Hugh Barnes

  • Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
    Harvill, 255 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 00 221822 4
  • Sweet Dreams by Michael Frayn
    Harvill, 223 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 00 221884 4
  • The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alasdair Gray
    Canongate, 144 pp, £7.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 86241 072 X
  • Lean Tales by James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alasdair Gray
    Cape, 286 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 224 02262 8
  • Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
    Deutsch, 214 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 233 97752 X
  • Family Dancing by David Leavitt
    Viking, 206 pp, £8.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 670 80263 8
  • The Whitbread Stories: One by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson
    Hamish Hamilton, 184 pp, £4.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 241 11544 2

Briefly during the second act Michael Frayn’s stage-play, Make and Break, transcends its setting, a Frankfurt trade fair, touching on a general gloom. Mrs Rogers is treating Garrard, a goatish sales rep, to the fruits of Buddhism. It is late in the day. Elsewhere assignations are arranged, faces stuffed, drinks swilled. Mrs Rogers’s seducer is impatient of nirvana; besides his hand rests all ready on her knee. Although she cannot recall the ‘proper technical term’ for suffering, she’s certain it stems from desire. The exchange is heady and brief – more like a business opportunity than a seminar. Revels intrude. It’s a good example of the way Frayn makes us laugh, and of the absence of privacy that distinguishes farce and provides these two novels now reissued with a common theme.

Towards the End of the Morning focuses its suffering on Fleet Street, fleshing out the drab angst of hacks. Happily there are moments of oasis. Tessa, for instance, impersonates a guardian angel, immaculate, horsey and sloane. In another life she might have collared a duke or a prince, even the heir to the throne. Stepping off the Newbury train, on her way to her lover, she notices how Paddington Station has deteriorated, no longer ‘full of innocent bustle presaging lunch at Marshall and Snelgrove’s and tea at Fortnum’s’. Instead ‘girls with white faces and heavily kohled eyes hurried out towards Praed Street’ – the book is best read with a streetfinder close to hand – ‘as if hastening to appointments with abortionists in seedy consulting rooms behind the Edgware Road’. Alas, times have changed since 1967, when the novel was first published, as much in Bayswater and environs as in the world beyond; but deterioration continues unabated. Inevitably this affects responses to the novel. If the humour seems fresh as ever, much of it has succumbed to nostalgia for ‘this prosperous decade between two disastrous economic depressions’ (as Alasdair Gray recalls it in The Fall of Kelvin Walker, subtitled ‘A Fable of the Sixties’). It occurs to John Dyson, Frayn’s downtrodden hero, that ‘failure was the secular equivalent of sin.’ But even his failure now seems like success. He and Bob Bell work out of the same office collating ‘Years Gone By’ or ‘The Country Day by Day’, duelling with bishops and others reluctant with copy. The common purpose of their lives is to resist the irresistible ebb of selfesteem. Dyson considers himself the victim of each possible permutation of unsuccess. His paranoia extends beyond professional interests into areas of domestic planning. The early commitment to a Georgian or Regency house in some gutted (but soon to be gentrified) district near London’s centre – because ‘they did not want to live in the suburbs, in an ugly suburban house with uncongenial neighbours’ – yielded to market forces, spiralling downwards through central Early Victorian and suburban Early Victorian until it came to rest finally at Spadina Road (‘an ugly suburban house with uncongenial neighbours’). Dyson was no luckier christening his children. Graduates’ whimsy was responsible for ‘Gawain’, disposing to chivalry. But the child was disappointing, grew up reticent and dreamy, unsuited to the contraction into ‘Garry’. ‘Damian’ had opposite, ‘rather earthy and coarse’ results. Now lighting-up times and their proposed transfer to Dyson’s page haunt him as the spectre of a final indignity.

Frayn’s characters inhabit small worlds confined by yearnings. A trade fair in Make and Break, synchronous and unsuspended disbelief in Noises Off, the Cuba of Clouds (Angel tells Mara, an English journalist: ‘this country is not the world. The world is in other places’): these are similar devices. Likewise in Towards the street of shame seems to its functionaries an inexorable universe. Dyson dreams of television celebrity and its benefits – theatre tickets, restaurant reservations, Gawain and Damian at the right schools – but his single appearance breaks new ground in humiliation. He is invited to enrich a studio discussion of race relations with accounts of Spadina Road. At the preliminary dinner with his co-panellists, he drinks too much, enamoured of this self-important world in which ignorant opinions are exchanged to choruses of approval. But as the arc-lights go up and the experts take their places, veterans dispense with deference, leaving Dyson to platitudes of ‘absolute fascination’. The alternative to floundering in failure is to embrace it. This is Bob’s chosen course. He neglects ambitions, unless, that is, coming home to find your chops grilled by women with small bottoms and spiritual expressions qualifies.

He hasn’t these idealised houris outside of magazines and so pro tempore makes do with Tessa. Bob’s single bed confines them to acrobatics bent on survival: ‘it hadn’t been a night they had lived through; it had been the Dark Ages – all seven centuries of them with wars and oppressions, visions and turbulences.’ But we must look elsewhere for the novel’s truly tragic figure, to the husband of Bob’s landlady. Poor old detested Reg collects memos from his editor inviting him to make ‘other arrangements’, which he dismisses as jokes – for reasons of expediency, not insouciance – doubtful that such things exist.

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