Let's face it, Christmas gifts are often not very good. People try their best, but very often a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a vague awareness that somebody likes hororr movies (exempli gratia) might lead somebody to gift a discerning horror fan with a DVD of the latest semi-pornographic slasher flick.
This year, however, I got some extraordinarily good Christmas gifts. One was City Lights and Streets Ahead, two Keith Waterhouse memoirs in one volume. I've written about Keith Waterhouse here and here.
I thoroughly enjoyed Waterhouse's account of his upbringing in Leeds, and his early efforts at writing and becoming a journalist. However, when he does become successful (and he became hugely successful at a young age, not oly as a journalist but also as a novelist, dramatist and screenwriter), the book becomes rather dull-- for my taste, at least.
While I find reminiscences of the streets, markets and daily life of Leeds to be fascinating, I find stories from the clubland of London-- Peter O'Toole's hellraising, champagne in hotel lobbies, the anecdotes of squalid afternoon drinking clubs full of bohemians, the quirks of legendary newspaper editors-- to be both tiresome and distasteful. I think I am irredeemably square. Glamour and glitz bores and irritates me.
However, his accounts of his actual writing life (both on his own and with his writing partner Willis Hall) never fail to fascinate me.
When, as a child, I read a collection of Waterhouse's newspaper journalism, I relished the persona he projected in them-- a solid, rather provincial family man. That was the life, I thought-- bashing away on the typewriter in working hours, a pattern of family picnics, board games, old-fashioend pubs, and browsing in second hand bookshops the rest of the time. (As a matter of fact, his first wife divorced him because of the amount of time he spent at his work, and he admits he saw more of his children after the divorce than before it.)
I think this rather innocent subterfuge was deliberate on Waterhouses's part. I once read a set of guidelines he wrote for newspaper columnists, one of which ran a litlte like this: "If you write about your daughter's scholarship to Cambridge, you will only succeed in irritating all the parents whose daughters didn't get a scholarship to Cambridge."
What prompted me to write this post was this anecdote in which Waterhouse writes about a teenage girlfriend who turned up when his film, Billy Liar, featured a character loosely based on her:
The character of Liz was based very loosely on a teenage girlfriend back in my Leeds days, who had abruptly vanished after I had become engaged to Joan. I heard she had gone to Canada. Thirty-five years then elapsed. One evening I was sitting at home watching television when there was a ring at the doorbell. There on the threshold stood a middle-aged, matronly figure whom, the years rolling back, I could just recognise as 'Liz'. I invited her in and gave her a drink and asked where she had been all these years. "Oh, round and about" said 'Liz', quoting a line used by the fictional Liz. It turned out that she had indeed gone to Canada and then had spent a good many years drifting about Europe, teaching English. But it also turned out that she seemed to identify herself totally with the made-up Liz of Bily Liar, that she imagined I was Billy and she was Liz, and that inside her plump frame was a Julie Christine [the actress who played Liz] trying to get out.
Why she had after all these years decided to descend upon me out of the blue she did not explain. She said she had read that I was now divorced, as she was herself, but that seemed pretty thin-- her source for this information was Who's Who, and her only pupose in looking me up in the first place must have been to find out my address. My belief is that she had arrived at some crisis point in her life and this seemed to her a way of dealing with it. At any rate, after that strange evening, 'Liz' kept on turning up in my life. I would be giving a talk in the City University when I would recognise her sitting in the middle of the audience, like some figure in a Charles Addams cartoon. I would be signing books at a literary fetival and there she would be in the queue of purchasers. I would be catching my weekend train to Brighton and there on Victoria Station she would be not so palely loitering. And then, after a few weeks of this, again she vanished, as abruptly as she had arrived. I toyed with turning my encounter with 'Liz' into a short story, but then I decided that if I delved into her motivations closely it would prove too sad to write.
Not only would that story seem too sad to write, but it seems strange to me that Waterhouse would include an anecdote like this in his memoirs. What are the chances 'Liz' read this book? How did she feel if she did? It seems uncharitable, unchivalrous, and cruel to me.
Still, it's a fascinating book, and provokes many thoughts. I may write more about in the future. These days, Waterhouse's writing fascinates me as much for what is missing from it as for what is there. Although I am a lifelong anglophile, it really seems to me as though something died in the English soul after the Second World War (though it took several decades to decompose). Perhaps I should call it the urge for the sublime, or the transcendental.
One section in Waterhouse's memoirs concerns his efforts, as a teenager, to meet girls and sleep with them. To this end, he became a member of a whole succession of religious congregations, as well as attending meetings of various political factions (spanning the entire ideological spectrum). Of course, virtually all adolescent males have an overpowering interest in girls, although the conscious desire to seduce them seems to be more widespread in some periods than in others-- and the post-war period seems to have been one of those. But what really intrigues me is not the young Waterhouse's carnal urges, which are not at all strange, but the apparent absence of any flash of idealism, sparked by his time amongst Methodists and socialists and Congregationatlists. Mind you, he was idealistic in his own way-- he left the Daily Mirror when Robert Maxwell took over, despite Maxwell's determined efforts to keep him-- but it was a subdued, disillusioned kind of idealism.
Where did it go, the visionary gleam? Why did the very strong tradition of 'non-conformist' English Christianity, with its corregated-iron-roofed chapels, its hymns, and its temperance drives, seem to disappear overnight? What happened to the dreams of Merrie England dreamed by William Morris and his disciples? When did Albion disappear into the UK? This question fascinates me, and I have no answer to it.