I’m Grim Up North
Lying reminiscences with Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar
by Roger Horberry

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

You know when people say it’s grim up north? They’re right. My advice to anxious urbanites thinking of relocation is think carefully. What do you value? Where will you find it? My problem is the people – tattooed, moustachioed nosebiters choking the Saturday streets and drinking themselves rabid on two for the price of one bottles of Bud Ice. The men are even worse. I exaggerate of course but take it from me, anyone with a metropolitan frame of mind (and using a phrase like that strongly suggests I fall into that category) will soon come up against the limitations of small town northern life.

An explanation is in order. If it’s so awful then why am I here? It began with my own escape to London, although I’ve no real memory of this momentous event. Looking back it seemed the obvious thing to do, but looking back is an unreli-able exercise. Nevertheless, one Saturday in September 1988 I must have gone south to start a new life in, er, Walthamstow. Perhaps it was because the Big Move was so inevitable that it didn’t warrant thought. Perhaps it was because all my friends were in London already and that anyone with a shred of ambition was heading south. Either way, I wasn’t acting on my own. I was following a script, one that had a profound effect on me when I first read it. Billy Liar was its name and this is the story of how it changed my life.

Six or seven years earlier I’d bought a copy of Billy Liar from a second-hand bookshop in Nottingham’s Victoria Centre market. I took it home, lay on my bed and read. In those pages I didn’t find a story, I found myself. It wasn’t a book, it was a mirror. I kept wanting to shout “yes, that’s exactly how I feel”. It was a revelation, an epiphany, a Big Bang whose faint echo I can still hear today.

First, some background. Billy Liar was written by Keith Waterhouse and published in 1959. It’s set in the fictional – but all too real – Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, located somewhere in West Yorkshire vaguely adjacent to the Dales. The action takes place over the course of a day (a Saturday in September please note). It begins with triumph in Billy’s dream world and ends with tragedy in the real world. It’s funny yet sad, light-hearted but serious. Anyone who’s ever experienced the dead hand of small town life – frustrated by the inward looking people around you, longing to escape but fearful of the consequences – will identify with Billy’s story.

It’s a beautifully written book. Rich imagery abounds. A character is described as having “grown old with quick experi-ence, like forced rhubarb”. A torn bench sprouts dirty foam lining “like brains”. Unable to give one of his hateful girl-friends a frank honest look, Billy settles for a “frank honest profile”. I think we’ve all been there.

For a main character Billy is sparsely drawn. We’re given little information about his appearance, although he clearly belongs to a world where young men went from short trousers to suits more or less overnight. We’re not told exactly how old he is, although references to time spent at technical college and his easy admittance to pubs would suggest Billy is eight-een or nineteen. Allusions to fashion and music locate the novel in the mid to late fifties, so quite how Billy avoided National Service isn’t clear. Instead Billy works for local undertakers Shadrack and Duxbury. Not surprisingly he dreams of escaping to London to write comedy, live in a Chelsea studio and dabble in bohemia.

So far, so entertaining, but it was the last chapter that really struck me. When Billy’s web of intrigue tears apart he makes a run for it, but at the last moment, train ticket to London in hand, he turns and heads home with rather more spring in his step than someone in that situation should feel entitled to. Was it the brave or the cowardly thing to do? Should we scorn or rejoice? Is Waterhouse saying we can never really escape, or simply wrapping up his tale up in the least predictable way he could find? I’m still not sure, but I remember being absolutely stunned when I first read it. I wanted to grab Billy by the collars and scream into his face “do it!”. That feeling never quite left me.

Naturally, I came to think of myself as a bit of a Billy, but with one important difference – the actual lying bit in Billy Liar isn’t really me. I’m a dreamer, but I’m not much of a liar. I lack guile. I am deficient in cunning. The moment an untruth has left my lips, those present can see through my pretence as though it were a particularly well-polished prism. Unlike Billy, whose practised deceit is the cause of some much trouble, I learned in childhood to tell the truth, not because it was morally right, but because I was so incredibly bad at the alter-native.

No, the reason Billy Liar hit home was my background. I was born and brought up in the north Notts badlands; despite this, Stradhoughton seemed frighteningly similar to the towns I knew – Mansfield, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, then later Ilkeston, Heanor, Eastwood. Dear God, even now their names cause me to quake. As an awkward ado-lescent more interested in books than beer these towns were a fine place to receive a kicking. Wherever we lived (and we moved often) I felt no connection with the place – a resident but never quite at home.

