Keith Waterhouse, titan of Fleet Street, falls silent aged 80

Veteran playwright, author and columnist dies quietly in his sleep

Keith Waterhouse, the journalist, novelist and dramatist whose mastery of the written word and wisdom gathered over 50 years on Fleet Street made him one of the most acclaimed chroniclers of the late 20th century, has died. He was 80.

The Yorkshireman with a creative zeal famously matched only by his ability to withstand the rigours of a long Soho lunch died "quietly in his sleep" at his west London home yesterday morning.

It was only in May this year that he gave up his Daily Mail column, published twice a week for almost a quarter of a century after being tapped out on his Adler typewriter. He had recently put the finishing touches to a play about the dying days of Fleet Street as the centre of the British newspaper industry.

A career which produced more than 2,000 newspaper columns and 60 books, including 16 novels and many plays, films and television scripts, will be most widely remembered for Billy Liar, his 1959 tale of an undertaker's clerk whose Walter Mitty-like fantasies of life as a big city comedy writer allow him to escape the painful monotony of life in a post-war Yorkshire town.

The wildly successful novel, which funded his acquisition of properties in London and Brighton as well as being made into a film starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, had to be re-started by Waterhouse after he left the first 10,000 words in a taxi. Recalling the incident, he said: "The best that happened to me – it was pretentious twaddle."

The writer once predicted a quick end to a life of prodigious literary and journalistic output, saying: "I don't want to expire with a load of tubes up my nose." He had recently suffered from ill health and was being nursed by his second wife, Stella Bingham.

Richard Ingrams, editor of The Oldie, who wrote on That Was the Week That Was with Waterhouse, said: "The abiding memory of Keith will be that he wrote so much and so well. His newspaper columns kept up his impressive standard right to the very end. Billy Liar will continue to be read for generations to come."

A life which saw Waterhouse garlanded by the journalistic profession and his name in lights outside West End theatres, filled for plays that included Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell – his lauded distillation of the exertions of his legendary drinking companion – began in humble circumstances in inner-city Leeds. He was the youngest of five children.

Waterhouse's father, a street-seller and heavy drinker who described himself on his marriage certificate as a master grocer, died when he was three. The resulting inheritance consisted of one suit and a halfpenny.

After leaving school at 14 with no qualifications, Waterhouse sampled work with a firm of estate agents and in a funeral parlour before landing a job with the Yorkshire Post, where he could at last exercise his desire to write.

An ambition to join the eccentric elite of Fleet Street was realised in 1951 when he joined the Daily Mirror, reporting from America, Russia and Cyprus. His talent for a crafted sentence and incisive phrase was spotted early on and he was deployed to draft articles and speeches for the Labour leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson.

In later life, his left-wing politics were replaced by an impatience with many of the accoutrements of modern life, in particular political correctness.

Described variously as "difficult" or "occasionally grumpy", Waterhouse was nonetheless widely recognised as a brilliant raconteur who wore his fame lightly. Paul Callan, the diarist and veteran Fleet Street reporter, who worked with Waterhouse on The Mirror, said: "He always thought of himself very much as a journalist. He had no time for taking on airs and graces. He was a private man who expressed himself through his words. You would read one of his sentences, so pared down and clear, and think, 'How on earth did he do that?' "

A renowned stickler for correct yet stylish use of language, subsequent generations of journalists have been taught to regard his Waterhouse On Newspaper Style as a classic of the genre.

Above all, he was a writer who used his experiences to inform his work. He was once mugged after giving an after-dinner speech in Coventry. "On the way back to the hotel I was set upon by these two men who relieved me of my wallet and seemed intent on causing me some physical damage," he recalled. "Even as they were running away, I was composing the first two paragraphs in me head."

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