John Horder on
Towards the End of the Morning (Faber, £7.99)
This is a heartfelt and humorous novel about what was once Fleet Street, "a (pre-computerised) world that has now vanished as completely as the Fleet Ditch that gave the Street its name ''........'The appearance of anything new in this run-down world seemed as unlikely as the birth of a baby in an old-folk's home".
So said Michael Frayn in his indispensable introduction to this Faber edition of the classic novel about journalism written at a time when computers weren't dominating most journalists' lives as they so brutally have gone on to do ever since.
From the very first line, the atmosphere is subtly visualised as if written by a painter: "The sky grew darker and darker as the morning wore on". John Dyson, who was heading for a crack-up, works with the non-confrontational and for ever toffee-sucking Bob, and the mostly dead to this world Eddy Moulton, in the same room of an unnamed newpaper office firmly stuck in a time warp in the Fifties.
There has been much speculation when Towards the End was first published by Collins in 1967 whether the paper was The Guardian or The Observer. Frayn wrote lively pieces for both before leaving eventually to write fifteen plays over the next thirty or so years. "It doesn't seem to me much like either. So far as I can tell it is itself.'' Case closed with a Buddhistic turn of phrase.
Dyson, the head of department, has Bob and Eddy to help him replenish four main stockpiles: a daily column called "In Years Gone By'', the crossword, the nature notes and meditations, for which he is for ever having to jog the memory of some flatulent Anglican canon. He also slithers off to do the occasional broadcast at the BBC World Service at Bush House for twenty guineas.
Frayn makes it crystal clear Dyson was not the "ruined scholar" type of journalist "who could review you at short notice a book about Lord Northcliffe or Hugh Kingsmill".
His aspirations begin to be met when he gets himself onto a television discussion programme with Lord Boddy, to whom he becomes more and more embarrassingly deferential the more drunk the two of them become. A small example:
"I should just like to say that I find what Lord Boddy is saying extraordinarily interesting. Extraordinarily interesting"..........
Not surprisingly, this nauseating deference perplexes his wife Jannie; "But why does he keep saying things like "extraordinarily interesting" and "indeed, indeed"? I've never heard him say anything like that before". Why indeed?
Frayn has a particular gift with the dialogue of toffee-sucking Bob and his friend Tessa. Neither of whom can make up their minds about anything even for a second, least of all whether they are engaged or not.
This classic novel is a slow-burner, and compulsive page-turner. The
minor characters try to run away with much of the action. They include Mr. Mounce, a self-hating sub-editor, who cannot bear to leave the paper long after h.is ghostly editor has tried to get rid of him with mere memos, to say nothing of nauseating Morris, whose one word "Sure" he uses regardless of circumstances.
"Oh, sure, sure", are his last words, and the last words of the book.
John Horder © world copyright 2009