20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Smashwords, William Weintraub

‘Why Rock the Boat’ by William Weintraub

Fiction – Kindle edition; Smashwords; 160 pages; 2011.

The first law of journalism is that something must always be found to fill the space between the advertisements.

I love a good journalism novel and this one, by Canadian writer William Weintraub, fits right into that category. First published in 1961, Why Rock the Boat is about a rookie reporter, Harry Barnes, trying to make a name for himself on a Montreal newspaper that is in serious financial trouble.

Surviving redundancy

Harry hopes he can survive the constant rounds of lay-offs on the Montreal Daily Witness by making himself indispensable, but first he has to get off the general assignment beat (doing mundane jobs such as taking down the names of funeral attendees for publication) and onto the slightly more prestigious hotel beat (interviewing interesting guests).

He knows that if he keeps practising his writing during quiet moments in the office he will get better at his job. What he doesn’t realise is that he should never leave his joke stories lying around for they are bound to get published, whether by accident or design. And so that is how one of Harry’s practise stories makes it into print:

“This man was corned, loaded and pissed to the very gills,” Judge Elphege Boisvert said in Criminal Court yesterday as he sentenced Philip L. Butcher, local newspaper executive, to two years’ hard labour. Butcher, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, was arrested Tuesday in the lobby of the Imperial George Hotel, where he had climbed up the big Christmas tree and, with obscene cries, was throwing ornaments down on passing citizens.

Fortunately, Harry gets away with it, and an older reporter, whose career is on the slide, gets blamed — and sacked — for it instead. This sets into motion the pattern of the novel: a succession of blackly funny set pieces about Harry’s cheeky mishaps, all of which he somehow manages to get away with.

Feels contemporary

Why Rock the Boat is set in the 1940s, but there’s so much about it that feels relevant today — almost 80 years on.

It not only debunks the myth that newspapers were hugely profitable until the arrival of the internet and social media, it dismisses the idea that there was ever a “golden age” of journalism where ethics always trump the chase for profit.

And it shows how journalistic jobs have always been under threat, whether through lack of resource or a misunderstanding of what journalists actually do so that others feel they could do it better. For example, the following paragraph, about PR people taking over the world, feels deliciously spot-on today:

Public Relations, Erskine had told him in the car on the way up, was the coming thing. Reporters would eventually become relics of the past, with practically all stories “pre-written” by firms like Erskine-Gainsborough-Gotch and “tailored” to fit each paper’s needs. All of them, from the humblest Bellringers to the mightiest Rotary Club, would have their P.R. agencies to tell “their story” for them in a way that would create the best impression. Industry, labour, government, police forces, criminals, lawyers, churches – everybody would have their P.R. outlets to make sure the papers got things straight. Newspapers would just have a few editors to get the press releases ready for the printers. Eventually, Erskine said dreamily, the editors themselves might be eliminated and the press releases would go directly to the printers. What about reporters, Harry had asked. There would be no jobs for them. No, said Erskine, there would be plenty of work for them in the P.R. agencies, turning out the press releases.

Role of women

Perhaps the one element that makes the book seem slightly dated is the role of women in the media.

In this novel, Harry is bewitched by Julia Martin, a rival reporter on another title, who just happens to be female, something rare in the newspaper game. When he is put on the same beat as her, Harry’s superior, Scannell, offers the following advice:

“The whole subject of women in the newspaper business is extremely disagreeable,” Scannell was saying. “But we have to face up to it, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now this is – um – a little embarrassing,” Scannell said, lighting a cigarette and butting it out. “But women reporters can be fantastically competitive. There is no feminine wile they will not use to get a story. Weeping, of course, is standard procedure. Hence the term sob sister. But they have far more insidious methods. You know, of course, what I mean.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“It can be pretty sordid, my boy,” said Scannell. “But a female reporter may go to great lengths to get a male rival to share his exclusive story with her. She may even – uh, how shall I put this? – she may even offer him certain – uh – favours. Do you understand?”

