Monday, June 29, 2015

Revisiting Keith Waterhouse

Today, I finally laid my hands on a copy of a book that was very important to me when I was growing up-- Mondays, Thursdays, a collection of newspaper columns by Keith Waterhouse. Keith Waterhouse was a British journalist, novelist, and playwright-- one could almost say (if you ignore subject matter) that he was G.K. Chesterton in a minor key. Both were Fleet Street legends. (For the sake of my American readers, and in case you don't already know, Fleet Street is a London street much associated with journalism-- I'm not sure if any journalism goes on there anymore.)

Keith Waterhouse died a few years ago. He was successfully writing up to the end. Here is his obituary.

Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar was also one of the important books of my youth. Billy Liar gave rise to a very successful (and excellent) movie and a less successful TV series. It is certainly more storied than the obscure Mondays, Thursdays.

I can't remember how old I was when I fell under the spell of Mondays, Thursdays. I might have been pre-teen. I might have been a teen. I might have been a mid-teen. I don't think I was a late teen. My memories of childhood and my teens are very hazy.

It was published in 1976 and this was a great part of its appeal to me. I am both an anglophile and a seventies-phile. England in the seventies, obviously, has a double charm for me. Fawlty Towers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Hammer horrors, beer-and-sandwiches trade unionists, good old-fashioned High Tories whose monocles would have dropped out at the idea of two men marrying, tea-ladies pushing cake-trolleys through rather paternalistic oak-panelled offices, The Two Ronnies, Carry Ons, endless jokes about British Rail sandwiches....seventies England seems to me like the moment in English history when modernisation and tradition retained a rough equilibrium. And over the whole strike-ridden decade there hangs the kind of paralysis that has the pleasant languour of a long summer's evening.

Of course, nothing ever seems like that from the inside, and Keith Waterhouse bemoans the pace of modernisation, bureaucratisation, sexualisation of teens, and change in general in Mondays, Thursdays-- while still finding time to make that eternal English lament, the resilience of snobbery and the class system.

 I revisited the book out of nostalgia, which is rather appopriate since nostalgia is Keith Waterhouse's great stock-in-trade. In Mondays, Thursdays he laments: the passing of a gas-light lamp in the neighbourhood of his upbringing, the disappearance of trams, the wireless, Mickey Mouse movies, cigarette cards, meadows, teenage sexual innocence, door-to-door traders, Christmas stockings, and many other things. He is, however, self-conscious in his nostalgia. In an article about his fortieth birthday, he admits: "One thing that I was never going to do and that was bore the bell-bottoms off the younger set about the good old days."

Despite his nostalgia, he is distinctly left-wing. He mentions voting Co-Op Labour. One article in favour of sex education describes the garbled sex education he received from a class-mate. In one article, he admits to being a life-long republican. In another article, he laments the 544 abortions performed on girls under sixteen in the last three months of 1970, but adds: "Better than pushing 544 prams to school, I suppose, but still gloomy tidings." Except, of course, it's not better. One of the most powerful articles is an indictment of lingering social snobbery in England, whereby everything associated with the working class is seen as either funny and vulgar or both.

Most of the articles, however, are lighter in tone.

Some of them have stuck in my head for years. There is the description of the Button Fairs he attended in his childhood-- improvised kids' carnivals which ran on the currency of trouser buttons, jacket buttons and overcoat buttons. ("The real interest, while the craze lasted, was in the miniature reproduction of the capitalist system that we created, right down to the last detail".) There was the article describing a Scrabble addiction that he developed, while supposedly collaborating on a play with his friend Willis Hall. (I especially remembered the line: "You stare at the typewriter and the keys seem to arrange themselves into obsure words." I remember something similar in my school days, when I was playing a lot of chess and I would find myself mentally moving my class-mates from desk to desk, as though they were pawns and bishops.) There was the unusually grim article about the possible development of life on Mars, in which he counsels a Martian mollusc venturing out of a pond to stay within it, given the history of life on Earth. There was his encounter with a graffiti artist on the London Underground, where he suggests to the graffiti artist all the things he could be doing rather than creating vandalism, and the graffiti artist responds: "There are homes for people like you." (But I didn't remember the graffitus the vandal was writing out, which was Exterminate all Catholics.)

There were other articles I remembered less clearly, and even some I didn't remember at all.

So, how did my rediscovery of this important book of my youth go? Is it true that you should never go back?

I don't think so. It's true that Mondays, Thursdays was not quite as spiffin
g as I remember it, but I feel a strange kind of relief in that. I have moved on to better things. I said Waterhouse was a Chesterton in a minor key; but even that is flattering to Waterhouse. The happy truth is that the writers I have discovered in my thirties are much better (and deeper) than the writers I loved in my childhood. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Peter Hitchens and all my favourites of today are much more worthy of attention than Walter Macken, J.P. Donleavy, and Keith Waterhouse.

(This is not the case in poetry. I discovered poetry in my teens. By my early twenties, I had read all of what I consider the best poetry in the English language. There isn't all that much of it, at that. The first poet I fell in love with was W.B. Yeats, and he remains the greatest in my opinion. It's something of a sadness to me that I don't expect to discover any more great poetry-- not the very best stuff. It's rather nicer to progress from the lesser to the greater.)

Not only that, but I've come to realise that there are nobler and cleaner and deeper things in the world than anything that engaged Waterhouse's pen; my mental and spiritual world has grown. Admittedly Waterhouse was writing light journalism. But the very England for which he grows nostalgic-- the England of the Second World War and after-- was already quite a seedy, secularised, uprooted society.

There is barely a mention of religion in Mondays, Thursdays. One article on Christmas carols nostalgically recalls the carols the young Waterhouse and his friends would sing: "While shepherds watched their turnip tops, A-boiling in the pot, An Angel of the Lord came down and scoffed the bloody lot." Funny, maybe, but kind of squalid as well. Where is the magic?

In another nostalgic article, he writes: "When teenagers really were called teenagers it was considered the fashion to carry a contraceptive in your wallet; the only difference between then and now being that it never got used." Try as I might, I can't find anything quaint about teenage boys carrying condoms, whether they use them or not.

In the article on the wireless, he writes: "Remembering how we all used to sit with our ears glued to the wireless night after night, I marvel that any of us have the nerve to castigate our children for their obsession with the telly. The wireless was ten times more addictive." Popular culture, mass media and technological entertainments have been a part of our lives so long that there is no living memory of a time before them. This, to me, is sobering.

Most of all, Keith Waterhouse didn't seem to have any definite belief system. He thought decimalisation and bureaucracy and the loss of childhood innocence were bad-- but what did he think was good? What did he think life was all about, at bottom? There is no indication that he had any such foundational beliefs. And I find it hard, at this stage of my life, to take any writer or thinker who lacks such a foundation seriously. I want doctrinaires.

In all, my revisiting of Mondays, Thursday was ideal-- nostalgia was both gratified and disarmed. The world doesn't have to become a smaller or duller place as we grow older. The world has better things in store than we anticipated, and Byron's gloomy line-- "There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away"-- is not necessarily true. That, to me, is a highly desirable state of affairs.

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