Nature and Identity in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Billy Liar was written in 1959 by Keith Waterhouse. It charts a turning point in the life of an intelligent and frustrated Yorkshire teenager, old enough to work but trapped by lack of financial security and his own fears in his terrifyingly dull hometown, the fictional Stradhoughton in Yorkshire. Although it seems unlikely, there are a number of interesting points of similarity between Billy Liar and Gaskell’s North and South of a hundred years earlier. Although the first is a comic novel of fairly modern times, and the latter a serious literary work and a classic of Victorian literature, they are both firmly rooted in the respective authors’ experiences of Northern life, and the protagonists of both return, with greater or lesser grace, from dreams to reality.
Novels of Northern England
This article is one of four essays discussing nature and the Industrial Revolution in the novels of Northern England. To go to the other articles, click on the name of the work below.
North and South - a classic Victorian novel of Industrialised Manchester in the 19th Century by Elizabeth Gaskell.
The Road to Wigan Pier and The Conditions of the Working Class - statistical and documentary-style polemics on the ills of the Industrial age from George Orwell and Friedrich Engels.
An Overview of Northern England and the Industrial Revolution and its Literature - a brief essay on the main points of the changing landscape of industrialising Northern England, and the effects on Literature.
The Threat of Poverty and Starvation in ‘Billy Liar’
Like Margaret, the protagonist of North and South, Billy Fisher in Billy Liar is ambivalent about nature and the countryside. Margaret, initially caught up with the connotations of her country-born childhood, comes to see that life must be lived in the towns; Billy is both drawn to and repulsed by his Yorkshire life. He dreams in an alarming fashion of fame and fortune in what seems to him the almost magical city of London, but he has his greatest moment of epiphany on the wild Yorkshire moors with Councillor Duxbury, who represents 'old' Yorkshire and past generations of industrialists and mill owners.
In relative fashion, taking account of the social progress of the intervening century, Billy is close in terms of class and status to Bessy Higgins, the factory girl in North and South. Unlike Bessy, he does have several opportunities in his life, and he is perhaps over-endowed with a knack for articulation, which Bessy largely lacks. But although he is presented with an opportunity to go to London – a city he dreams of moving to – he rejects this in the end. For financial reasons, it is a dangerous opportunity to accept,
‘The idea of being in London next Saturday…filled my bowels with quick-flushing terror. […] the idea of actually starving on the embankment suddenly presented itself to me…there I was, feeling for the actual pangs of hunger and counting the hot pennies in my pocket’ (Billy Liar, pp. 29-30).
Money and the possibility of starvation exist as much to Billy Fisher as to the characters in Gaskell’s novels over a century before, if not in the same immediate sense, then at least in acting as a threat solid enough to bar him from exploring the tentative offer presented by the London-based character, Boon, in the novel. Billy is trapped in Stradhoughton as much as Bessy is trapped in Milton. The Industrial Revolution seemed to open up the world, and masses of people moved from rural to urban centres, but the reality for most was that there was little real choice and although transportation was suddenly better, faster and widespread, few could take advantage of the opportunities it seemed to offer, and most were (and still are) hemmed in to their home town by the threat of poverty and homelessnes.
The Familiar and ‘Home’ in ‘Billy Liar’
But there are also myriad reasons of family, familiarity, and home to consider. Billy, near the end of the novel, with his ticket to London bought, pleads with his friend Liz to go with him. ‘Please,’ he responds to her flat refusal, and then, when she says, ‘I won’t live with you, Billy,’ he presses her, ‘Come anyway…Live next door,’ (Billy Liar, p.184). From this exchange we might gather that Billy’s motives are not to woo Liz, which we might previously have suspected, but are a desperate attempt to take a piece of the familiar with him in the shape of his friend.
Financial concerns are pressing, as shown early on in the novel when he omits to post the marketing calendars of his employer ‘in order to get at the postage money, which I had kept for myself,’ (Billy Liar, p.17), and in the face of his impending decision of whether to go to London, these concerns grow frantic as he calculates for how long he can survive on the money he has,
‘Seven pounds…get a room for thirty bob a week, call it three weeks, three quid left, half a crown a day, egg and chips one and threepence, cup of tea threepence, bus fares a tanner,’ (Billy Liar, p.186).
