(Apropos, as always, of nothing really; though it perhaps chimes with speculation, across the last week or so, that print, declared dead a decade ago, had been spotted running around again, albeit in circles.)
The person who recently told me I must re-read Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (he assumed, obviously, that I absolutely must have read it before) didn’t do so because he thought it was a great novel about Fleet Street.
Which is just as well, really, because I’d have gone all churlish and told him that there’s never been a great novel about Fleet Street. Not even a half-decent one.
Fans of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop will object, predictably; but Scoop wasn’t about Fleet Street. Not per se. And after all, much of it is actually set in the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.
Fleet Street the physical location and Fleet Street journalists figure in lots of novels. Of course they do. But almost always peripherally. No creative writer has ever successfully immersed him or herself in the world of national newspapers during their heyday, roughly from 1920 to 1980, when there really was a community, an irreligious order, billeted within spitting distance of the Inns of Court; and when there really were thunderous print plans in the basements.
I’m including film and theatre in this. Plays featuring our heritage newspaper industry tend to be excruciatingly awful – and not really about newspaper people or their concerns at all. Like, for instance, David Hare’s Pravda. Hare is one of life’s tiresome politicos, perpetually stuck in a priggishly self-righteous version of the Lower Sixth. So he was never going to succeed in saying anything about a community of people he knew nothing about.
But knowledge isn’t really enough either. The problem for those who really do know about this world (paradoxically enough) is that they’re just not very good writers. After all, journalism is no place for a sensitive soul; and even if its survivors are not exactly thick they’re almost always thick-skinned.
I’d stretch this principle to embrace Graham Greene, a more than decent writer who served time as a reporter; yet, in his novels, his journalists are little more than stock characters and the worlds they inhabit are, from a psychological and emotional standpoint, flimsy.
You’d have to suspect that there might be exceptions to this rule though; and Michael Frayn surely comes closest to proving this.
And yet Towards the End of the Morning actually has more to tell us about television than the world of newspapers; and neither are more than colourful backdrops.
It was recommended to me not as a window on a rich and strange corner of the world but for its beautifully observed comic portrait of a manager. A departmental head. A man too busy to get any work done. A man perpetually bewailing the fact that he’s snowed under. A man whose inexperienced new assistant tidies up three weeks’ worth of work in a single afternoon.
We’ve all worked for one of them. (The former. The latter don’t tend to rise very far through the ranks. In any profession. And it is the fate of all those who work for useless managers to become, eventually, sooner rather than later, headless chickens. )
So, no, it’s not really a novel about Fleet Street. However, having entered this laborious and at times rambling caveat, I’m going to risk ridicule and ire by stating that, now and then, in glimpses, Frayn really does write beautifully about Fleet Street. The odd paragraph here and there. Wonderfully evocative fragments conveying what it must have felt like to work in one of the great news factories during the mid 1960s.
And it really does make you reflect wistfully on what he might have achieved had he been bothered.
Stuff, not to put too fine a point upon it, like this:
Just after eight o’clock the glass in all the windows started to vibrate. Here and there light shades and other thin metal fixtures burred faintly, or ticked, or rattled. In Dyson’s department, deserted, and lit only by the yellow sodium light coming in through the windows from the street-lamps in Hand and Ball Court, a ruler sticking out over the edge of old Eddy Moulton’s desk moved itself slowly sideways until it overbalanced and fell on the floor.
The great presses in the basement were running for the first edition.