As you may imagine, I highlighted a great deal of quotes from this book, because it’s so deliciously funny in places. No one is immune from Weintraub’s scathing commentary: readers (or “civilians” as he describes them) are dull and small-minded, advertisers are too easily offended, editors are bullies, newspaper managers are hypocritical and only interested in money, not a free press, and reporters are cynical and manipulative.

There’s some terrific characters in it, including Philip Butcher, whose role on the paper is two-fold: to keep news out of it and to fire reporters whenever he feels like it, and Scannell, the City Editor, an anxious man who “showed an un-Witnesslike interest in the actual content of the paper”.

While the romantic element of the story is a little clichéd — young male virgin tries to impress beautiful colleague by doing and saying things that aren’t exactly true — in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. This is a fun story with plenty of belly laughs and it makes a worthy addition to my collection of novels about journalists and old-time journalism.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one in January 2012 after I’d seen a review by the late KevinfromCanada. We both shared a love of newspaper novels, so as soon as I saw this one on Kevin’s blog I knew I had to buy it! 

Andrew Martin, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 245 pages; 1999.

Just as Rupert Murdoch’s print media empire was going into freefall — the phone-hacking revelations, the News of the World closure, the BSkyB takeover bid being scuppered, the arrests of past editors, the public enquiries into News International’s behaviour, resignations of two top MET Police officers (need I go on?) — I was mid-way through Andrew Martin’s Bilton, a novel about journalism.

In some ways the novel suffered by its comparison to events unfolding in London’s “Fleet Street” — and seemed, somehow, the poorer for it, probably because it just seemed so damn tame. And yet this is a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny — preposterously so, I might add.

At the time of publication, in 1999, it must have seemed a little inventive, because surely star-hungry politicians would never manipulate the media in such an uncouth, underhand manner and journalists would never turn themselves into news stories, would they?

Because that’s what happens to Bilton, a miserable but successful “comment and analysis” journalist, who accidentally throws a cup of coffee in the face of the prime minister and becomes headline news.

The prime minister, Lazenby, is well into his second term and is “veering from ambivalent support to definite hostility”. His new policy of Social Dynamics — which is alarmingly similar to present prime minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea — has been exposed as a sham; it pretends to be egalitarian but is actually about making money for a select few.

The incident couldn’t happen at a better time for Bilton, who is sick of his job and feels like he’s been passed over for promotion once too often. Overnight he becomes a hero and is transformed into a media sensation.

The story is told through the eyes of lifestyle journalist Adrian Day, who befriends Bilton before the incident occurs and is present when it happens. He knows the truth — that Bilton was incredibly drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. It was not a “political act” planned in advance, which is the way that Bilton and the media spin it.

As Bilton’s stardom increases, he begins to lose his integrity. Somewhere along the line you know that the truth will out, and it isn’t going to be pleasant — for anyone.

The novel is billed as the funniest fiction about journalism since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I agree that there are some very funny moments in it. It also shares Waugh’s sense of the ridiculous, when a war breaks out between Britain and Russia that no one quite knows how to cover properly. Indeed, our narrator is called into the office on the day that Russia attempts to fire the first of three nuclear weapons at the heart of London, and is told by his boss that he wants him to edit a new Sunday supplement.

“…and we’ve decided to call it ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’, after the Lionel Richie song. Before I go any further, what do you think of the name?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s…”
“The beauty of the whole idea,” Piper ploughed on, “is that ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’ will never, and I mean never—” he banged the table ferociously — “mention the war. It’ll be consumer-oriented, lively, funny, irreverent and, above all, irrelevant, and we think you’re just the man to edit it.”

The book pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, and shows how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion. It cuts very close to the bone. And dare I suggest the following: it should be required reading for anyone naive enough to think that the current News International scandal is the first time that the media and Downing Street have formed “inappropriate” relationships with each other.

Sadly, Bilton appears to be out of print, but you can pick up very cheap second-hand copies from Amazon marketplace and elsewhere.

Annalena McAfee, Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Into the canon of comedic novels about journalism comes Annalena McAfee’s delightfully fun and adroit The Spoiler.

