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The 1963 film Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay, has long been one of my favourites. There was also a TV series in the seventies of which I have fond memories. Yet for some reason I've never got round to reading the original novel. My loss. Billy Fisher is a teenager from a dull working class family in Stradhoughton, a dull working class Northern town. He lives with his family and works as a clerk in the local undertakers. Like many people, he finds solace in fantasy and escapes from his dreary life in to daydreams. Billy's daydreams are on a rather grander scale than most and he has developed a whole country called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia he can - depending on his mood - be the world's greatest lover, single-handedly save the country from invasion or have his entire family beheaded. Unfortunately Billy is unable to keep his imagination in check. He lies almost instinctively, making up stories and presenting them as fact. He's lied about so much for so long that he is very good at it. He is engaged to two girls simultaneously, neither of whom he actually likes, and contrives to share one engagement ring between them. He has also told each of them different stories about his family, something he regrets when one of them is invited to tea. Then there is Liz, the girl he really cares for and to whom he is not engaged. Liz is an independent young woman who escaped from the town's clutches years ago and now comes and goes as she sees fit. Billy's one genuine ambition is to become a comedy scriptwriter. He sends some gags to Danny Boon, an established comic. Boon writes back saying that he can use some of them and will buy them. Billy immediately exaggerates the significance of this and quickly comes to believe that Boon has offered him a job in London. Convinced that he has a show business job waiting in London, Billy plans to leave town. He resigns from his job and this precipitates the slow, agonising
collapse of the house of cards he has built with his lies. The return of Liz with her freewheeling life-style makes things worse, then everything is put in to perspective by a family problem. Billy has to decide between committing to Liz, running away to London or staying with his family and facing his problems. Billy Liar is a classic example of "bitter sweet comedy": funny without being laugh-out-loud and touching without being saccharine. It's a light, easy read and at fewer than two hundred pages it won't take you long to finish. Given that this was first published way back in 1959, you'd expect it to be dated. In fact, it has lasted very well. Yes, there are cultural references that anchor it in time, especially sexual mores. The England of Billy Liar no longer exists, yet the same human problems remain. The basic themes and story of Billy Liar are still relevant. It's all about adolescence, rebellion and - just possibly - growing up. ISBN: 0-14-001783-6
I invite you to enter the kingdom of Ambrosia - a fantasy land invented by it's beloved President: Billy Fisher, in order to escape from the boring Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton in the 1950's. Billy is a compulsive liar - no, that's too harsh, he's a compulsive fantasist. Not so much an angry young man, as a feckless one. (I can't help wondering, what does 'feckless' mean in Ireland?) The book chronicles the events of one fateful Saturday during which all of Billy's lies begin to catch up with him. As well as daydreaming the day away in his beloved Ambrosia he spends most of his time thinking. (No, that's not a euphemism - remember, sex hadn't been invented before the 1960's.) Billy has two types of thinking: No.1 thinking which is deliberate, and controlled; and No.2 thinking which consists of obsessive speculation about all the what-if's of life, and to be avoided. "You want to make up your mind what you do want to do" his mother tells him (how many of us have heard that before!) Of course, like all lazy sods, what he wants to be is a scriptwriter. And this dream is, supposedly, on the verge of being fulfilled - comedian Danny Boon has written to Billy offering him a job down in London. Yeah, right. The other one's got bells on Billy! Billy is "just about thraiped wi' Stradhoughton" (don't bother looking that up - it's another one of his inventions.) He tells everyone that he is off to London. But when he tries to resign from his job as an undertaker's clerk, a job he is dying to leave of course - sorry, couldn't resist that - there is a complication: the small matter of some calendars he was supposed to post nine months earlier. Like a lazy postmen hiding mail in his shed because he can't be bothered to do his rounds, Billy has stashed them all under his bed and embezzled the postage
money. His hopeless attempts at getting rid of the calendars - by trying to flush them down the loo at work, for example - are comical. And then there is his love life... He manages to sabotage his engagement to Barbara (who he calls "The Witch") by borrowing her engagement ring, supposedly to take it to the jeweller's "to be adjusted", and giving it to his other girlfriend Rita! Oh, and then there's Liz as well... His habitual embroidery of the truth, has left him tangled in a web of pointless lies... He has told: - fiancee Barbara that his dad is a sea-captain. - fiancee Rita that his dad is a cobbler (cobblers is he!) - fiancee Barbara that he has a budgie called Roger. - his pal Arthur's mother about his non-existent sister Sheila. - his own mother that Arthur's mother has a broken leg. I love the brilliantly realistic description of a northern working class family of the time, and it is riddled with those wonderfully colourful expressions that punctuated my own childhood, like:- "Oo hark at Lord Muck!" "If I come up there you'll know about it!" "I'll clean shirt him round his bloody earhole!" It's a short book (187pp) and very funny. I cannot understand why "Lucky Jim" is considered a classic while this is forgotten. I look forward to reading Keith Waterhouse's new novel: "Soho". There was a film version made in 1963 starring Tom Courtenay, and a West End musical version is planned with ex-EastEnder Sid Owen (Rickkkkkyyyyyyyyyyy) a candidate for the role of Billy - I'm not convinced that this is the greatest piece of casting ever. Darren Day and Ronan Keating are also vying for the role. Eeek.
Classic about a young man who invents his own fantasy world to escape a life of dreary responsibilites in the 1950's.