Michael Frayn would be exclusively celebrated as an inventive novelist if he were not also celebrated as an inventive playwright. Also ranking as a provocative plain-language philosopher, he continually poses the question of where his creative identity is located. The answer is easy if you look far enough back. The multiple activities of his mature career are all anchored in the journalism he wrote when he left Cambridge and came to Fleet Street at the very beginning of the 1960s. Few feature columnists have had such a solid background in language. His natural capacities as a linguistic analyst in English weren’t hurt at all by his time as a Russian interpreter. The focal point of his journalism was his “Miscellany” column for the Guardian: a stream of comic invention unmatched since Beachcomber, whom he admired, and, later, selected and edited. Frayn’s own three main collections of columns were The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963) and At Bay in Gear Street (1967). Frayn fans who own those volumes in paperback generally try to get hold of two copies of each, in case the first one gets read to pieces by borrowers.
The introductory selection given here comprises three of my favourite pieces from each of the three collections, to a total of nine. This, I think is as near as a physical demonstration can come to proving that the newspaper column and the poem can be very closely related forms. In July 2007 the complete corpus of Frayn’s work in this form was republished under the title Collected Columns (Methuen), a solid volume which, to the owners of those early fugitive booklets, will provide the solace of an invulnerable back-up system for access to the precious original material, with the emphasis on the adjective “original”: nobody else, not even Peter Cook, could make the stuff up with the consistently high quality-control of Frayn. He raised the standard through the roof for the whole of Fleet Street, in those thrilling days when Fleet Street was still a place, and not just a memory. Characteristically, he wrote the best Fleet Street novel, Towards the End of the Morning. Its wealth of comic effects put it into permanent competition with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, but Frayn was not drawing on Waugh. He was drawing on his own column.
Photo: © Jane Bown
Photo: © Jane Bown