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. One comes from posh stock, the other has working-class origins.

The two women meet when Tamara is sent to interview Honor for Zeitgeist, a highbrow glossy magazine supplement, in what could be a terrific break for the younger journalist. But the interview in Honor’s Gothic red-brick mansion flat, to help promote Honor’s newly published book, Dispatches from a Dark Place: The Collected Honor Tait, does not go according to plan.

First, Tamara is late. Second, she brings a peace-offering — a big bouquet of lilies — which only inflames her interviewee, who hates flowers. Third, she gets lumbered with a second-rate photographer, who is patronising and sullen. And fourth, Tamara is slightly ill prepared — she hasn’t yet found the time to read Honor’s book so has to feign knowledge about it.

From thereon in the interview goes down hill, with Honor acting impatient and occasionally rude (“I hope you don’t think you’re an artist too, dear. There’s nothing more absurd than a reporter who thinks she’s an artist”), while Tamara does her utmost to act professional (“She had come here to get a story, to advance her career, not to make a friend”).

But throwing these two women in a room together is ripe for comedy as one misunderstanding follows another. It is, effectively, the generation gap writ large, as Tamara’s education fails to enlighten her on all manner of subjects, as this exchange demonstrates:

‘A voice recorder and a notebook?’ Honor asked, arching her sparse eyebrows at the tiny machine. […]
‘Belt and braces. If one fails, the other won’t let me down,’ Tamara said.
Honor leaned towards her, as if about to share a confidence.
‘Very wise, dear,’ she said. ‘It would be disastrous if one of your stories were to be lost to the reading public. Like Alexandria’s Library all over again.’ […]
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ she said, with a light laugh intended to suggest that she got the joke but was generous enough to let it pass. In her notebook she wrote: Chk: who is Alexandria? What happened to her library?

The basic plot of The Spoiler revolves around Tamara trying to write the best feature she possibly can on Honor, while Honor tries her best to avoid the possibility of Tamara digging up any dirt on her. As you might have guessed, both women, and particularly Honor, are not all that they might seem.

Without giving away crucial plot spoilers, Tamara might write celebrity gossip, but she works for a pittance and is continually trying to help out her drug-addicted brother whom she loves very much. She gives away her heart too easily (she has an affair with a colleague that hurts her deeply), but is desperate to make her career a success.

Meanwhile Honor, who is regarded as the “doyenne of British journalism”, is not the saint everyone thinks she is. While she’s covered everything from the Nazi death camps to the Korean war, hung out with the Hollywood elite and campaigned for all kinds of good causes, she has a reputation for sleeping around (“three husbands read thirty lovers, at least”) and rumour has it that she (still) prefers much younger men. But is this merely gossip, or does Honor have a secret private life that would ruin her should it be exposed by the press? And what lengths will Tamara go to in search of a good story?

The crux of this comes towards the end of the novel, which means you have to wade through a lot of other stuff first, namely McAfee’s insights into the shifting world of journalistic practices and ethics at the end of the 1990s (“This internet business is just a fad, bound for obsolence. It’s the hot-air gramophone and the Sinclair C5 all over again. They’ll never make money with it long term”), and subsidiary narrative threads about Tamara’s personal life.

But as a whole the story holds together very well, and the little twists make it an entertaining read. The denouement is a particularly good and surprising one.

I particularly loved the humour in this novel and laughed out loud a lot. And many of the descriptions, of people, of places, of situations and predicaments are vivid and well drawn. I was particularly taken with this simple sentence, near the start of the novel:

Tamara watched as the lights went on, a window at a time, in the building opposite, turning it into an illuminated Advent calendar of domestic interiors.

The Spoiler is a rather witty satire on the world of journalism, and the comparisons to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning are appropriate — with one tiny exception: it’s lovely to have females in the lead roles for a change!

Amazon Encore, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Richard Hine, Setting

‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine


Fiction – Kindle edition; Amazon Encore; 296 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Having been a newspaper journalist in the past, I am partial to novels that are set in newspaper offices. Richard Hine’s Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch certainly fits the bill, but this is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side, this one looks at the advertising and publishing side.

