NB: Proffered as part of this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.
In his 2005 essay for The Guardian on novels about journalism, "Fleet Street's finest", Christopher Hitchens extolled the virtues of Michael Frayn's second novel, Towards the End of the Morning (1967), noting that it "used to have the status of a cult book among the hacks" and that it had "more or less everything". But Hitchens then ventured that "Admirers of Frayn's second novel are sneered at by those of us who are
in the know, and who appreciate that it is his first novel about
journalism that really demonstrates his genius."
The Tin Men was first published in hardback by Collins in 1965 – actually Frayn's fourth book for the publisher; Collins had previously published three collections of his columns for The Guardian and The Observer (The Day of the Dog, 1962; The Book of Fub, 1963; On the Outskirts, 1964). I bought this copy of the first edition, with its rather battered silver dust jacket (designed by Brian Russell; I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page alongside Russell's other covers), in Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road last year for a fiver – something of an impulse purchase I suppose you'd call it, based on my having read and loved Towards the End of the Morning in 2012 and knowing that The Tin Men too was about journalism (a subject that's long been of interest to me, not least because I used to be a journo – of sorts – myself).
In part anyway. Because while newspaper journalism, especially the tabloid end of the industry, does feature, the novel is actually about the activities of the employees of the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, who are endeavouring to relieve mankind of the onerous burden of having to, for instance, watch sport, or go to church, or read the newspaper – or indeed write for a newspaper: one member of staff, Goldwasser, comes up with "Unit Headline Language", a method of programming a computer so that it automatically generates headlines which will appeal to readers and then fits news stories to those headlines. And not only that:
UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up
By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:
STRIKE THREAT BID
STRIKE THREAT PROBE
STRIKE THREAT PLEA
And so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:
STRIKE THREAT PLEA
STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE
STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE
STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK
STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK HOPE
STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK HOPE STORM
Or the units could be used entirely at random:
LEAK ROW LOOMS
TEST ROW LEAK
LEAK HOPE DASH BID
TEST DEAL RACE
HATE PLEA MOVE
RACE HATE PLEA MOVE DEAL
Into this entirely plausible lunacy Frayn injects an impending visit by the Queen, who is slated to open the Institute's new Ethics Wing, leading to a series of farcical dress rehearsals and an equally farcical climax. As entertaining as all of this is, however, and despite Christopher Hitchens' assertions to the contrary, what's lacking in The Tin Men is the depth of characterisation that Frayn would bring to his sophomore effort. Hugh Rowe's vainglorious and doomed attempts to write the great English novel are amusing enough, but he isn't as convincing a character as Towards the End of the Morning's Bob Bell, and nor is the officious Nunn as persuasive a creation as John Dyson. That said, as someone who likes to think of himself as an open-minded sort – an attitude which can on occasion lead to vacillation – Frayn's description of Haugh, the Head of the Institute's Fashion Department, did give me pause:
...Haugh had an open mind. It was open at the front, and it was open at the back. Opinions, beliefs, philosophies entered, sojourned briefly, and were pushed out at the other end by the press of incoming convictions and systems. Lamarckism, Montanism, Leninism, Buchmanism, Kleinism, Spenglerism – they all blew in with the draught, whirled cheerfully around, and sailed out again. It depended on who had spoken to him last. On Tuesday morning he would meet a man who believed in acupuncture, cheap money, and hand-blocked Victorian wallpaper, and throughout the day he would go round with the sort of quiet, sincere devotion to these ideals that would clearly withstand torture and martyrdom. But on Tuesday evening he would meet a man who pointed out that there were certain elementary logical flaws in the idea of acupuncture, cheap money, and hand-blocked Victorian wallpaper, and on Wednesday he would be radiant with a gentle pity for all those naive and credulous souls who had been taken in by them... He was a profoundly modest man, and in his modesty he knew that since he had evidently been wrong so often in the past, he was in no position now to cast stones at any idea, however wretched, or to refuse to take it in and give it shelter.
Incidentally, I was on the train the other Friday, coming back from London – I'd been
up in town for The Art of Neil Gaiman launch that evening – and sitting around the same table as me were three slightly pissed teenage girls. I was minding my own business, reading my first edition of The Tin Men, when I noticed one of the girls was blearily studying the back of the book. She looked at the quotes on the back for quite a while before muttering, "Michael Frayn. We did some of
his at school." Guessing that she meant some of Frayn's later work – I think Spies (2002) went onto the syllabus in 2006 – I reported that I'd only read some of his early stuff, which I liked, and asked her what she thought of what she'd read. She gave me a small drunken smile and said, "Bit boring."