Invisible Ink: No 138 - Keith Waterhouse

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The Independent Culture

'A novel from the author of several previous books," said the Amazon logline about Jubb, one of Keith Waterhouse's astonishing black comedies. Was there ever a less appealing sentence?

I'm not sure I want to live in a world where Waterhouse is out of print, but disappearing he is, just three years after his demise, with several marvellous novels now only available from secondhand shelves.

We begin in West Yorkshire, 1929, moving, after a stint in the RAF, to London's satire scene, where Waterhouse wrote for That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report television shows. He penned a screenplay for Whistle Down The Wind and rewrites for Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, and books for a number of doomed musicals, including one featuring Andy Capp (I recall they released racing pigeons in the auditorium that crapped on everyone), but it was his 1959 novel Billy Liar that truly put him on the map. Playing like a northern English version of Catcher In The Rye, it's the bleakly comic tale of an imaginative 19-year-old who must decide whether to risk all on a career in London or remain at home, a constrained fish in a very small pond. Lying to his girlfriends, his family and his boss, fantasist Billy's dark night of the soul takes on a resonance that remains pertinent today, and the ending resonates into tragedy. Waterhouse transformed it into an award-winning film directed by John Schlesinger, with a debut by the radiantly youthful Julie Christie. It was followed by a hit TV series and a musical version starring Michael Crawford, with songs from John Barry.

After a negligible sequel there were other joyous novels, including the workplace satire Office Life, in which a handful of befuddled employees try to understand what their company does, and Maggie Muggins, the story of a down-at-heel London lady reaching the end of her tether over a single day.

An old-school Fleet Street journalist who believed in good grammar and correct spelling, Waterhouse created the definitive manual on newspaper style. His nostalgie de la boue extended to mythologising Soho and its denizens, especially the alcoholic columnist Jeffrey Bernard, whom he immortalised in the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, featuring a stellar performance by Peter O'Toole as the acerbic hack who gets locked in the Coach & Horses public house overnight. Waterhouse was incorrectly dismissed as a nostalgist by critics; his sparkling, evocative prose deserves far better.