The story is told in the first person by Russell Wiley, the sales development director on the Daily Business Chronicle, a New York-based publication, which was formerly owned by Burke-Hart Publishing, but which has recently been subsumed by the Ghosh — “pronounced ‘gauche’, never ‘gosh'” — Corporation.

Russell’s role involves helping the paper’s sales people sell more advertising pages. But it is an uphill battle. The industry is in terminal decline. There’s not enough new readers to replace the ones that are dying off. And the only strategy anyone seems intent on is a short-term one in which cutting costs and letting people go is the only way to ensure growth.

We read in our own and other newspapers how Larry Ghosh intends to return Burke-Hart Publishing and its flagship publication, The Daily Business Chronicle, to a new era of profitability. We read in management memos that we are looking to change the DNA of our division. We witness the influx of new managers, consultants and free-floating strategists — people who seem to speak a different language than we are used to and who measure success by different metrics.

Despite all the doom and gloom — advertising revenue is down 40 per cent — Russell turns down a job offer with Google six months before their IPO, because he “thought newspapers still had a role to play: helping us make sense of the world at least once every twenty-four hours”. His decision to stay with the Chronicle is aided by a promotion, an upped bonus target and a misguided sense of loyalty.

But as the newspaper’s financial situation worsens, Russell, who is in his late 30s, realises he might have made a mistake. He’s stuck on a “slow train to obscurity” and needs to get out. Or, as he so eloquently puts it, he is…

…stuck in the world of middle management. Navigating my way through a world defined by hiring freezes, reductions in force and faux-generous severance packages. Buried under an increasing workload. Getting calls from out-of-work former colleagues still looking for jobs—while the headhunters have all gone quiet. I’ve dug myself into a hole. I assumed my performance would speak for itself. I had faith that management would recognize and reward good work. Then I sat back and watched as other people—aggressive, hard-charging, permanently networking types—charged ahead. I let it happen. Why? Because I was too busy digging my hole to do anything else. I didn’t have time to deal with all the networking. I didn’t realize the subtle difference between being labeled a high performer instead of a high potential. But that’s all got to change. I can’t sit back anymore.

On the home front, things aren’t much better. His relationship with his wife of nearly 13 years is fraught, and it’s got to the point where he keeps track of how many days it’s been since they last had sex. (When the book opens it has been “twenty-five days. Nearly four weeks. I’m not supposed to be keeping tabs anymore”.)

While the book is essentially an insightful look at what happens when traditional media fails to adapt to the digital age, you don’t need to know anything about the way in which newspapers are run to enjoy it. Anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate environment will find much that is familiar here. This is a good example:

We like to promote collegiality. Our performance management system is directional, based on the personal, nonscientific observations of departmental managers. There’s no penalty for poor performance built into our grading system. We don’t have the annual cull of the lame, the weak and the unproductive. When business gets bad and layoffs come, we start to panic. We reduce headcount randomly. We’re just as likely to eliminate star performers or reliable workers as we are to chop away the real dead wood.

I realise much of what I have quoted in this review might make the book sound awfully heavy going, but Hine writes with a lightness of touch that makes Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch a delightful read. Like most novels set in a newspaper office, it’s full of comic moments. It’s something to do with the kooky characters that people these places that make it prone to harvest in this way. Take Barbara for example:

She’s worked here since 1975 and seems not to have updated her wardrobe or her job skills since then. Because jobs at my level no longer justify full-time assistants, Barbara is supposed to support my entire department. But beyond the fact that she sometimes answers my phone and offers to transfer people into my voicemail, I simply don’t have any work I can give her with confidence. […] Despite all that, Barbara has taught herself the skills she needs to upload digital photographs of her grandchildren and email them to her friends and family around the world. She is also, I am told, an expert at placing last-minute bids in online auctions for a certain kind of collectible porcelain figurine.

