This August marks sixty years since the publication of Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse’s much-loved novel of inter-generational strife. Here, guest reviewer Stella Backhouse reassesses the book and asks whether it still has any relevance today…

It was love at first read. From the moment I opened Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse’s hilarious 1959 novel, I was smitten. I was about nineteen at the time, and barely more mature than the hapless Billy, whose shambolic progress through a single September Saturday is chronicled in the book; but I recognised a kindred spirit when I saw one.

Told in the first person, Billy Liar is essentially a stream-of-consciousness novel, its forward momentum punctuated by frequent lurches into irrelevant speculation (“what would one do, what would one actually do, in the case of having a firework jammed in one’s ear by mischievous boys?”), surreal ‘verbal doodlings’ and delusional daydreaming.

Far from detracting from the action, it’s these joyous digressions that make the actual narrative so compelling. If you believed Billy’s riffing on Shadrack’s name (“Shadrack!…Shaddy-shaddy-shaddy-shaddy-shadrack! Hoy! Shadders!”), you also had to believe that his jaw-dropping stylistic economy (“Duxbury prided himself on his dialect, which was practically unintelligible even to seasoned Yorkshiremen”) and pitch-perfect adjectives (the “cellophaned, leggy” copy of Ritzy Stories stashed in the ‘Guilt Chest’ under his bed) were a true record of his thoughts. I fell for Billy because, like me, he consciously and continuously converted the world around him into prose – but he did it so much better, and for that, I love him still; it’s in other ways that we’ve grown apart.

Billy’s age in the novel is unspecified; but in the disappointing 1975 sequel Billy Liar on the Moon, he’s thirty-three – making it logical to assume that in 1959, he’s seventeen. So is this the Young Adult fiction of its day? Well: only if you agree that what teenagers need most is a short sharp shot of patronisation.

Waterhouse was thirty when the book was published, but already he’s way out-of-touch. It’s true that at first glance, Billy presents as authentic teen hero, sticking it to his elders via the time-honoured tactic of razor-sharp ridicule. But it’s an illusion. Closer reading suggests that Billy is not authentic anything; and in reality, it’s he himself who’s being lampooned.

His affectedly aristocratic mannerisms, for example, are a projection of his parents’ generation’s anxieties that the 1944 Education Act, which formally established secondary education and raised the school-leaving age to fifteen, would turn their children into bone-idle aesthetes who thought themselves too good for their working-class homes.

Another clue to Waterhouse’s true sympathies lies in Billy’s habit of assuming various alter egos and generally conducting his life as if he’s on stage. Again, Waterhouse seems to be pandering to the fears of older people, implying that that Billy’s essential personality vacuum is partly attributable to the rise of television as a mass medium, feeding the young a diet so rich in dramatisation that they’re incapable of being authentic. When his grandmother dies, Billy observes his mother being “helped as far as the doors by a grave-faced doctor, and it looked…like some corny act on television”. He himself meanwhile, in a confession that even now retains its power to shock, “examined what I was feeling and it was nothing, nothing.”

Despite his bravado, Billy is deeply alarmed by the prospect of change. Change – in the shape of the post-war building boom – is the book’s ever-present backdrop. But even the aged Duxbury seems more comfortable with it than Billy. He it is who chuckles “We’re pulling t’bugger down” as together they contemplate the antiquated police station. The ill-fated calendars – which Billy unsuccessfully attempts to flush down the toilet – are a metaphor for his desire to hold back time.

“It was a day for big decisions” Billy boldly declares in Chapter One. By the end of the book, the only decision he has made is to change nothing, and the person he is revealed to be lying to the most is himself – because, at heart, Billy Liar is an old-fashioned cautionary tale. It’s not by chance that Billy works in an undertaker’s, does his courting in a cemetery and frets about fatal diseases. In the midst of life, warns Waterhouse, we are in death: life is short; seize the day. But did Billy’s peers really need this stern injection of moral stiffening?

Just sixty-odd miles from the book’s West Yorkshire setting, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s proto-Beatles beat combo the Quarrymen – incredibly, Billy’s exact contemporaries – were already regulars at the Cavern Club. Far from indolent, indecisive and fearful, this was a vibrant, idealistic generation that stood on the brink of not merely changing, but entirely re-making British cultural life. Preoccupied with confirming older people’s prejudices, Waterhouse seems not to have noticed what was coming round the corner. Now we know what he did not; and that’s what makes Billy’s failure to take the train that September night in 1959 seem all the more poignant.


Fancy a read of it yourself? Get your hands on a copy of Billy Liar at Hive Books