The Enemy Of The Comma
The Ending Soars into Very English Tragedy
‘A novel from the author of several previous books,’ said the Amazon logline about ‘Jubb’, one of Keith Waterhouse’s astonishing black comedies. Was there ever a less appealing biography?
I’m not sure I want to live in a world where ‘bibulous hack’ Waterhouse is out of print. His novels are now only available from secondhand shelves.
Leeds-born Waterhouse became a campaigning journalist in London, arguing against the colour bar, human rights abuses and arms sales. A sense of moral outrage led him to the new satire scene, where he wrote for ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and ‘The Frost Report’. He penned a screenplay for ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ and rewrites for Hitchcock’s ‘Torn Curtain’, plus books for several musicals, but of course it was 1959’s ‘Billy Liar’ that put him on the map. It’s the tragi-comic tale of an imaginative 19 year-old who sees his dreams being crushed. Will he risk all on a nebulous career in London or remain at home, a constrained fish in a small pond?
Billy’s dark night of the soul takes on a resonance that remains pertinent today. Everyone seeks to tie him down and clip his wings. The ending masks a very English tragedy, making Billy a great British literary character. An award-winning film version was directed by John Schlesinger, with a debut by Julie Christie. It was followed by a hit TV series and a musical version starring Michael Crawford, with songs from John Barry.
After a negligible sequel called ‘Billy Liar on the Moon’, which saw the older anti-hero trapped in suburbia, there were many other joyous novels, including the workplace satire ‘Office Life’, in which a handful of befuddled employees set off to discover what their company actually does for a living.
Waterhouse exhibited a certain amount of nostalgie de la boue that extended to mythologizing Soho and its denizens, especially the alcoholic columnist Jeffrey Bernard, whom he immortalised in the play ‘Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell’, featuring a stellar performance by Peter O’Toole as the acerbic scribe who gets locked in the Coach & Horses pub overnight.
In later years he wrote a number of lyrical memoirs about his childhood, and in the process was incorrectly dismissed as a nostalgist by critics who had failed to see the astringency in his writing; this ultimately damaged his standing. His sparkling, evocative novels deserve a far better fate.
Although Waterhouse never lost his Yorkshire sensibilities, he was an old-school Fleet Street journalist who believed in good grammar and correct spelling, and created the definitive manual about clear writing, called ‘On Newspaper Style’.
The Enemy of the Comma
Originally written in 1989 as an in-house style guide for the Daily Mirror’s journalists, it was published for public consumption and remains just as relevant and funny today.
Herein are laid out all of the journalist’s cheap tricks for grabbing readers by the throat, from hitting interviewees with fixed questions to rewriting dull stories into tabloidese using tough action verbs like ‘rap’, ‘probe’, ‘bid’, ‘swoop’ and ‘axe’. He was alive to the eroding nuances of language. Here he is on one of my pet hates, the curse of the polysyllable;
There is no such word as ‘miniscule’. ‘Utilise’ does not mean ‘use’, it means ‘make use of’. Nor is ‘following’ quite the same as ‘after’. Following their appearance at the Theatre Royal, the Fol-de-Rols are disbanding suggests a decision made consequent upon what sounds like a disastrous appearance. After their appearance…suggests they had already made up their minds earlier.
He’s hot on descriptive prefixes, clichés, which and that (which informs, that defines), and smashes through the grammar rules in a handful of succinct pages. He’s especially down on the use of mixed plurals, where you begin with a plural, add a possessive and have to add another plural, becoming trapped by your own sentence construction. Ie. ‘Adjectives should not raise a question in reader’s mind, they should answer it.’
While we’re on adjectives; ‘Red-haired’ tells us a person has red hair. ‘Vivacious’ tells us nothing except that someone has sat down at a computer and written the word ‘vivacious’. ‘Angry’ informs. ‘Tall’ invites the question ‘how tall?’ Adjectives used for effect should not be too clapped out to evoke anything in the reader’s mind. Grim death. Vital clues. Brutal murder. They add nothing to the nouns they accompany.
My own curse is also a Waterhouse bugbear, the inelegant variation. This is where you don’t want to repeat a key word so you vary it awkwardly. Britain eats too much sugar. We consume tons of the stuff.
About the humble comma he says;
It is not the function of a comma to help a wheezing sentence get its breath back. The semi-colon too is often used as breathing apparatus. Commas are inserted when sentences lose confidence in themselves. A healthy sentence can get by without either aids so long as it keeps its nerve.
Waterhouse didn’t live long enough to see his beloved profession wrecked by articles that consist of press releases glued to ALAMY shots, with pre-digested copy dropped onto the page with barely a rewrite. I imagine the proliferation of illiterate online articles would have had him tearing his hair out.
Waterhouse remains unfashionable, but good writing never goes out of style.