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Fleet Street Blues

In a recent introduction to his brilliant satire of Fleet Street, which appeared in 1967, Michael Frayn notes that the London district surrounding this famed thoroughfare “was coming towards the end not just of the morning, but of the afternoon as well, and the shades of night were gathering fast.” Captured most unforgettably by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, Fleet Street evokes an image of a hard-drinking, alternately ruthless and lazy British press corps. (The journalist Edward Behr, upon landing in recently independent Congo, claims to have heard a BBC reporter shout, “Anyone here been raped and speak English?”) And here is Frayn:

"Various members of the staff emerged from Hand and Ball Passage during the last dark hour of the morning, walked with an air of sober responsibility towards the main entrance, greeted the commissionaire and vanished upstairs in the lift to telephone their friends and draw their expenses before going out again to have lunch."

Waugh’s novel is absurd and fantastical throughout. Frayn, in stark contrast, adopts many of Waugh’s stylistic devices, but does so within the confines of a firmly grounded story. Towards the End of the Morning expertly recreates Fleet Street’s last years, but its portrait of the Fourth Estate is worth consulting again now, amid the anguish about the future of print.

Frayn’s protagonist is John Dyson, a mid-level editor who commands a staff of two at an unnamed London paper. (The paper in Waugh’s tale was the fictitious Daily Beast). Dyson’s mandate is undefined: he is responsible for the crossword puzzle and whatever miscellany falls through the cracks. His department is called “the drain.” He dreams of fame and fortune, and the book is structured around his two attempts to appear on television. His first appearance—one of Frayn’s particularly fine set-pieces—is a disaster, but amazingly he gets a chance to redeem himself, though the reader knows that he will not be so lucky. Meanwhile his appealing wife Jannie undergoes a crisis of nerves because she understands that the wretched Dyson is only capable of playing the fool.

Bob Bell, Dyson’s passive, placid underling, is more contented than his boss, despite being constantly terrorized by a colleague’s deranged wife. There is also Tessa, a sometime girlfriend who Bob does not have the stomach to discard. When she tells someone that they are engaged, Bob hardly bothers to correct the record. Like Bertie Wooster—who was horrified that a woman would propose to him, because as an English gentleman he would be unable to say no—Bob is at the mercy of others. Frayn has great fun with their painful conversations:

“Tess, you never have any opinions of your own! There’s never anything you actually want yourself!”

“Bob, that’s not true! I want you to be happy and do what you want. I don’t want to stand in your way.”

Tessa believes that she is intellectually inferior to Bob and his co-workers, even though Frayn leaves us in little doubt that none of the paper’s staff has much talent or expertise. He also skillfully mocks his characters’ bien-pensant attitudes: “The Dyson’s had bought an old house deliberately…after long and shrewd reflection,” he writes of their decision to bypass suburban living.

“In this way they would secure an attractive and potentially fashionable house in the heart of London, at a price they could afford; be given credit by their friends for going to live among the working classes; acquire very shortly congenial middle-class neighbours of a similarly adventurous and intelligent outlook; and see their investment undergo a satisfactory and reassuring rise in value in the process.”

It is not surprising that Frayn, who is best known as a playwright, has an extraordinary gift for dialogue:

“I was just thinking about poor old Eddy. He’d have enjoyed being on this trip with us today, you know.”

“He wouldn’t have enjoyed going to his own funeral, Bob.”

Even better is the way in which he expertly delineates Dyson’s decency and absurdity.

“I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone, Bob: I’d like to be one of those terrible people you see airing their views about life on television.”

“So you keep saying, John.”

Dyson knows that his desires are foolish, and yet he cannot help driving himself and everyone in his orbit insane. He is certainly a bore (he keeps prefacing comments with “The point is…”), but still we feel for him in his plight. When he remarks, with equal parts disgust and glee, that “nowadays it’s not excellence which leads to celebrity, but celebrity which leads to excellence. One makes one’s reputation, and one’s reputation enables one to achieve the conditions in which one can do good work,” Frayn is asking us to honor the pathos and simultaneously agree with the analysis.

Waugh was a master of off-handedly revealing a character’s horrible fate (think of poor Lord Tangent in Decline and Fall), and Frayn has the same talent: “At eight o’clock, when the French announced that the Scandinavians’ plane had crashed, the poor girl had still not got so much as a toe in the water.” This description occurs during a disastrous trip that Dyson takes to the Middle East, where he becomes trapped at airports while anxiously trying to get home for his second television appearance. The most obvious parallel here is to Tony Last, the hero of Waugh’s Handful of Dust, whose ill-fated trip to Brazil results in his imprisonment by a maniac who reads him Dickens. But unlike the fearsome Daily Beast proprietor Lord Copper, the editor of Dyson’s paper (perhaps reflecting the declining power of the old-time press barons) is a whimpering ninny who does not have it in him to fire anyone. In a letter to a subordinate, he writes:

“As I have stressed before, I have no experience of summoning employees to my office and telling them that they are fired, and after long and careful consideration I must tell you that I see no prospect of finding the courage to start…Besides, it would be against the whole spirit of this office, where we have always laid great stress upon security of employment…I believe we should be justified in adopting guerilla tactics. That is to say, I think we might try persecuting him, within the limits imposed by our consciences and ordinary discretion, in the hope that he will spontaneously resign, and disappear from our lives, taking with him what, if we are careful, need be only a comparatively small amount of the firm’s money.”    

The most astonishing aspect of Frayn’s novel is that so many of the dilemmas and complaints of the characters are easily recognizable today.

“He looked anxiously at the rack of galley proofs behind him. He had only seven ‘The Country Day by Day’ columns in print, and he had sworn never to let the Countries drop below twelve. He had a ‘Meditation’ column for each of the next three days—unless Winters had made a cock-up about immaculate conception, in which case he had only two and a half pieces—but he should have had a running stock of fourteen Meditations…But then what about the crosswords? He counted them up miserably. God Almighty he was down to his last eight crosswords! Day by day the presses hounded him; with failing strength he fed them the hard-won pieces of copy which delayed them so briefly. On and on they came! They were catching him up!”

So the hyperactivity of the blogosphere is not completely unprecedented. Nor is the temptation to comment on things about which you know nothing:

"Bob brooded over his book review. ‘Mr. Berringer knows his New York,’ he wrote. A wave of honesty passed over him, and he altered it to ‘Mr. Beringer appears to know his New York.’ The wave of honesty was succeeded by a wave of professionalism, and he altered it back to ‘Mr. Berringer knows his New York.”

In this same vein, someone at the BBC tells Bob that he knows “something about race relations—she understood he’d shared rooms in college with a Siamese.”

In the novel’s closing sections, a new generation arrives in the person of Morris. He uses a typewriter instead of writing his copy out longhand, and horrifies Bob by proposing the paper create a “pre-teen page.” By the time the novel ends, we are almost certain that Morris will realize his dream of owning the paper. It is to Frayn’s great credit that he could so acutely register this decline. More than forty years later, with newspaper closings and cutbacks occurring every week, Frayn’s novel manages to poke devastating fun at a past era and still lament what has been lost.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.

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