That wasn’t the only reason I identified with Billy. His bor-derline obsessive-compulsive behaviour, his ham-fisted efforts at self-improvement – that was pure me. Billy aches for modern, metropolitan parents, the sort who swear, drink mar-tinis and above all read – ungrateful as it sounds, me too. I remember visiting a friend’s parents’ house after starting college and being struck by the fact they had books. We had no such suspicious things at home. Billy Liar touched me so deeply because it captured the sense of small town ennui so perfectly. The claustrophobia, the boredom, the grey Sunday afternoon gloom that never seemed to brighten. My particu-lar small towns weren’t in Yorkshire, although culturally they were pure north (ask DH Lawrence or Alan Silitoe). Attitude, not postcode, is what counts.

Determined not to repeat Billy’s mistake (if that’s the right word) I moved to the brilliant incandescence of London. What a relief. Here was a place where anything seemed possi-ble, where difference – not similarity – was celebrated. I’d achieved the anonymity that Liz, Billy’s best-of-three girl-friend, so craves. She wants to be invisible, without having to explain everything all the time. Like Liz (a rather flat character in many ways) I wanted no ties, no expectations, and that’s exactly what I got.

Best of all it was so easy. Billy tortures himself with doubt about his ability to survive in the capital – his bowels “filled with quick flushing terror” at the thought – but I don’t remember any such hesitation (although having a support network of friends obviously helped enormously). He goes to the brink, suitcase in hand, but can’t bring himself to jump. Perhaps his connection to the north is too strong, perhaps he thinks too much (OK, he definitely thinks too much), perhaps he’s just too young, but whatever the reason he bottles it and slinks away in those closing pages. For me that’s the whole point of the book. Billy chafes against the limitations of his world just as I chafed against mine. However (and this is the important bit), his failure to act inspired me not to make the same mistake. I learnt from Billy. He showed me the way, even if he didn’t take it himself. Would I have jumped on that train to London in the final pages? Reader, I did.

And so it was that for thirteen years I lived a London life. I worked, married, bought a flat, had a child. Unwilling and unable to shell out an extra quarter of a million for another bedroom we did what any sane reader must judge absurd: we moved to bloody Yorkshire. You’d have thought, given all I’ve written, that I would have learned my lesson and chosen a soft, shandy-drinking southern hotspot like Brighton, Bath or somewhere else beginning with B. But no. I went north. Despite everything I knew (or thought I knew) about the place, I went back. Just like Billy.

By now you might be thinking, “You’re no better than he was. Billy couldn’t break away and neither could you. You spent a few wild years down south – so what? You came back”. Guilty as charged, only it’s not that clear cut. Like Billy, my feelings for Yorkshire are complex. For every plus there’s a minus – self-reliance vs. smug self-satisfaction, a strong sense of identity vs. knowing your place. And above it all, class. Billy’s mother captures this perfectly when she says, “we’re just ordinary folk”. Speak for yourself, love. Billy’s Yorkshire – like mine – produces some excellent qualities in its people, but the oft-heard assertion that it somehow represents “the real world” is nonsense. It’s no more or less real than anywhere else. The north is a frame of mind not everyone can share – Billy doesn’t and I couldn’t (still can’t). Billy rails against the “lying reminiscences” of the older generation and quite right too. Their ramblings recall an England that never was, a col-lective hallucination. It’s the supreme irony of Billy Liar that in the end (almost) all the other characters are shown up as liars, while Billy catches at least a glimpse of the truth.

How does this explain my return? It doesn’t, except to say I came to believe my own lying reminiscences and convinced myself that where I’d come from wasn’t that bad. Like most people, I’ve an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. I hoped the north had changed, I hoped I’d changed; but I was wrong on both counts. Half a decade later I’m getting used to the place, the same way a lifer gets used to prison, but is it home? Never. I’m as uncomfortable today as I was at sixteen, only now my options are more limited. None of which is Billy Liar’s fault. I loved this slight book as an angry young man stuck in the sticks wondering what to do with my life, and I still love it as a grumpy old man stuck in Yorkshire with dis-tinctly mixed feelings about the place. What Billy Liar really did all those years ago was give me courage. Billy gave me per-mission to believe I didn’t have be a younger version of my dad (not that Horberry Snr ever seemed too keen on that hap-pening). Billy’s failure to act became my go ahead to do so, a neat theory only slightly ruined by my return and subsequent ambivalence. I need to read it again.

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