Friday 18 May 2012

Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s: the Fabulous 50

So, as I mentioned I would be doing at the end of the previous post on Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning, I've updated my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page with a further ten dustjackets, which brings the total number of covers up to fifty. One of those new additions you can see up top: artist Margaret Benyon's design for the 1965 Chatto & Windus first edition of Iris Murdoch's The Red and the Green, which I bought (in Lewes' A & Y Cumming) for Rachel for her recent birthday. The fact that I thought it would make for a nice addition to the Beautiful British Book Jackets gallery, and that its minimalist design reminded me of the Charles Gorham-designed Frayn wrapper (which has also joined the gallery), of course had absolutely no bearing on my purely altruistic decision to buy the book. Er, for Rachel. Ahem.

The rest of the new additions have already appeared elsewhere on Existential Ennui, but I've rephotographed the majority of them, so they look even more splendid now – or at least, better than their no doubt slightly shoddy original appearances. One of those rephotographed jackets, for spy and crime novelist Desmond Cory's Johnny Goes North, I've still not been able to find a first name for the designer (a Mr. Chambers), but on top of that there are other additions – two Gavin Lyall novels, two William Haggard ones, and a Sarah Gainham – where I've drawn a complete blank on any kind of credit. Those I've grouped at the bottom of the page under "Designer Unknown"; if you have an inkling of who the artist or designer was on any of them, do please leave a comment either on this post or on the page itself. UPDATE: And thank you once again to the magnificent Margaret Atwood and everyone else who retweeted the link to the gallery.

And speaking of Desmond Cory, it's to him that I'll be turning next, with a series of posts showcasing a very obscure early Cory crime/espionage thriller – in paperback, no less – and three very scarce Johnny Fedora first editions...

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn (Collins First Edition, 1967): Book Review

Let's round off this run of posts on journalistic books with a review of a novel which is held in high regard by many journalists themselves...

Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning was first published in hardback in the UK by Collins in 1967, under a dustjacket designed by Charles Gorham. First editions/first impressions of the book in any kind of wrapper are quite hard to come by these days (possibly because most first editions are ensconced in the book collections of those aforementioned journos); there are currently only three copies of the Collins first on AbeBooks – one of those sans jacket, another a second impression, and the third with a wrapper that's missing a chunk of the back cover – although there is, at present, an ex-library copy available here. Mine was a lucky eBay win, and is a 1st/1st with a complete jacket (albeit with a few small tears).

Towards the End of the Morning was Frayn's third novel, but although, as the late Christopher Hitchens noted, there are plenty of admirers of others of Frayn's works – not only his novels, such his debut, The Tin Men (1965), but also his many plays, among them Noises Off (1982) – for hacks, Towards the End of the Morning is the text that means the most. Largely set in an unnamed Fleet Street newspaper – reportedly a cross between The Guardian and The Observer (Frayn worked for both) – the novel follows a handful of employees of the paper as they go about their lives toiling in a backwater department of the daily, dreaming of a more exciting existence, and experiencing a series of comical setbacks.

Inevitably, comparisons have been made to the preeminent novel about journalism, Evelyn Waugh's sublime Scoop (1938), but Scoop, with its stylish skewering of the sheep-like herd mentality of the press, actually has more in common with the last book I reviewed, Donald E. Westlake's Trust Me on This (well, up to a point, Lord Copper). Towards the End of the Morning, on the other hand, is an altogether quieter affair. There's no breaking news here, no frantic chasing of stories, merely the everyday, plodding grind of subbing readers' letters (or indeed completely rewriting them), chasing copy from recalcitrant clergymen and trying to keep the stock of crossword puzzles topped up.

