Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

I often bang on here about liking older books more than new ones, but inevitably the ones I read are old dressed up as new.  Here’s another one from the venerable Penguin. The publisher is soon to celebrate its 75th birthday, and has reissued a score of books by British authors which “represent their time and helped define their generation.” Well, maybe, but there are some interesting, lesser-read-these-days writers in there (John Mortimer, Penelope Lively, William Cooper, Margaret Drabble) and they’ve been given a decent format – all reset in uniform type with new introductions by contemporary novelists – and covers of varying quality (love the John Squire 80s ones, but the less said about Zandra Rhodes’ 70s, the better). I went looking for them in my local Waterstone’s and was horrified to see that they were stocking only three titles, so went to WHSmith and was surprised to see they had almost a full complement.

So I bought one from each decade, and decided to read the 50s first, with Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959). I didn’t have high expectations, believing it to be similar to Lucky Jim (a book I hated, which is also in the Decades series, making a trio of discontented young men with William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life), but I was pleasantly surprised. It takes us into the mind of Billy Fisher, a teenager living with his family in the Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, working for a funeral director, and hating his lot.  “You know, dark satanic mills I can put up with, but when it comes to dark satanic power stations, dark satanic housing estates, and dark satanic coffee bars…”  To alleviate his boredom he fantasises a lot, creating a make-believe country where he is leader: the opening line of the book is “Lying in bed, I abandoned the facts again and was back in Ambrosia…”

But his inability to stick to the facts has its downside.  As well as his “number 1 thinking”, where he imagines his family and friends to be everything he wants them to be, he gets caught in loops of “number 2 thinking”, ruminating hypochondriacally about sinister and life-threatening ailments.  More seriously, it has allowed him to ‘court’ three girls at once, each of whom believes herself to be engaged to Billy, though his returned feelings for them depend more or less on how far they are willing to go.  (“The unfastening of Liz’s blouse had become a more or less routine affair and it was done in a detached way, rather as if I were helping her off with her coat.”)  It’s just as well, then, that Billy has a plan to get out of Stradhoughton and his dead-end job: he’s going off to London to work as a scriptwriter for comedian Danny Boon – but it seems to be taking him a long time to get around to leaving…

Billy Liar is lively, funny and short – so what more could we ask for?  Waterhouse manages to keep his central character fairly sympathetic despite his increasing ledger of peccadilloes, and there is an emotional heft to the last chapter, when Billy finally acknowledges that “I did not believe what I was telling myself”.  I was surprised – thinking, I suppose, that the 50s meant the 60s had not arrived yet – by the often frank references to sexual matters.  (Blake Morrison, in his introduction, says that the stage version of the book was booed for use of the word ‘bloody’.)  There’s something comforting about the unthreatening world which the book inhabits, even if it’s as unambitious in literary terms as Billy feels his surroundings to be.  Indeed, like Stradhoughton for him, Billy Liar is the sort of place that is nice to visit once in a while, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.


  1. Interesting. I suspect I’d struggle to forget the film when reading it, was that an issue for you?

    I rather liked the ’70s covers, though they seem to owe little to the books themselves which is an objection. I particularly liked the Hawksmoor cover from the 1980s though, a book I’ve meant to read for ages (I’ve read much of his other work) and in that edition I likely shall. His Brookner and Boyd covers I rather like too.

    I had no idea David Lodge was so old.

    A nice iniative, but a lot of these writers are still pretty well known. Returning to the covers, the original Clockwork Orange cover is pretty hard to beat, and on the 1950s that classic design still works very well.

  2. I bought my Billy Liar from a cardboard box, outside a secondhand bookstore. Simply because I liked the cover of the book. [It took me several years though, to find out that cover mirrored a Woodbines cigarette case].

    What did you make of Waterhouse’s choice to set the whole book in just one day? Did he take the mickey out of other books famously taking place in a day?

  3. I also bought Billy Liar as a secondhand book, as I was going through a phase of collecting old Penguin books with great covers. I knew Waterhouse’s name from school without really knowing much about him as an author. My memory of the film is far too vague to have influenced my reading of the novel, though I can now picture a young Tom Courtney in the lead role and would love to see the film again.

    However I did feel influenced by a more modern interpretation of Billy’s behaviour. Rather than read it as a semi-comedic kitchen-sink drama about a teenage boy’s right-of-passage, I now visualised Billy’s odd behaviour as something akin to autism or maybe even a young man with mental health issues. His creation of numbered thinking a coping mechanism for dealing with an unwelcoming and unfriendly reality. I found it less innocent than I probably might have had I picked it up at school in the 70s or 80s…

    A seminal tale that represents the best of British film and literature. I only wish it was as independent and original today.

  4. I have never heard of this book, but it does sound like it would be an interesting one to read. I like that he escapes his dull life by becoming the sole decision-maker of an entire country! My brother used to do that, too- make up a place for himself to rule.

  5. What’s great about this book is it’s humour, but the underlying theme is always the good old class system. The exchanges between Billy and his Father are especially hilarious, Billy’s sarcasm against the upwardly mobile disdain of his dad.

