The Bucket Shop

by Keith Waterhouse - it's been a gap of many years since I last read one of his books, and it took a very long time, and the invention of the internet, for me to track down The Bucket Shop. It was his fourth novel, dating from maybe not long after he left Leeds and fetched up in London. I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but it's a very used paperback, and not only features stains on many pages, but on one, what looks like a deeply embedded insect wing.

I was misled by the title. I thought a 'bucket shop' - a phrase from another age - meant one of those cheap travel agencies. No, here, it's simply a junk shop. William, the central character, wanted to be an antique dealer, but doesn't know his trade, and is clueless about business basics. So, his shop sells odds and ends, mostly at a loss. His only regular 'customer' appears to be a photographer we know only as Pringle, who owes him quite a sum, for items he's rented as props for his work. Not only does Pringle never pay him anything, but he persuades William to 'invest' in a dodgy sounding theatre venture; and comes back for more, via all kinds of bamboozling. It never looks as if William enjoys this fleecing, but he knuckles under through an inability to displease, and a desire to look clever.

It's all about the underside of Sixties Swinging London. In reality, he's sinking into the underclass, but all around him he sees the Scene happening, people moving on up and making it. He acquires one mistress, and then another. Both stories end badly. His home life is a wasteland; he looks down on his wife, who has a little more about her than he thinks; but not to the extent that she fails to try out a little infidelity herself. A tiny part of the whole sorry tale, but it's the one thing which maintains some sort of balance by the end. There's a daughter, badly needing some proper parental care, which he ineffectually attempts once or twice. But all he can generally do is criticise or correct. She turns, slowly but surely, into a kleptomaniac. There are a scant few fond moments scattered through the story, most of them with Jackie his second girlfriend, the one person he lets down most grievously. William's faults? He has no idea who to trust and when. He doesn't really know what he wants, it's forever just out of sight, but he still wants it. He's a portrait of classic male weakness. He's emotionally stunted, and constantly trying to negotiate life by overthinking it. He wants to believe, and have a taste of, the images of the Good Life which are flashed up all around him, gaudy and alluring under London's bright lights.

It could be life today, couldn't it? Except that there's also all that post-war grime. There's the Sixties sexual revolution; no AIDS, but plenty of venereal disease, an apparent lack of condoms or birth control, and laws about abortion. And there are absolutely certainly no mobile phones, which would have radically changed this particular plot.

I think the William of this book is in part an older version of that earlier Billy, Billy Liar. It doesn't quite work, here, which is maybe why Waterhouse has another go at growing up the character later on in Billy Liar on the Moon. This book is one of his weakest novels - hence why you probably haven't heard of it before - but many things work, and I found by the end I was reacting to the various characters much more strongly than I would have expected. I think this is because although we follow events through William's ignorant eyes, the author gradually fleshes out the characters for us and we grudgingly sympathise with them or at least accept their varying degrees of desperation. Except for Pringle: I have to say, in all my reading, rarely have I wanted more to see a character get some comeuppance. A wish which I'm afraid goes unsatisfied. And the way Jackie's tragic death is dealt with is very unsatisfactory. Not that William's behaviour is unbelievable; it's very much what you'd expect; but her passing gets lost at the end in a way I find unresolved. It should hang over William more than it does.

It's money which brings the story to a close. Until then, he's had money to fritter away on his vain ambitions. The writer reminds us of his rapidly shrinking funds at regular intervals. It's somewhat like a countdown clock. By the end he has virtually nothing, except for his wife. They're going to settle for making the most of it. What with, is a question which goes unanswered.


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