Author: Michael Frayn
Finished on: 15 August 2016
Where did I get this book: A present from my parents-in-law a few years ago
I recently watched the film Spotlight. It tells the compelling story of the Boston Globe’s investigation and exposure of the Roman Catholic Church’s cover up of endemic paedophilia amongst its priests. It is an incredible film: terrifying and mesmerising. The story isn’t brought to light through sudden sensational revelations. It is the result of long, hard graft by a team of dedicated journalists doing their job well and looking for the truth. It doesn’t half make a strong case for the importance of good old fashioned investigative journalism.
And at the time I watched this outstanding film, I was also reading this book. Ugh.
I think my main issue with Towards The End Of Morning boils down to the fact that I am not a fan of books about the futility of existence. Existence is not futile. And I like fiction that that stirs and inspires. I don’t want to wallow in a sea of ennui, bemoaning the pointlessness of it all.
Of course, not all journalism can be world-changing revelations of huge institutional, decades-long corruption in massive public bodies. Towards The End Of Morning tells the story of the crossword and nature notes department of a Guardian/ Observer-esque newspaper in 1967, just as the world of Fleet Street was changing beyond all recognition. Frayn draws on his own experiences to paint a humorous picture of the eccentricities in this most undervalued of departments. I get it. It’s about the minutiae. My sister and I have had this conversation: she likes books where nothing happens; books about the everyday, and about the minutiae. I don’t. I like books where people are drawing treasure maps in blood into the lining of their hats. That’s why she loved the first 600 pages of The Goldfinch, and I loved the last 250.
It’s not you, Frayn. It’s me.
Our main protagonist in the story, Dyson, is depicted affectionately as a tortured but pompous buffoon, old before his time.
God knows I’m a failure, an insignificant speck of human nothingness trampled on indifferently by every causal passer by.
But I didn’t feel affection for him. Or any of the characters for that matter.
It was interesting to read this book immediately after The Sandglass. Because at least Gunesekera is searching for answers to what life is all about. Frayn is smug in the knowledge that he has very cleverly realised it’s all pointless.
Oh god, the smallness of things! The endless petty demands of life! They rained down like coal from a sack, filling the air with chocking dust which settled grimily over everything and made the whole world smell grey.
To be fair, that’s a well-written simile. And there is much to admire in the style here. At the end of the story Dyson takes a press trip to the Persian Gulf, which acts as an extended metaphor for life as it’s portrayed by Frayn. Endless waiting around in the ‘nothingness’ of airports; nobody is sure what they’re supposed to be doing; they never get where they plan to go; everyone constantly drinks to numb the boredom and irritation. It is cleverly done. Just not as clever as it thinks it is.
The growth of television, alongside the constant boozing, also provides a seductive way for the characters to distract themselves from reality.
Everyone in the room found it a convenient place to rest their eyes, except Lake who had drawn her right foot up into her lap to examine the condition of her toes, and Dyson, who had his head back and his mouth open and was falling asleep.
There are glimpses, beyond the cynicism, into a real love of language which does go some way to redeeming the book for me. But, typically, this is also framed in the negative.
Isn’t it rather terrible that what brings the pricking behind my eyelids is not old Eddy’s death, or even the thought of human mortality in general, but certain strokes of rhetoric – certain alliterations, repetitions, and verbal sonorities which don’t hold any literal meaning for me? I’m more moved by literature than what it describes!
This disregards the fact that words well-used can make the unknown real to their readers. And while, as Sarah Lonsdale said recently in The Journalist “deep down every journalist knows the intellectual terrain they inhabit, as they attempt to explain the inexplicable universe, is ‘Absurdistan’,” the truth is that literature and what it describes are not separate. When effective, journalism can be about describing vividly so that the reality is moving to a wide audience. Spotlight shows the real and powerful impact of this, and the change that can be effected. And that is very much not pointless.