    Billy has ended up in a kind of limbo, between two worlds. His dad’s business has prospered so the family have moved ‘up onto the hill’. Billy doesn’t fit in here as he’s from a working-class background. He now doesn’t fit in where he came from either because of this, so he creates an imaginary world which only Billy and oursevles are privvy to. Clashing worlds is a constant thread throughout the book.

    When I first read it it made me laugh out loud, still does, and when a book manages to do this to me, in my eyes it is a fine book.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m pleased that Billy Liar evokes such fond memories. I think if read at the right time (by which I mean the reader’s own age as well as the era), it would have been much more powerful.

    Max, the film was not an issue for me, as I haven’t seen it! I don’t even know what Tom Courtenay looks like… You’re right, Max, about the Clockwork Orange cover: the original had the same iconic connection with the book that a good album cover does. Very hard to take on a redesign of that. And yes, these authors are not unknown exactly; perhaps I should have said unfashionable. It’s good to have, for example, Beryl Bainbridge getting a bit of attention for her back catalogue (even though I’ve often struggled with her stuff).

    ijsbrand, thanks for the link. I didn’t know that cover was a Woodbines take-off either, though it clearly has the air of livery of that period. And I’m afraid I didn’t notice that it was set in one day! Only one other very famous book taking place in one day springs to mind, and I didn’t see any obvious take-off of that in Billy Liar (though, interestingly, David Lodge’s The British Museum is Falling Down, also reissued in the Penguin Decades series, does end with a Molly Bloomlike unpunctuated soliloquy).

    l’anglais, your interpretation of Billy’s tendencies as autistic is very interesting. I have some interest in the subject as my wife works with children with such difficulties. I shall have to ponder that idea some more.

  7. I wonder what you’d think of ‘Billy Liar on the Moon’, the sequel, which I very much enjoyed as well (though it’s probably inferior to the first). Another waterhouse I very much liked was his ‘Palace Pier’, the plot of which revolves around a lost manuscript by Patrick Hamilton. I cannot predict your reaction, since the thought of someone hating ‘Lucky Jim’ leaves me staggered. Next you’ll be telling me you didn’t like ‘War with the Newts’ (I hope you’ve read it!).

  8. Sorry JRSM, but I found Lucky Jim forced and unfunny, and dated in a way that, say, Lolita, published a year later, isn’t.

    I have read War with the Newts and will post about it in the next month or so. Wait and see!

  9. Billy is the book of my adolescence; a pitch perfect evocation of that hinterland between boy and manhood. He gets that northern humour perfectly and that yearning for escape tempered by the reality of knowing you’ll never quite escape. I think it was once described as like a Morrissey wet dream – which I think is apt.

    I can’t tell you how disappointing the sequel is – possibly the worst book I’ve ever tried to like.

  10. Literary sequels are often surpisingly disappointing. Sequels to classics generally.

    Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch-22 by all accounts was pretty poor for example.

    And in another vein, Joe R Haldeman wrote a classic science fiction novel titled The Forever War which was a thinly veiled allegory of the Vietnam war and the experience of coming home. Tragically, years later he wrote two sequels. The original was fuelled by his fury at the experience of coming home from a terrible war to an America you didn’t recognise. The sequels were bad SF (well, I only read the first sequel, but it really was terrible).

  11. Max: Was the sequel you read the one which effectively ends with God popping up and saying it was all a game, nothing really mattered or counted, and sending the reader into a fury? I’ve never read a sequel so appalling to an original so brilliant

  12. Hm, not much of a connection there, BQ, but as the prize is a good one, and the questions interesting (I’m stumped by the Vonnegut one), I’ll let your plug stand!

  13. I’m with Stuart – a book of my adolescence, when I read anything I could get my hands on by KW, and Bill Naughton etc too. Julie Christie was in the film of course, a new face on the screen at that time. I think its well worth revisiting books of that era

  14. i love the way Penguin does things like this … I had a look at your link and the only one of the 5 from the 50s that I’ve read is The Chrysalids. Wyndham is the only SF writer I’ve read extensively as it’s not really a genre I read (tho I have read the odd other SF over the years). But, I ramble. I have vaguely heard of Billy Liar – probably because I’ve heard of the film. You’ve intrigued me – I’ll look out for it.

  15. JRSM,

    I missed your query. Yes it was. It’s on my list of things I don’t look forward to revisiting should my life flash before my eyes on death. I hope at least that bit flashes by swiftly.

    It was shockingly bad, bad to the extent it almost propagated backwards in time to make the original less good. Any sequel would have struggled to live up to the original, but that’s no excuse for a walk-on part by god who it turns out has been stacking humanity in mines in suspended animation for reasons that thankfully escape me and personally interfering with the performance of the characters’ spaceship. I’d say it was ludicrous, but that would be like saying being disembowelled smarts a bit.

    In summary, I didn’t really like it.

  16. I’m in my 61st year and reading ‘Billy Liar’ on the train to work. I’ve read this book several times, but can’t help chuckling at the late Mr Waterhouse’s gem of a book.

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