Why Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar remains the quintessential Leeds novel six decades on: Anthony Clavane

Actor and star of 'Billy Liar', Albert Finney relaxes in a theatre dressing room.   (Photo by John Pratt/Getty Images)
Actor and star of 'Billy Liar', Albert Finney relaxes in a theatre dressing room. (Photo by John Pratt/Getty Images)
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There’s something very poetic about railway stations. This is why they are constantly depicted in poems, songs, plays, films, musicals and paintings.

And novels. This thought occurred to me last weekend as I arrived at, and a day later departed from, Leeds city station.

Playwright Keith Waterhouse pictured in 2003. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire

Playwright Keith Waterhouse pictured in 2003. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire

When I think of this location, Keith Waterhouse’s masterpiece Billy Liar springs to mind. Written just over 50 years ago, it is a classic Leeds novel, encapsulating the tension between the city’s aspiration and fatalism, its high ambition and failure of nerve, its dedication to upsetting the odds and its acceptance that those odds are too heavily stacked against its defiant-but-ultimately-stoical citizens.

Waterhouse’s depiction of a charmingly delusional Leeds lad, lost in his Walter Mitty fantasies – dreaming of escaping to London to become a comedy writer – is shot through with these contradictions.

Next month, when I return to my home city to unveil a special blue plaque to the legendary writer, I will be reflecting on these paradoxes in a Leeds Lit Festival talk.

The first contradiction is that the plaque will be installed at Hunslet Library. I’m pretty sure the former Osmondthorpe secondary modern schoolboy rarely, if ever, went into that building.

The second contradiction is that, despite being born in 1929 into a humble back-to-back in South Leeds, he is not really known to the literary world as a Loiner. And, because John Schlesinger’s famous 1963 movie of Billy Liar was mainly filmed in Bradford – and London – devotees have, over the past five decades, tended to ignore its roots in Leeds.

The third contradiction is that, whilst desperately nostalgic for the old Leeds, he was also desperate, like his protagonist Billy Fisher, to get on the train and broaden his horizons.

In the film’s famous denouement Billy leaves the train – and the freewheeling Julie Christie – to return to the platform at Leeds Station (although this heartbreaking scene is actually shot at Marylebone). He then fantasises about being the ruler of a made-up world called Ambrosia, commanding a vast army.

In real life, after a short spell as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, Waterhouse actually got on the train to London to begin a celebrated career which was to last more than 60 years. There is no record of any liaison with Ms Christie.

I remember reading his wry, waspish Daily Mirror columns, every Tuesday and Thursday, in the 1970s and 80s.

This was peak Waterhouse. Like Billy Fisher, he was forever being diverted into elegant flights of fancy, retreating into a bizarre and hilarious world of his own.

One of these worlds was dominated by the Clogthorpe District Council’s Ways & Means Committee, in which he parodied the self-important, bureaucratic and jargon-ridden parallel universe of local government.

Reading about Leeds City Council’s planned revamp of its iconic station entrance immediately revived memories of those Clogthorpe columns. I particularly liked the planners’ reference to a “multi-modal transport interchange”. You can imagine Our Keith having a lot of fun with that.

And yet there is also something rather wonderful about these plans. “Enhanced pedestrian and cycle friendly routes.” What’s not to love? “Sweeping steps.” Yes please. “Generously-sized lifts.” You betcha.

Looking at the drawings, I feel the kind of excitement which stirred Waterhouse when he visited the purring escalators, bronze lifts and American soda fountain at Lewis’s in the 1930s. “It was in my estimation,” he noted in one of his beautifully-written memoirs, “the most modern building on the face of the Earth. Everything about it dazzled with streamlined up-to-dateness.”

Whatever changes are made to the station it will remain, as it was in Waterhouse’s day, a place of comers and goers, appearances and disappearances, arrivals and departures. Just like the city itself.

Every time I return there I see the ghosts of Waterhouse and that remarkable cohort of upwardly-mobile, Leeds writers who made it in the 1960s.

Truculently rebellious in spirit, they were part of a new, working-class generation that wasn’t going to be kept in its place. As the Paul Simon song goes, they were sitting in a multi-modal transport interchange – sorry, railway station – with a ticket to their destinations.

And they held their nerve.