But interspersed with such calculations are his fantasies of ‘Ambrosia’ – an idealised world he escapes to in his daydreams - as well as thoughts of his mother, visions of Liz in the ‘Chelsea attic’ he dreams of, and of Rita, another of his girlfriends, ‘whoring it in the streets outside,’ and scattered biblical phrases. Reality and fantasy live side by side in Billy’s mind, together with snatches of things he has learned during what we can assume was a minimal state education, and what he thinks of as his own brilliant wit, which is perhaps closer to that of the mundane people he lives with than of any sparkling genius. And as he grows up a little when reality becomes ever more pressing, and his dreams become harder to sustain, he starts to realise that London and all its connotations are perhaps forever out of his reach, and although he does not accept his life and family gracefully, accept them he does from the fear that his poverty truly will leave him alone and even dead on a city embankment.
A Dark Satanic Mill and a Not So Dark or Satanic Coffee Shop
Billy Fisher’s Lack of Identity and the Anonymity of the City
Throughout the novel, Billy is lost for an identity, ‘I tried hard to shut it down and find myself, myself, but not knowing what to do for characteristics,’ he muses, casting about for a personality that will get him through one of his excruciating moments of embarrassment and frustration (Billy Liar, p.186). This last phrase quoted is part of a theme that runs through the novel, as his lies and the different personas he tries out overwhelm him as he is torn between the possibility of a glittering life as a successful writer in London and the prospect of remaining in small-town Yorkshire forever. One of the key moments in the novel that sheds light on his final rejection of the metropolis, and which is bound up with Billy’s search for himself and his brief escape to nature, is the epiphany and brief serenity he finds on the moors with Councillor Duxbury.
In his dreams of escape to London, he voices the sentiment that, ‘”London is a big place, Mr Shadrack, […] A man can lose himself in London,”’ (Billy Liar, p.67) and near the end, his fantasies dissolving, he thinks what it would mean to move from his office job in Stradhoughton to an office job in London, ‘[B]y myself, by myself. No Stamps, no Shadracks,’ (Billy Liar, p.176). The anonymous solitude of the city is important to him because Billy wears so many social masks. On the moors, though, he very briefly feels genuine emotion and true peace for the first and only time in the novel. Like Margaret Hale and her father in North and South, Billy’s foray into nature is tinted with nostalgia, but his is a rather more complex variety, since he longs for a past he has never experienced, and with councillor Duxbury he gains a perspective that his social masks have thus far blinded him to. For although he mocks Duxbury’s accent with his colleague, inventing Yorkshire-sounding words and speaking with a dying accent, Billy also betrays a certain longing for a Yorkshire past, lamenting the decline of end-terraced pubs and the companionship and community they offered, and the rise of the new square brick-built pub set in an unappealing car-park. His recurring unfinished joke, ‘I don’t mind the satanic mills, but when it comes to satanic coffee shops…’ rather betrays a resentment of commercialism and a certain type of modernity and progress that eschews tradition, albeit a tradition of smoke and industry and pollution of the Industrial Revolution.
Billy’s Epiphany on the Yorkshire Moors with Councillor Duxbury
That his epiphany occurs on the moors is important, in that he is separated from society here and subject only to Duxbury’s down-to-earth observations. Thus far Billy has been subject to the hierarchy of his community – he is better than them in his own eyes, and acts with frustration and display accordingly. But alone on the Moors – for Duxbury acts as a mirror to Billy, rather than an audience – Billy sees himself unadorned by the competition of society, and begins to find his real identity. This is something of what he expects and hopes for from London, where he will essentially have no preconceived masks because he will be surrounded by strangers who have no preconceived ideas of him. But on the moors the introspection and distancing are magnified because whereas in his fantasies of London he has already begun to form in his mind who and what he will be there, on the moors he is no one. If nature is an escape for Margaret in North and South into an idyllic childhood before the troubles and grief of her adult life in Milton set in, then for Billy Fisher it is a solitude that allows him to be only himself.
But as with other characters of Northern Industrial and post-Industrial novels, Billy realises that nature is only a temporary reprieve, and that the past can never be regained. Billy Fisher comes off the moors, having realised that his lies and masks are useless and shameful, only to reprise them all and suffer their consequences one excruciating Saturday night, because his life is still among these people with whom he cannot fit in, and to bear all these old problems he must resurrect all the defences he dropped on the moors. Billy might be ready for his epiphany, but the circumstances of his life are not yet ready to support the realisation of it.
Page references are to the following edition of the text:
Waterhouse, K. Billy Liar (London: Penguin, 1988)