Saturday 5 September 2009

Keith Waterhouse

I’m sorry that Keith Waterhouse has died. He was a notable journalist, and achieved success as a playwright, television writer and film screenplay writer. But for me, his finest work was Billy Liar, a novel I read when I was about the same age as Billy, and which I thought was absolutely wonderful. I thought I’d never read anything that seemed to have so much wit combined with poignancy. The book was filmed with Julie Christie, as well as Tom Courtenay, and as I was a great Julie Christie fan, that served to cement in my mind the idea that Billy Liar was a masterpiece.

I enjoyed Waterhouse’s other early novels, There is a Happy Land and Jubb, but after a brilliant start, Office Life rather disappointed me. So did his belated sequel to Billy Liar. Billy Liar on the Moon isn’t a bad book by any means, but somehow it lacks the zest of the early novel, and my feeling was that Waterhouse ran out of steam as a novelist after a brilliant start. In his later years at least he seemed more at home with the sprint of the regular newspaper column than with the marathon effort of a novel.

My mum loved his memoir, City Lights, especially because it turned out that he’d attended a school in Yorkshire where she’d taught. Whether she actually taught him, she couldn’t recall, but if she did, it might explain his fanatical enthusiasm for accurate punctuation. She wrote to him some years ago, but no answer came.

Keith Waterhouse didn’t get into crime writing, and I don’t’ know whether he was a big fan of the genre. But he did revive for television in the 80s Charters and Caldecott, those cricket-loving characters who first appeared in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The pair were, as I recall, frustrated in their efforts to watch a Test Match at Old Trafford by a complete wash-out. Just like me, earlier this week, when the 20Twenty match in Manchester was abandoned without a ball bowled.


Nik Morton said...

I too was saddened to learn that Keith Waterhouse died. He’d been ‘unwell’ for some time, doubtless emulating his friend Jeffrey Bernard… He was one of my writing idols. Waterhouse came from humble beginnings in Leeds but had the gift of words laced with humour. He was a great advocate for protecting the apostrophe from Philistines, ignoramuses and lazy officialdom, long before Lynne Truss adopted his standard.

Many years ago, I used to buy the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. They gave me two politically biased views of the world where news was concerned, so I could more or less work out that reality was perhaps somewhere in between. But I liked the Mirror for two special reasons: it contained the strip cartoon ‘The Perishers’ and at the time a Keith Waterhouse column. Later, Waterhouse moved to the Mail.

He was a consummate puncturer of pomposity. I have many of his books. My two favourites are Waterhouse at Large, being samples of his columns from the Mirror, the Times and the Observer, and English, Our English (and how to sing it). Anyone who appreciates the written word will find joy in these books. He was prolific and versatile. It doesn’t matter which of his books you pick up – whether on Travel, Lunch or Newspaper Style, you’ll enjoy them at several levels.

In his later years, his facial features seemed to fit what many of his pieces may have been considered to be: curmudgeonly. He was inventive, funny and generous of nature. A great wordsmith has gone, but his words linger on.

He was known to drink champagne every day – he didn’t drive at all. So, to toast his memory tonight I shall open a bottle of Cava.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Nik. Newspaper Style is a good one that I read long ago, and it had slipped my memory. Drinking champagne every day - quite a feat!