Book review: Billy Liar (Keith Waterhouse, 1959)

Billy Liar book cover book review - Wendy Woodhead writer

Is ignorance bliss?


A sometimes hilarious and at times troubling depiction of life in a 1950s’ working class Yorkshire town. Read this is you’re looking for a cringingly embarrassing story about an angry young man brought face to face with the consequences of his chronic lies and the reality of who he is.

As I get back into the swing of working on my own novel after a well-deserved resting period (the novel, not me), I thought I’d consider reading around some big themes I want to explore. Top of the list was Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, a recommendation from a fellow book-clubber who suggested it for its themes of work, northern life and working class culture.

Billy Fisher is an outsider in his own town, and according to the book’s blurb, the post-war epitome of the ‘angry young man’. It’s this I was most curious about, particularly as my novel features a female protagonist with similar qualities. As soon as the novel begins, the first-person narration thrusts us into the truly interior world of Billy Fisher. We immediately realise that he’d rather inhabit his imaginary world of Ambrosia which acts as an antidote to the uncontrollable real one around him in the Yorkshire town of Stradhougton.

When things get tough, Billy consciously slips into ‘Number 1 thinking’ at whim. Here, he imagines himself the prime minister of his self-made utopia as he battles (or, rather, avoids battling) his unsatisfying job in a funeral home, a caustic father, unsupportive family and what he perceives as the dull, dreary world around him.

As the novel opens, we’re aware he has plans to escape to London where he tells us he has a potential offer of work writing scripts for the comic Danny Boon. However, we also quickly realise he’s a chronic liar, often with no rhyme nor reason to it other than to seemingly avoid accepting any kind of responsibility. Redeemably, he does at least seem to feel an impact from many of these lies. He stores the physical remnants of them in his ‘guilt chest’ under his bed, and the emotional toll of having them discovered is played out in the anxious thoughts of his involuntary ‘Number 2 thinking’. Of course, he has a method for ‘dealing’ with those, which is simply to blast everyone with his ‘repeater gun’, which is to say lie to himself and imagine the troublesome people around him blotted out by his fantasies of Ambrosia.

One of the main subplots is the two women he is engaged to simultaneously and for whom he seems to have no real feeling. Of course, we discover he is only capable of façade since his true feelings are for the troubled Liz, who comes and goes from Stradhoughton and is never able to settle. This stumbling block seems to prevent him from creating meaningful relationships with anyone else (yes, it’s always the woman’s fault) to the point he literally asks her to live out his fantasy world with him. Yet it soon becomes clear she is trapped in her own fictional world.

As you’d expect, with each lie told, Billy builds an even heavier cross to bear and they inevitably come crashing down around him in the second half of the book. By the end, having stood up to his neglectful father, been laughed at by the entire town, been dumped by both his fiancés, having seen Liz for what she really is and having had his inner most thoughts overheard and jeered at, he finds it harder and harder to retreat into Ambrosia.

His Number 1 thinking no longer seems to work on the reader either. After discovering the depth, banality and indiscriminate nature of Billy’s lying, we question how seriously to take his supposed offer of work. So when (spoiler alert) he is at the train station choosing whether to stay or go to London, and ultimately decides against leaving, it’s clear it’s the triumph of the real world over his desire to kick against it.

But it’s hard to know whether the real world he is facing up to is that it’s his town and family which are central to his identity and which he’d better learn to live alongside, or whether it’s an acknowledgement of all the lies he’s been telling himself and that there is no future in London awaiting him, just more poverty. As he makes his way back home, he’s almost giddy, which forces you to question whether the triumphalism is another mask he assumes or whether it’s at having been reduced to his very core and survived.

While I enjoyed the book, the downsides for me were the stereotypical female characters (the manic pixie dream girl; the uptight prude; the tacky, wanton woman; and the hand-wringing housewife), but I’d probably expect no less from a book written in the 50s. Likewise for the occasional non-PC moment (see: drugging a frigid woman).

I also wasn’t really expecting this to be a wry look at the angry young man ‘genre’. It’s more of a depiction of a cringing loser than anti-hero you might imagine from the likes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Room at the Top. Still, I discovered that AYM/W fiction can be humorous while offering up serious reflection on the so-called ‘brain drain’ and that push/pull of socio-economic status and ambition which continues to affect working class towns.

Above all, the question it did leave me with was how many of us have a Billy Liar inside us? How many are imprisoned in our introspection, unable to connect meaningfully with what’s going on around us? That’s a rather unsettling question to be left with, but perhaps like Billy we’ll each encounter our crossroads that leads us to confront our own realities. Until then, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Number 1 thinking…