A Faded Glance of Fleet Street

by NJ McGarrigle

A recent lazy weekend off was filled with my first-time reading of Michael Frayn’s bittersweet journalism romp ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ – and a combination of belly-shaking laughter and nostalgic, almost mournful sighing duly ensued.

Written in 1967, the book, although fiction, came from the pen of someone who worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers, so you can be sure substantial chunks of the story were experienced first or second hand by Frayn, with only the names being changed to protect the not-so-innocent.  It has a surreal workaday heart at the centre of it all, describing the golden age of Fleet Street, where entropy abounds and Frayn’s writing is as mirthful and easy to read as anything from the playful jottings of Wodehouse.

The book rings with truisms that will probably always be part of a journalist’s Sisyphus-like existence: “I toil all the hours God made at this job and somehow I feel I never quite get on top of it. It’s like trying to fill a bottomless bucket. You just about get next week’s stuff straightened out – and already it’s gone, it’s used, it’s forgotten and the week after is on top of you.”  Or the book’s main protagonist, John Dyson, experiencing one of those days when the headline will just not come, albeit for good reason in this case: “(He) sat hyper tensely clenching and unclenching his fingers, trying to think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism.”

Frayn’s work, including earlier novel ‘Tin Men’, deserves to sit along side Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ for biting humour and describing (tongue placed firmly in cheek, or not) that least noble of trades: journalism.

Reading the book forty-five years after it was written has also given it the unlikely guise of a social-historical document – for the only thing that dates the work is that it’s of a time, and industry, that sadly no longer exists.

You will find plenty of journalistic time capsules in Frayn’s amuse-bouche that are probably as scarce in a modern newspaper as (say) an under-worked hack, empathetic accountant, or big-hearted manager: for example, there is Dyson perpetually complaining of feeling too sleepy in the afternoon to get any work done – while each day promising vainly to cut out the beers over the two-hour lunches. Why did He create so few hours in a day in which to edit the nature notes and crosswords, bawls our ink-stained, paper-swamped anti-hero.

Then we have Dyson’s colleague, the old-timer Eddy Moulton, who collates the “In Years Gone By” column with the kind of vigour that could almost equate to somnambulism, except he doesn’t move around that much. Elsewhere, over at the ‘coalface’ of the picture desk, there is the coarse chief Reg Mounce, who, after being given his written notice by the editor “to make other arrangements”, walks defiantly around the office asking which smart bastard is behind the gag. “For no one in this newspaper gets the sack. This isn’t the Express you know!” fumes Mounce.  His anger is partly fuelled by no one seeming to know what the people-shy editor looks like (imagine that form of restraint in today’s endless tirade of media talking-shops). Meanwhile, the book’s summation of journalist’s expenses is best left for you to discover – if you haven’t done so already – and allow yourself a bittersweet chuckle eating your pre-packed lunchtime sandwich, while chained to the desk.

It is doubtful if Frayn would recognise much from ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ in modern media, even if we strip away the book’s parodic veneer; the DNA, if not the culture, has changed significantly and it is unlikely that any newspaper would have such a melange of misfits as those so wickedly sketched by the author.

One theory for this is that the media has now become a genuine career choice for the aspirational classes whom before would have only considered respectable subjects such as medicine, law, and banking etc upon leaving university. Now, they also look towards the trade (or ‘profession’ as they like to call it) of journalism. Not long after I started out in newspapers, one storied writer proudly explained the lay of the land to me: “journalism was always the last refuge for the scoundrel. No more. We are being forced out by the conscientious.” The scowl with which he told me this could have turned the milk in my coffee.

Another reporter I spoke to recently postulated “too many pen pushers, bean counters and clock watchers have made the business of journalism safe, boring and cosy.” (His phrasing made me think of Wodehouse’s creation: Psmith, and his rallying call for a quality press. After taking over the editorial reins of gentle lifestyle journal ‘Cosy Moments’, the wacky eponymous hero makes a radical change to the editorial line and begins a social justice publishing campaign. Inevitably those dark forces with vested interests start to lean on Psmith, upon which he spunkily declares: “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!”)

Reuters newsroom on Fleet Street

Reuters newsroom on Fleet Street

“Nowadays,” continued my erstwhile companion, “a reporter’s job is a glorified office job; stuck at their desks, which are scattered with boxes of herbal tea, their five-a-day fruits and ready meals, while they source their stories through Facebook and Twitter.”

The antithesis to this and someone you could have found in ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ was journalist and bon vivant Noel Botham (the legendary French House pub in Soho, which he part-owned, was his office); Botham was described by John Dale in a ‘Press Gazette’ interview before his death in November as symbolising “free range against the battery farms of Canary Wharf and other media plantations” (The old hack used to soften up his interviewees with lashings of champagne). Another example of the ‘old-school’ is the late Derek Jameson, who became a renowned editor of several national newspapers after working his way up as a copy boy from the East End of London.

Jameson frequently lamented the idea that the media was becoming elitist and how someone from his background wouldn’t stand a chance nowadays. The Sutton Trust, which was established in the UK to promote social mobility and to highlight educational inequality, carried this argument further. It noted in its most recent report on the educational background of journalists that more than half (54%) of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the UK’s entire school population. Meanwhile, a separate survey of journalists and editors suggested that the latest new recruits to the national news media are even more likely to come from privileged backgrounds than those from previous generations because of low pay and insecurity at junior levels; high costs of living in media centres such as London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; and a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry.

The high number of (mainly unpaid) internships currently being offered by media outlets – which, depressingly, in many cases are jobs dressed in poor clothing – also means that only those from advantaged backgrounds can take up these positions, while others are squeezed out.

The age of ‘celebrity’ has not helped journalism’s cause in the last decade either: whether you are a beleaguered, everyday hack peering into that shallow, cheap, infantile puppet show and trying to generate ‘stories’; or you’ve been handed your own column on the basis that your face is either pretty enough or your opinions sufficiently ugly. Frayn’s book was somewhat prescient in this regard – his main character Dyson harbours a long desire to break out of his station in the back office of the paper and become known by featuring on TV programmes dealing with such glamorous issues as race relations, or drainage in Africa. He soon realises better and intuitively goes back to his, if not noble, then at least habitable calling. For there is a common misperception, especially by those standing outside the fishbowl looking in, that working in the media is somehow glamorous; perhaps that was true during the gilded age of Fleet Street and it may also be true of the elite band referenced in the Sutton Trust report. But the media is no different to our society, sadly: the top five per cent bask in the spoils, while the rest have to pick up the toils of the trade, editing the equivalent of Dyson’s “The Country Day By Day” column. Someone has to do it, however banal it may seem.