Travels with a Typewriter: A Reporter at Large. By Michael Frayn
It’s a paradox that would bother Lord Reith or William Russell were they alive today. We are better provided with news sources than ever before. The world is more connected and we seem to know what’s going on everywhere at any time of day, mediated through satellites and the winning smiles of affable news “personalities�?. The footage is amazing. You can even watch it on your phone. Yet somehow our understanding seems shallow.
It’s an argument that strikes one when reading the “old fashioned�? reportage in this anthology of Michael Frayn’s dispatches from around the world. Frayn is best known today as a playwright and novelist. But back when these pieces were published in the 1960s and ‘70s he was a journalist, and clearly one of the best, writing freelance for the Observer. It’s hard to imagine them appearing in the same paper today, and not simply because some of them are very long. These articles – on everywhere from Japan to the England of Anthony Powell – cherish the mess, contradiction and complexity of what we think of as reality.
In his introduction Frayn talks amusingly about his apprenticeship on the Manchester Guardian – “In my early pieces…it was always starting to rain quietly. Pale moons rose irrelevantly behind the dying clogmakers�? – and how it was the Observer’s journalism rather than his own paper’s writing that he wanted to emulate, particularly that of John Gale. “I was captivated by the apparent innocence of his observation, the apparent naivety of his style.�? But it is another aspect he identifies in Gale that comes closest to summing up Frayn’s charm. “He had an eye for the inconsequential detail and an ear for the oblique remark.�?
The best of the fourteen pieces are those where Frayn makes an alien society seem, if not banal, then imaginable at a practical level, such as his description of East Berlin, which although “obstinately unlovable�? has good restaurants, well stocked shops, and cheap public transport. But it is his essay on Cuba, “A Farewell to Money�?, that really stands out. Written in 1969, ten years after Castro came to power, it is scrupulously fair, empathetic, and full of richly hued vignettes, such as his account of the courts system that betrays the well-meaning drudgery at the heart of the revolution. But with nuance comes judgement – Frayn never mistakes journalism for giving equal airtime to both “sides�?. His greatest comic strength lies in depicting the absurd, and in Cuba that is never far away: “The whole economy is being waged like a war, on a death or glory basis. Particularly agriculture…Weaknesses in the front are suddenly spotted – no onions! – and men and materials are poured in to secure them, regardless of cost.�? But deep down he’s interested in humanity, and the piece ends with a memorable line that one doubts would have been fashionable amongst most liberals at the end of the sixties: “Perhaps ten years of sour oranges is more than anyone can be expected to stand.�?
In the introduction Frayn is witty on just how different being a reporter is compared to writing novels. How unformed and intractable reality is, how it doesn’t fit into words, how contradictory it can be – “and there’s so much of everything! All of it inextricably together.�? Only in the hands of a master does it look easy, does the writing flow so well and the sense eventually emerge from the chaos.
In contrast, today’s reporting often seems to mistake superfluous facts for nuance, an angle for judgement, and a non-committal sharing of the microphone for objectivity. Frayn’s book is nostalgically titled Travels with My Typewriter. One wonders if the corresponding text, Travels with my Blackberry, will have quite the same power. For amid all the recycled noise, the explosion of specialist news outlets and the shrill narrowing of the mainstream news agenda, we need our patient, perceptive generalists more than ever. Perhaps someone can buy Frayn a ticket to Pyongyang?