There's no real plot to speak of, either. It's a very episodic novel, switching between chapters set in the office, where perpetually perplexed department head John Dyson bemoans his overwhelming workload (whilst not actually seeming to do very much work) while his placid, underachieving subordinate Bob Bell chews toffees, writes book reviews for the New Statesman and occasionally marks up copy (and old Eddy Moulton, keeper of the "Years Gone By" column, snoozes in the background), and those where Frayn delves into the humdrum home lives of the players, detailing Dyson's ongoing battle with a neighbour who persists in dumping his rubbish into Dyson's back garden and Bob's indifferent non-romance with his young girlfriend, Tess, with the occasional calamitous interlude. But what it lacks in plot, Towards the End of the Morning more than makes up for in rich characterisation, beautifully judged dialogue and witty and playful prose.

Almost every page brings a line or passage to relish, whether it be Dyson's frequent, despairing "Oh God!" exclamations at his lot in life, the cross-purpose conversations of the hacks down the pub at lunchtime, or Bob's elaborate evasion of the (possibly imagined) advances of his landlady (also the wife of the paper's irascible picture editor, Mounce, who, throughout the book, blithely ignores the fact that he's effectively been sacked – in a roundabout sort of way – by the distant editor). One excruciatingly farcical episode sees Dyson achieving a long-held ambition by participating in a late-night television discussion programme, only to spend the duration of the broadcast, buoyed by boozy bonhomie, gesticulating wildly, smoking like a chimney and telling his fellow panelists how interesting their points are. (His slow realisation later of how disastrous his performance was is utterly devastating, although, in the event, it turns out barely anyone saw the programme).

Quite apart from the humour, however, there's an elegiac quality to the novel. Even by 1967 there was change was in the wind for Fleet Street, personified in the book by Erskine Morris, a languorously ambitious young graduate latterly installed in Dyson's department. Using an electric typewriter rather than writing longhand, Morris makes short work of the "Years Gone By" column before going on to correct Bob's corrected copy and make in-roads into the features and leaders departments, all to the exasperation of Dyson and the admiration of Bob, who is dazzled by Morris's seemingly effortless momentum and trendy friends. At one point Morris tells Bob he sees himself owning a paper one day, and it's easy to imagine him achieving just that.

Clive James called Towards the End of the Morning "the best Fleet Street novel", but while it's almost certainly that, it's so much more besides. It's a comic study of ordinary folk stuck in dead end office jobs and dull, comfortable relationships, their dreams thwarted by their own lack of ambition or purpose – a book, then, about you, me, and most of the people we know. As Jannie, Dyson's wife, reflects late in the novel: "Life was all thumbs, she thought, a long series of wrong numbers."

Towards the End of the Morning is easily the best book I've read so far this year, with the potential, I suspect, to become one of my favourite ever novels (and as a result of having read it, I'll be returning to Michael Frayn on Existential Ennui before too long). So it's entirely fitting that its elegant Charles Gorham-designed dustjacket – evoking, perhaps, printer's registration colours (while colour would not arrive in British newspapers until the 1980s, colour supplements had been introduced by the Sunday Times and The Observer in, respectively, 1962 and 1964, so those hues on the cover could be taken as another signifier of change on Fleet Street) – will shortly be joining my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – along with one or two other new additions...

Monday 14 May 2012

Book Review: Trust Me on This, by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press, 1988 / Allison & Busby, 1989)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Following on from a post on The Right Stuff, journalist Tom Wolfe's novelistic account of the space race, to finish off this run of journalism and media-related missives we turn to the first of two novels about journalism – and return to the author who kicked off this series: Donald E. Westlake.

Trust Me on This was first published by Mysterious Press in the US in 1988 and by Allison & Busby in the UK in 1989, which is the edition you can see above (and which I blogged about as a Westlake Score aaalllll the way back in August 2010). Our leads are Jack Ingersoll, an editor at the Florida-based Weekly Galaxy, and Sara Joslyn, a newly recruited reporter for the Galaxy, who, whilst driving to the paper on her first day, chances across a car on the hard shoulder, in which is the body of a man who's been shot in the head. Sara reports the body to the guard at the Galaxy gate, and then gets swept up in her new job, only occasionally wondering about the dead man – how he got there, who killed him, and whether the killer has anything to do with the Galaxy.

