Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
"Sublimely funny" says the back cover of this book, first published in 1967, and reissued with an introduction by the author. Hmm. It didn't really do it for me, and I'm brooding about why I wasn't very amused. Its age shouldn't really be a problem, since my regular reading matter covers most of the last 150 years in a fairly indiscriminate way. And in the late 1960s I was something of a fan of Frayn's Guardian articles, which certainly did make me laugh out loud - somewhere upstairs there is a collection of them. Towards the End of the Morning is set in a Fleet Street newspaper office, not very loosely based on the Guardian and Observer offices, in the Nature Notes and Crossword department. Nature Notes is an obvious nod to Waugh's Scoop, in which William Boot is a nature columnist for The Daily Beast ("Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole"), but all we discover about the production of "The Country Day by Day" is that columnists are remarkably recalcitrant when it comes to filing their copy; "In Years Gone By", originating from the same office, fares rather better with the arrival of a new and ambitious trainee.
"We mostly worked at a rather gentlemanly pace," says Frayn in the introduction, and long, liquid lunches are certainly in evidence. In fact, over the course of this short novel, not very much happens - even the attempted sacking of the Picture Editor is something of a non-event, as he first refuses to believe the letter of dismissal is real, and then decides that if he ignores it, it will all "simmer down". John Dyson, head of the Nature Notes office, is keen to get into television and, despite his cringemaking first appearance, it looks as if he may be successful, until he finds himself trapped in Ljubliana as his next engagement draws ever closer. Meanwhile his junior colleague, Bob, struggling to fend off an older colleague's wife, finds himself entangled in an engagement he's not quite sure about. All of this is faintly reminiscent of Kingsley Amis of a decade before, though Frayn's characters have nothing like the crassness or destructiveness of Jim Dixon: they are a gentler and more wistful breed.
Reflecting on my lack of real enthusiasm for this novel, I find myself returning to Lucky Jim, a book which I dislike but have read several times (as with most of Amis's work). Frayn's characters mostly compare well with those of Amis, who are generally loathsome, and the situations in which they find themselves are less frenetically hilarious or catastrophic. They are more readily sympathetic and should be more believable, and Frayn is a witty and elegant writer. Yet, despite my distaste, I am more drawn to the bravura of Amis's writing: somehow, his cast of horrible men, with all their lies and drinking and lechery, have more immediacy and reality than Frayn's surprisingly civilised journalists. I suspect that when it was first published, Frayn's book appealed to many of its readers because they knew (or thought they knew) the Fleet Street people it portrayed; forty-odd years later, they mean little to me. Having decided not to clutter my bookshelves with something I'm unlikely to read again, however, I listed it on Bookmooch, and there was a request within 24 hours; I hope its new owner will enjoy it.