Keith Waterhouse: Half-pissed half–the-time, but very prolific
Keith Waterhouse, known universally for penning the tale of Billy Liar, was a prolific novelist, playwright, satirist and Fleet Street tout. His substantial body of work bears testament to a man for whom writing was not only a vocation but also something of a compulsion. Renowned for his sybaritic streak, he drank like a true Yorkshire man: liberally. And yet Waterhouse never failed to follow his lifelong practice of writing every day. I chanced upon a new copy of Palace Pier, one of Waterhouse’s later efforts, in an Oxfam in Hammersmith, and set about reading it over my morning tea. A couple of pages in and I was transported into the “seafaring town” of Brighton, its “pocket size pubs with the interior of drinking barracks”, its formerly glorious but now decrepit Pier, and the protagonist Chris Duffy’s matutinal routine, which commenced every day, without deviation, with “bran flakes and vodka… in lieu of coffee”.
Chris Duffy is a 61 year “out-of-the-frame” writer, who repines over his lack of success and the “basterdising bastards” who deemed his second novel a poor ersatz of the first. Rejected by every agent in London and told by his former publisher that one cannot “go on writing the same old novel over and over again” he wards off indigence by selling bibelots on North Lane market. Desperate to get back into the writing game, Duffy will do anything, because he hasn’t a reputation to lose. He is a conflux of diffidence and arrogance, of substance and blatherskite, but above all, he’s “half-pissed, half–the-time” and only “half certain” about his literary capabilities and “that’s how books fail to get written.”
He resides, along with three other oddball denizens of Brighton, in a Victorian house owned by a “veteran pub lady” and Duffy’s part-time paramour called Maureen, a fellow bric-a-brac peddler and “lazy sod” Mickey, and a laggard elderly dear by the name of Olive, who “afflicted with stream-of-consciousness diarrhoea” lives in the garret “collecting waste paper and going slightly mad”. The characters are all as bonkers as each other, and propel the plot forward in bouts of interaction with the story’s egregious, yet likable, protagonist. Blackpool born Duffy arrived there after a fruitless pursuit of his estranged wife, Maggs, whom he married “pissed” and was “pissed when she left” him. Recollecting his past, Duffy’s seemingly care-free attitude begins to dwindle as he wonders “in which cloakroom” of which brackish seaside town he’d left his life and talent. But the introspection is short-lived as there are numerous “bijou pubs” to visit and even more drinks to be had until a state of such oblivion which gives “amnesia a bad name”.
The story moves across Brighton, from Theatre Royal, to the Metropole to Palace Pier and to and through numerous drinking holes dotted around the town centre. We learn about Duffy’s world through the nebula of an extended hangover. It is a world of bitter disappointment, offended pride and egotistical drive for glory because he never cared for the “dosh” anyway. The third person narrative is multi-eloquent, interspersed with the occasional vulgarity; it overflows with literary references and allusions to men of letters such as Kingsley Amis, Brendan Behan, Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. Desperate to join the circle of literary greats, Duffy compares himself, with pomp, to world-renowned authors while detailing his raiment and concludes to look and be like one of them. But his frustration mounts as he staggers-along among the glittering panoply of the wealthy and the accomplished and the no-good upstarts gathered at the Brighton Literary Festival. By chance, and in a cruel twist of fate, he is asked to stand-in for an absentee speaker and interview a “corduroy clad bearded bugger” about his latest work. He tries to blag it but without much success, and asking the audience whether they have questions, receives a curt reply: “I have a question, sir. Where do I go to get my money back?”
Allusions to Duffy’s writing are sparse, apart from that of one novel, several decades ago, and pesky letters to the Guardian, but he himself confesses living by a slacker’s philosophy that dictates “last things last.” And almost everything comes last. This is where the novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives, when Duffy, undergoing “a touch of alcoholic Alzheimer’s” his embonpoint ego deflated, resolves to find and “purloin an entire manuscript” written by one of his heroes, the “vastly undeterred” Patrick Hamilton. He learns of the unpublished manuscript through Maureen, and thus goes in pursuit of it, from there on in the book manifests into a farcical tableau – of stilt-walkers, fire eaters, estranged wives, snobby literati, broken reproduction vases, unfulfilled dreams and all sorts of adventures exclusive to a seaside town – and ends on a somewhat sombre note exactly where it begins, on Palace Pier, where Duffy sits motionless watching hundreds of pages of the manuscript dance and dip “in the gale like wartime leaflets ejected from an enemy bomber”.