With a few stilettoed accessories

STREETS AHEAD: Life After City Lights by Keith Waterhouse, Hodder pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS is the story of a love affair, passionate, intense and committed. Just as City Lights, Keith Waterhouse's first volume of autobiography, was the story of a young boy's infatuation with the Leeds streets of his youth, this is an account of the first great love of his adult life - London, or, to be more accurate, Fleet Street. Journalists who now spend their days in silent Docklands buildings with men whose idea of indulgence is a white wine spritzer will read with delight of those far-off days when newspapers were manned by characters as colourful as the stories in their tabloid pages.

Fleet Street had a complicated set of tribal codes and behaviours which Waterhouse the anthropologist charts with wit and affection. Each pub had its followers; Mirrormen, for example, would not venture into bars patronised by Mail reporters or Telegraph writers, although some hostelries would welcome a Mirror feature writer but not a Mirror reporter.

Waterhouse, of course, was the Mirror writer par excellence, and his clear but vivid prose shows why he was so respected by readers and colleagues alike. His arrival in London coincided with that outpouring of confidence in post-war Britain, when thousands flocked to the Festival of Britain and northerners arrived by the trainload at Euston and King's Cross, ready to make their name in theatre, films and television. This was the first generation to benefit from the 1944 Education Act, and Waterhouse was there to chronicle the growing celebrity of stars like Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, or such writers as David Storey, Stan Barstow and of course Waterhouse himself.

For Waterhouse, with Willis Hall, created one of the enduring characters of that northern school, Billy Liar, and with him, one of the enduring moneyspinners of his life. Soon the young man from the back streets of Leeds was being chauffeur-driven around London, buying hand-made boots and running offices in Bond Street. Success followed success: writing for That Was the Week That Was, beginning his famous column in the Mirror, creating Budgie, contributing to The Frost Report and Not So Much a Programme, and eventually matching Billy Liar's success with that of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

This book makes it apparent why Waterhouse's great triumphs were a Yorkshire fantasist and a Soho drunk. They belong to the worlds he knows best, and he writes best about them. When he slips into lists of moneyspinners and rips to Hollywood, verve gives way to turgidness.

Nor is he inspiring about his family life. His long-suffering wife appears only briefly, dutifully packing her bags when told her husband has found a job in London, and equally dutifully moving without a murmur to the - for Waterhouse - unlikely domestic setting of Harlow New Town. Nor is his wife the only absentee; women merely hover at the edges of this life, as barmaids and stilettoed accessories, but rarely as people.

Waterhouse is in his element among the male society of the pubs of Fleet Street, actors' boltholes like the Salisbury Tavern and long-gone Soho clubs. This is a vibrant, loving account of a world to which even those unfamiliar with it might look back with nostalgia.

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