Saturday 1 June 2024

Towards the End of the Morning, a novel by Michael Frayn, 1967

I re-read this old favourite comic novel over the past couple of days. I had lost my original copy from 1978, and so I needed to buy another. 

This is one of those things about the embarrassments and foibles among the upper middle classes (apparently all Cambridge University graduates) - in this case, mostly "Fleet Street" (i.e. London) journalists and their wives and girlfriends. 

This sounds utterly unpromising (and ultimately it is), but there are some very good life-observations of the kind that stay with you permanently; and some laugh-out-loud funny set pieces that are the equal of anything. 

The main character's experience doing a television talk-show is so funny that I can recall sitting somewhere like an airport lounge or a place waiting for a ferry, and laughing literally uncontrollably, so that dozens of other passengers were turning and staring at me as if I was insane or having a seizure - but I just couldn't stop myself. 

So, TTEOTM is worth reading. 

But I also found it a profoundly nihilistic book; at times (when it gets serious) the narrative actually expresses this explicitly - that Life is purposeless and meaningless; and overall and especially as Life unfolds: it is a pretty miserable and hope-less business.  

In this respect, the author Michael Frayn epitomizes (for evidence: read his Wiki entry) the trajectory of Western Culture since WWII. He was one of the first generation of upper middle class atheist-leftists who took over the Mass Media in those decades; and by the time this novel was published (1967) this takeover was all-but complete.  

Journalism had been a mostly lower/middle class job, done by grammar school boys who left at about 16 and served an apprenticeship; as depicted in Michael Green's (excellent) autobiographies The boy who shot down an airship, and Nobody hurt in small earthquake

But by the 1960s print media was dominated by upper class boys and girls arriving straight from university, especially Oxford and Cambridge. Newspapers (and broadcast media) shifted from being about news; to being "opinion" concerning all aspects of society, politics and culture (i.e. leftist propaganda).  

And the new generation of upper class, public school, and university media people; brought with them the New Leftism - focused on promoting the sexual revolution, antiracism, feminism - and the rest of it. 

Michael Frayn is a good example, because he was (unlike modern Leftists) genuinely very intelligent, very talented - and able to be very funny. 

He was successful as a journalist, novelist and playwright - and was generally supposed to be, not just clever, but a deep thinker; because he had studied philosophy, and even published an academic book on the subject!

Frayn is one of the reasons why the mainstream modern culture of hedonic nihilism happened - he was talented, trendy, admired; he made the new ideology seem cool, fun, exciting... 

And by contrast Frayn, subtly and by insinuation mainly, made all-that-stuff about God, creation, the world of spirit, existence beyond death etc. seem... childish, silly, obsolete, low status^


In retrospect; it is obvious that Frayn was not a creative thinker - but was instead a highly-able exponent of standard-mainstream ideology; a founder-member of the "chattering classes"; one who took all his primary assumptions from his niche social milieu, and was unable (or uninterested) to seek or understand beyond this. 

And this is manifested in Towards the End of the Morning because - well, it doesn't really end. There is no sense of satisfaction or closure, it just stops*. 

The simple reason for this, is that it is an honest account of how Frayn saw Life: for Frayn (and his numerous ilk) Life is something that goes on for a while; one tries to get as much amusement from living as possible; one works to attain an interesting, enjoyable and well-regarded existence... For a while. 

And, then... Life Just Stops.    

^. The given-rationale for getting rid of that religion stuff, was that it stood in the way of a life devoted to optimizing the emotions. This was especially necessary if life in reality was nothing-but these emotions (as "science" had apparently proved).  

*Note added: It is significant that a novel of broadly the same genre as TTEOTM from about a decade earlier was Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim; has a traditional kind of ending - with the hero getting the girl and - in effect - striding off into the sunrise of a glorious future. Amis was born earlier enough to have been conscripted into the Second World War, and (although firmly of the materialist-atheist generation) was more of a transitional figure into modernism than Frayn.  


Mia said...

I've been revisiting books from my childhood for my own children and have been shocked how many have this derisive, sneering attitude toward the spiritual, in a faux-casual manner yet not casual at all because very obviously forced into the work (I can see now as an adult). Looking back it amazes me that the adults around me (who expressed disappointment at my atheism to varying degrees) never commented on it nor seemed to notice it at all. These sorts of obvious, sweeping, coordinated strategies were among the observations that led me to Christianity. What but eternal intelligent evil explains them? Oh right, "emergent behavior," etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia - My experience too. Of course, at the time, I was all for this hedonic cynicism - and it was a question of trying to overcome my natural puritanism and live-down to it.

Sackerson said...

Still alie, I believe. I wrote to him in late 2018/earl 2019 o congratulate him on this book annf ask questions. He emailed to say

'I’m delighted that you still enjoyed Towards after all these years, when so much (including the newspaper industry) has changed. I still have a soft spot for it myself, I have to confess.

Was Erskine Morris based on a real person? Karl Miller always insisted that it was a direct portratit of Geoffrey Cannon, who later edited The Listener, but I never met him - and in fact had never even heard of him when I wrote the book. I think he is pretty much a fiction. For Dyson I did borrow quite a lot from one of my colleagues, and if you’re interested I’ve told the story in the introduction I wrote to the later paperback editions of the book.'

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sackerson - While in no sense an actual portrait of him, Erskine Morris has a strong flavour of David Frost. He is certainly an encapsulation of a middle 60s phenomenon.

Before this recent re-read; while I remembered (and re-enjoyed) much of the book, I found that (apart from Erskine Morris) almost all of what I remembered was in the first half of the novel - and I could not remember anything at all about how it ended. (Which I now realize was because it didn't end - essentially nothing of any significance being resolved.)

One very funny and insightful observation that I had always recalled (and sometimes paraphrased to others) I had in fact misattributed to Kingsley Amis -

"It didn't matter if you made a fool of yourself in front of strangers - he saw that now. It probably didn't matter much if you did it in front of your friends. The shameful thing was doing it in front of strangers, and beings seen by your friends in the process."