects for our derision. We could make Fascist speeches from the steps of the rates office, and we had been in trouble more than once for doing our Tommy Atkins routine under the war memorial in Town Square. Sometimes we would walk down Market Street shouting ‘Apples a pound pears’ to confuse the costermongers with their leather jackets and their Max Miller patter. (p.41)

The three apprentices at the undertakers carry on various high-powered sketches, and everybody at the Kit-Kat cafe knows routines or is performing their particular ones. The old jossers in the pub have their secret conversations, the local masons have their rituals, even the old prostitutes in the railway station late at night have a well-rehearsed patter for chatting up the soldiers. The novel portrays a world where everyone is performing one or other comedy sketch (even if they don’t realise it).

Everybody I knew spoke in clichés, but Rita spoke as though she got her words out of a slot machine, whole sentences ready-packed in a disposable tinfoil wrapper. (p.47)

Word cloud (Words and phrases throughout the text supporting the theme of play acting and putting on voices):

raillery, the high-pitched university voice, primitive verbal by-play, mechanical badinage with lorry-drivers, his Western brothers voice, the standard ready-to-use repartee, a pantomime of amazement, the grandiloquent voice, speaking the phrase as if it were a headline, the robust voice… his rich, so-called Yorkshire relish voice… the low voice… her icy voice… I went into the hard voice… from the hard voice into the matter-of-fact voice… I said in the bitter voice… I put on the intellectual act… in the light voice I said… I spoke in what I hoped was the low, husky voice… I gave them the deprecating smile… the cracked phonograph voice… the studied, indifferent approach… I said in the high-pitched voice, ‘I cannot tell a lie’… I put on an elaborate mock-sheepish act… I struck the farewell attitude…


Amis and Waterhouse

Age Amis born 1922, Waterhouse 1929, so Waterhouse is the younger man and got his first novel published at a younger age – Amis’ first novel Lucky Jim, 1954 (aet. 32) Waterhouse’s first novel There Is a Happy Land, 1957 (aet. 28).

Writer’s block In chapter two, bored at work, Billy gets out the manuscript of his play, The Two Schools at Gripminster – which has barely progressed beyond the stage directions of the first scene – and stares at it, unable to write a word. This reminded me of the scene in I Like It Here where the protagonist, Garnet Bowen, stares at the manuscript of his unfinished play, and spends a couple of pages of the novel agonising over just one sentence of dialogue. Which itself reminded me of Lucky Jim Dixon’s efforts throughout that novel to write anything meaningful for the hour-long public lecture he is doomed to give.

Writers writing about the difficulty of writing. But it’s not the only thing the two authors have in common:

Funny voices Lucky Jim and, to a lesser extent, Amis’s other early novels, feature protagonists much given to making funny faces and doing funny voices, to relieve the tedium of existence, to dramatise their boring lives, to cope with the antagonism of other people. It is striking to come to Billy Liar and find a novel which is entirely about a young man who spends every waking hour doing funny voices, living out sketches and routines, inhabiting fictional characters and fantasy worlds. Lucky Jim on speed.

One of the habits I was going to get out of was a sort of vocal equivalent of the nervous grimace, an ever-expanding repertoire of odd noises and sound effects that I would run through in time of tension… I would begin to talk to myself, the words degenerating first into senseless, ape-like sounds and then into barnyard imitations, increasing in absurdity until I was completely incoherent… I began to repeat this sentence in a variety of tones, stresses and dialects, ranging from a rapid Mickey Mouse squeak to a bass drawl, and going through all the Joycean variations… (pp.67-68)

Was there something in the air or the water? Were all young men in the late 1950s doing silly voices? There is, of course, the possible influence of The Goon Show (1951-60)…

Teenage attitude Another notable aspect of the Amis novels is the pride in dismissive vagueness, ‘Dr Johnson or whoever it was’, ‘the burgundy or whatever it was’ etc. It is a kind of insolent, disrespectful attitude which says, ‘You people think this is important, but it’s just a load of crap.’

The same attitude is prevalent throughout Billy Liar:

St Botolph’s… was the home of a Ladies’ Guild, a choir and some mob called the Shining Hour… [Maurie] was interested in youth work and all the rest of it… The long bar was where the members of the Ancient Order of Stags or whatever it was gathered on Saturday nights… in the middle of them was Councillor Duxbury, wearing the chain of past grand warden or something… [The Roxy nightclub] was supposed to be a suburban amenity or something… [Arthur at the microphone] looked like Danny Kaye or somebody doing a relaxed season at the Palladium… If [Gran’s] fit recurred it was meant to be serious or something… life and death and all the rest of it…

It is a stylistic tag or tic, emphasising how the hero’s values are different from the boring adult, official world, that he doesn’t give a tinker’s toss about their shagging orders or amenities.

Loneliness In the Amis novels the Amis protagonist is essentially alone in a sea of fools – something which gives them an occasional desperate edge. In Billy Liar everyone is portrayed as acting out one routine or another, everyone is playing a part, or struggling to:

I was trying on expressions, as though I carried a mirror about with me and was pulling faces in it. I tried to look stunned, because after all there was the material for it, and I tried to assemble some kind of definite emotion that I wasn’t putting on or concocting. (p.108)

But what the Amis and Waterhouse have in common is they are all playing a part in order to escape. As in Amis, the comedy conceals anxiety. For example, the only one of his three girls Billy has any feelings for is Liz, and it’s because he feels safe with her, because her presence is like a ‘refuge, her beaming comfortable presence protecting me from the others’ (p.129).

There is the same underlying fear of other people which I noticed in Amis’s comedy.

