Billie Liar by Keith Waterhouse provided the latest foray into the world and mores of the late fifties. It’s yet another novel that resides firmly in northern English working class life. But unlike Alan Sillitoe, John Braine or Stan Bairstow, Billy Liar lives almost entirely in the comic. Until, that is, when it doesn’t.
A problem with nostalgia is that it tends to induce blindness. Shortcomings and limitations disappear when the warm glow of familiarity obscures everything but the positive. Perhaps I became infected with this unmentionable N word when I decided to re-read this book that I doubt I have touched in over fifty years. This may indeed be strange, because Stradhoughton, the fictional Yorkshire backwater where the novel is set could in reality have been close to where I was raised and indeed the city of my birth, Wakefield, is mentioned several times, where it might even be understood to be at some height of cosmopolitan sophistication. Perhaps not…
I had expected Billy Liar to have aged, perhaps grown stale now that its setting would no longer be ideologically either working class or Labour voting. But has anything changed? And if so, has it been for the better? Might it be that the community in which Billy lived had convinced itself of its status and indispensability only to have come down to earth with a bump when reality intervened?
Billy Liar is a short book. Joyce’s Ulysses is longer. But they both inhabit similar territory in that they follow a principal character through on day’s eventless events. Viewed in this light, Billy Liar becomes potentially much more than a comic romp through northern English quaintness.
Billy is an employee in an undertaker. He spends the first part of his Saturday morning at work, as everyone did in that era. He strolls around town, goes to the pub, meets a girlfriend or two and then comes down to earth. It’s a special day for Billy because he’s convinced himself that he is about to enter the big time as a comedy writer for a name in London. From start to finish, however, Billy is deluding himself.
He and a workmate converse in what sounds like a double act. It’s supposed to be funny – and is. But before long, we are laughing at the two of them, not with them. It’s not original. Billy’s talent, it seems like that of everyone else, is mimicry., a cliched copying of what the mass media are feeding him.
Though he does tell fibs to all, the person he is really lying to is himself., since he has never stepped back from his surroundings to reflect how narrow and confined is his reality. He is not alone. Bad jokes are repeated. Multiple girlfriends believe they too are unique in his life. He is engaged to two of them – or so he thinks. Perhaps they do too.
After fifty years of separation, Billy Liar now seems more significant that it did first time round. Billy is convinced he is about to break out of his small-town straitjacket. He is convinced he is something special because he can mimic the received messages with which he has been fed. His self-delusion seems complete. He thus now becomes a metaphor for the continued subservience and indeed marginalisation of the way of life he represents. It’s comic, but in the end it’s a tragedy.
Source by Philip Spires