YESTERDAY, I came across a novel I hadn't read in a while, but which I used to read once a year.
Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning, set in the twilight era of Fleet Street, and first published 45 years ago is, notwithstanding Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the finest novel ever written about the disreputable trade.
As a glimpse into a way of life long gone, with its gentleman journalists, quaint customs and boozy lunches, it is fascinating; and, as with Scoop, you don't need to be a hack to enjoy it. Its central figure is the downtrodden John Dyson, who is hounded from pillar to post as he tries to maintain his paper's daily stock of nature notes and crosswords, and dreams of escape by becoming a talking head on television. Dyson is played off against sundry other characters – the ambitious young graduate, the elderly journalist who each day falls asleep at his desk, dreaming of reporters he once knew and the baleful picture editor who bullies his staff.
The much-changed work habits of journalists are reflected in a passage like this: "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."
Towards the End of the Morning is a witty, reflective novel, in which Dyson's pursuit of his dreams lead to a short-lived period of self-evaluation before his old ambitions re-assert themselves. To paraphrase Clive James's description of Frayn's collected newspaper columns, which date from the 1960s, the novel brings to life the days when Fleet Street was still a place, and not just a memory.
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