The idea of ever seeing Stamp again, or indeed anybody, filled me with horror. (p.154)

Was it just these two, or was it a broader cultural theme, the loneliness and alienation of young people in the 1950s? The sense of not being real? The sense of being bombarded with alternative realities and personas, all of which can be sampled like a menu, but none of which really fit?

Plot part 2

During the day Billy’s fantasies unroll with a wonderful carefree quality, he knows he’ll be in trouble with all sorts of people if the truth comes out but manages to keep all the balls in the air. We see him:

  • joshing with the guys at work, his friend Arthur and his enemy, the boorish Stamp
  • coping with his aggressively chavvy girlfriend who serves at the local coffee bar
  • dealing with his ponderous boss, Mr Shadrack (in a great scene Billy is in what he thinks is the empty undertakes office and starts saying ‘Shadrack’ in funny accents, until he is yelling it at the top of his voice – at which point Mr Shadrack emerges from the downstairs toilet)
  • ignoring the thundering criticism of  his parents and shouty Gran
  • slipping the frigid Barbara a couple of so-called ‘passion pills’ and then trying to grope her in St Botolph’s churchyard

All good comic material. But as the day turns to night, things become more fraught:

  • Billy bundles up the incriminating calendars and is smuggling them out to the ashpits on the outskirts of town when he has a tense and puzzling encounter with the senile older partner at his work, old Duxbury
  • he has a spot to perform a bit of stand-up at the local working men’s club and goes down like a lead balloon, not least because  his Dad turns up unexpectedly, only to turn his back in shame and embarrassment
  • the evening is set around the one night-club in town, the Roxy. Here Billy encounters all the characters in his scams who humiliate him in one way or another
    • the two girls he’s proposed to – chavvy Rita and frigid Barbara (aka the Witch) – meet and spot that one is wearing the other’s engagement ring and their St Nicholas necklace – which kicks off a big fight
    • his boss, Shadrack, lets him know they’ve twigged about the calendars and him stealing the postage money and he is not required back at work on Monday
    • his friend, Arthur, performs a song they co-wrote, along with a smooth band, the Rockets, and it is clear Arthur is actually achieving something compared to all Billy’s fantasies
    • to avoid his fighting fiancées, Billy takes the one girl he has real feelings for, Liz, out for a walk beyond the slag heaps on the edge of town and into the woods where, to his amazement, she lets him undress her and they appear to have full-blown sex – unfortunately, just after ‘the moment of satisfaction’, Billy hears rustling and sniggers from nearby bushes, leaps up and discovers his enemy from the office, Stamp, has watched the whole thing along with two drunken friends. Billy chases them off, then returns to collect Liz and they traipse back to the club in humiliation
    • when he finally arrives home after an eventful evening, it is to discover his Gran, taken ill earlier, has been sent off to hospital in an ambulance along with his Mum. Billy has a stand-up fight shouting match in the hall with his Dad, not only about his irresponsibility, but it comes out they’ve broken into the chest under his bed and discovered the stolen calendars and the letter his mum wrote the radio station which Billy was meant to post but instead opened and hid
    • disgusted and humiliated, Billy packs his things in a suitcase and takes a taxi to the hospital to be with his mother. His Gran dies while he is there. He and his mum sit there mouthing empty conventionalities. Once again, he is oppressed with the sense that not just he, but everyone is acting – the doctor, the nurses, his mum. He just wants to run away from the oppression of their inauthenticity.

And so Billy sees his mum into a taxi home and then walks to the railway station. He buys a ticket to London. He’s lost his job and will quite possibly be prosecuted for theft, he’s been shown up as a rotten stand-up, he was humiliated at the most important emotional moment of his life (with Liz), his best friend quietly despises him, his family are through with him…

He stands under the big clock at Stradhoughton station, the ticket to London in his hand, watched by the three old prostitutes trying to pick up drunk soldiers and realises that, for once in his life, he must make a real decision.

Can he? Will he? What will it be?

Conclusion

These final twenty or thirty pages significantly alter the mood of the novel. A lot of the joyful fizz expires like old champagne and, with the death of the Gran, in particular, something like the reality of life creeps over the text like a grey pall. His Dad is still the blustering bully and his Mum is still the shallow nag, but for a moment he realises they are people too, they too feel and suffer.

The sex-with-Liz scene had also been strangely anti-climactic – not only in the obvious sense that it was ruined by Stamp et al eavesdropping – but that, when it came to it, even at this moment of what should have been genuine emotional fulfilment, Billy feels empty, he stares beyond her into a void.

Shame the book has to end like this, on a downbeat. There are lots of earnest books about existential anxiety, about being a hollow man, in fact the twentieth century is lousy with them. There are far fewer genuinely fizzing, bubbling comic masterpieces – far rarer, far more valuable.


The movie

Made into the classic English ‘new wave’ Sixties movie, directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, released in August 1963. The film is beautifully directed, the locations (in black-and-white Bradford) wonderfully evocative, and the central performances buoyed up by great support from Leonard Rossiter as Shadrack and Rodney Bewes as Billy’s friend, Arthur.

But what it gains in visual style it loses in comic sparkle. The book is dominated by – is composed of – Billy’s endlessly joking, fantasising consciousness, carrying us on a roller-coaster in which other people are merely material for comic riffs. The movie, in contrast, has to show the reality of the other characters right from the start, has to give them realistic dialogue and so make them more real and sympathetic, which has the effect of drastically damping down the comedy. Beautifully made, nonetheless it brings out the grimness of the environment and Billy’s torturedness much more than the novel.

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