If that makes Trust Me on This sound like a murder mystery, then let me assure you that it's really not – or rather, only in passing. Westlake is much more interested in the goings-on at the Galaxy – essentially a stand-in for supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer (and indeed for muckraking British papers like The Sun, the Daily Star, and the late, unlamented News of the World) – than he is in the mechanics of a whodunnit – so much so that the murder subplot feels slightly tacked on, as if Westlake felt he had to include it in order to get his readers to buy a novel about gutter journalism.

Because it's the inner workings of the Galaxy that are the real draw here. Populated by a cast of memorable grotesques, among them slimy, feline editor (and rival to Jack) Boy Cartwright, obsequious editor-in-chief Jacob Harsch, and hard-nosed, amoral reporter Ida Gavin, the Galaxy is owned by publisher Bruno deMassi – "Massa", as his employees call him – whose office is in an elevator, moving from floor to floor as his needs arise. Each morning Massa gathers his various editorial departments around his desk – which slides out of the elevator – to pick over their offerings, drawing a red line through those which displease him, and responding enthusiastically to the likes of "Does Sex Cure Gallstones?" and "The Galaxy Clones a Human Being".

But the story Massa wants above all others is John Michael Mercer, star of the network TV smash Breakpoint. Massa is obsessed with Mercer – who in turn despises the Galaxy – so when word reaches the Galaxy that Mercer is to be wed, all of the paper's considerable resources are dedicated to finding out to whom, where, and when, culminating in Jack's entire editorial team decamping to Martha's Vineyard and launching an all-out assault on the wedding – by land, sea and air.

Trust Me on This is, at root, a comic novel – and a very good one at that – but there's much within it that rings true. As Westlake notes in "A Word in Your Ear" at the start of the book, "Were there a factual equivalent to the Weekly Galaxy, it would be much worse than the paper I have invented, its staff and ownership even more lost to all considerations of truth, taste, proportion, honor, morality or any shred of common humanity." The novel frequently returns to the blurry line between reporting the news, and creating it. In its less offensive form, concocting news can mean actively seeking out a quote to fit a story, but the ultimate corollary of that is, of course, wholesale fabrication. One relatively minor episode neatly illustrates this. Drawing a blank on the backstory of Mercer's romance with his wife-to-be, Felicia, Jack invents a story about how Felicia and Mercer met, then instructs Ida to find a friend of Mercer's and get him to recite the tale on the phone so that the Galaxy will have it on tape, thus standing the story up both to the paper's fact-checkers and in the event of any future legal action.

It's hard to believe those kinds of practices occur out here in the "real" world (although perhaps easier to credit in the wake of the phone hacking scandal), but funnily enough, around the same time I read that sequence, George Michael was tweeting about a very similar News of the World sting:

All that said, however, and despite the didactic intentions expressed in his preface, Westlake almost revels in the antics of the Galaxy's reporters, delighting in their often ingenious schemes to get the stories that Massa demands. Certainly he liked Jack and Sara enough to spin them off into a sequel, Baby, Would I Lie? (1994), and the final unveiling of the killer comes as something of an afterthought, overshadowed by an unhinged quest to capture a photograph of recently deceased country singer Johnny Crawfish in his casket. The methods deployed by Jack and co. may be underhand (and occasionally illegal), and the Galaxy – with its pressure cooker atmosphere and bizarre layout (cubicles are denoted merely by lines on the floor, but woe betide anyone who walks through these invisible "walls") – may come across as a horrible place to work, but in the course of their duties, the various (well-paid) editors and reporters have rather more fun than that which might reasonably be expected of players in a purely cautionary tale...

By the time Trust Me on This was published in the States, the newspaper trade in the UK had changed beyond all recognition, as the great papers deserted their traditional home of Fleet Street in favour of Wapping and Docklands. But the final novel I'll be reviewing in this run of posts was written and published in Britain a good two decades prior to Trust Me on This, and paints a very different picture of the trade of journalism...