Friday, 6 September 2013

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

published 1967  chapter 10








[At the offices of a major London newspaper]

Bob, arriving at the office before Dyson one morning, found a man he had never seen before working at poor old Eddy’s desk. He appeared on the whole to be middle-aged. His face was middle-aged – unnaturally neat and pale, with spare flesh padding the line of the jaw, and lifeless sandy hair brushed inertly to the shape of the head. But his clothes were young men’s clothes – a very dark jacket buttoned on four buttons, revealing a triangle of dark tan shirt with a strip of black suede tie, and an inch-and-a-half of tan cuff at each wrist. He looked up at Bob; his eyes were ageless and neutral…


Steadily, quietly, electrically, Erskine Morris typed the ‘In Years Gone By’ column several weeks into the future…. From day to day the dark shades of his shirts, ties and high-buttoning suits subtly changed. But the pallid face above them remained impassive, and the waiting cigarette continued to smoke ritually in the ashtray, like a joss-stick before some inscrutable joss.




observations: Morris is replacing a very old man, Eddy, who dropped dead in the office. There is a scene at Eddy's funeral where a lot of old hacks get drunk, tell stories and reminisce about the old days. It is a wholly convincing scene, and about as interesting to read about as it would have been to attend.

Towards the End of the Morning has a reputation as a small classic novel of British journalism: a satire on the old days at Fleet Street – and indeed it reads like something from a long time ago. The world of London newspapers changed very dramatically over the subsequent 15 years, and this is a lost world. Not one that would be much mourned though: for a start there are no women shown as doing proper jobs (some people do have secretaries), everyone drinks all the time, ridiculous expenses are nodded through, and though they all complain about being busy, life is really quite relaxed. Bob, Dyson and Eddy seemed to sit around all day - at least the smart, terrifying Morris gets on with things and is efficient.

The new man is part of a coming generation, who will have different ideas and sweep all this away – and it’s interesting that a lot of this would be repeated when serious computer technology and internet presence became an important part of the newspaper world much much later on. The ways in which Erskine Morris is different, the fears of the older members of staff, the feeling that they’re not keeping up – all this is the same: perhaps it comes in every generation.


This book is meant for the people who lived through it: I have always found it a bit disappointing – full of old-fashioned, very masculine humour of the kind that mouldered away in the alleged comic magazine Punch. 

The picture is a shirt advert of the era.

8 comments:

  1. There's some good satire on the couple who move somewhere horrible because they're convinced it'll "come up".

    Days spent doing nothing? I remember them.;-)

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    1. Oh yes: they're always hoping that SW23 will be the next big thing. I think it probably was an all-too-realistic picture, I just found it a bit annoying

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  2. Moira - What a great period piece. It's fascinating how journalism has metamorphosed over the decades. Besides the social changes (e.g. women doing the reporting - Liza Marklund's Annika Bengtzon would be horrified at this office atmosphere) there are so many technological changes too. And I find the use of clothes to 'stay young' especially interesting. The concept of gathering and reporting news has changed. So has what counts as 'a company billed lunch.'

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    1. And drinking during the day - I think it was commonplace to have alcohol with lunch then, whereas I'd guess very few people do that now, either in the USA or the UK.

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  3. Moira - do you think the pic was a posed photo or a drawing?? Cheers

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    1. Carole, I think it's a pose pic for an ad, but I also think it has a weird body language - it's meant to look like men working happily in an upscale office, but to me it looks as though the 2 younger ones are crowding the older one, almost bullying!

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  4. I have a couple of unread Frayn's on the shelf, though not this one........seems like everything's unread! Spies and something else I'm struggling to remember.

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    1. Some people swear by him, find him terribly funny: I'm somewhat unconvinced, and I completely didn't understand the point of the Spies book (I think it was meant to have a surprise which seemed to be very telegraphed to me). But you never know... he seems a nice old chap, I wish I liked his stuff more.

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