There are plenty of other characters in this book which will seem uncannily familiar to anyone who has worked in an office or managed staff. Hine has also successfully captured the daily politics and shenanigans that go on (he paints a rather withering, but pitch-perfect, description of a consultant brought in to solve the Chronicle‘s woes that had me tittering over my Kindle).

While the plot is relatively simple — will Russell escape imminent disaster and live to see another day (or career)? — this is a fast-paced, hugely enjoyable, read. My only quibble is the horrible cover that makes this book look cheap and nasty. I’d never pick this up if I saw it in a shop.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Tom Rachman

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 336 pages; 2010.

In recent years I’ve read several short story collections masquerading as novels. For example, both Alaa As Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers told the individual and interconnected stories of residents living in the same building, the former in Cairo, the latter in Manhattan.

Colum McCann did something similar in last year’s prize-winning novel Let The Great World Spin, using Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 as a kind of bridging link to tell the stories of a diverse range of characters living in the city at that time. Even Christos Tsiolkas has got in on the act: his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Slap, looks at the lives and loves of various residents in the Melbourne suburbs, using a controversial slap at a family barbecue as the particular incident that links all the short stories together.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists uses this structure too, but this time the link is a busy newspaper office in downtown Rome where each of the characters is employed. The unnamed paper is an English-language publication with a global readership and is largely staffed by expat Americans. There are 11 characters all told, so that means there are 11 short stories, each of which are roughly 25 pages in length. That’s plenty of space to flesh out their eccentricities and foibles, and to develop them into fully-rounded human beings. But not enough that you get more than a brief snap shot of their present day lives circa 2007.

In between each chapter (short story) Rachman provides a brief update on the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 at a time “when nobody’s making real money out of something like this”, through to its peak in the early 1980s when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high, and then charting its slow decline as circulations and revenues got hit, first by television then the internet, until the present day in which circulation is down, the paper lacks a website and closure looks imminent. It’s a fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, some of which cuts very close to the bone for this particular reader!

The newspaper theme is borne out by the chapter headings, which are all headlines — “Global warming good for ice creams”, “Markets crash over fears of China slowdown”, “Bush slumps to new low in polls” — under which the relevant job title of the particular character is also listed  — everyone from corrections editor, to news editor, editor-in-chief to publisher are represented.

And while much of the content is tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism (think Evelyn Waugh’s delightfully funny Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning), there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; the 30-something business editor who works long, hard hours is so lonely and starved of companionship she becomes involved with the dodgy Irish chap who burgles her flat; the obituary writer has been so sidelined in his career it takes the death of someone close to him to spur him on to achieve better things.

But, typically, the chapter I most enjoyed — “The sex lives of Islamic extremists” — was the stand-out funny one. It tells the story of Winston Cheung, a hapless graduate, who moves to Egypt in order to apply for the job of Cairo stringer despite the fact he doesn’t have a clue about journalism (“Every day in Cairo news events take place. But where? At what time?”). He is led astray by a highly experienced foreign correspondent, Rich Snyder, who is competing for the same job. Rich wears combat trousers, never stops boasting about his scoops and awards (“It’s so dumb – I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But, whatever.”) and is an expert freeloader. When he runs off with Winston’s house key and laptop, it looks like Winston’s chance at getting the job is over…

As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business. I have KevinfromCanada to thank for tipping me off about The Imperfectionists and would urge you to read his review for another take on the same book.

Alternatively, you can wait for the film: apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has snapped up the rights to it.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Monica Dickens, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 222 pages; 1977.

For two-and-a-half years, in the mid 1990s, I was a reporter on a provincial weekly newspaper in Australia. It was my first job as a journalist — and I loved it. So many interesting and off-the-wall things happened during that time that I often thought one day I’m going to write a book about this*.  Alas, Ms Monica Dickens has beaten me to it!

My Turn to Make the Tea was first published in 1951. It has a distinctly autobiographical feel to it (Dickens, who just so happens to be Charles Dickens’ great grand-daughter, did work as a newspaper reporter for a short time and later became a columnist for Woman’s Own magazine) and reads very much like the diary of a young reporter learning the ropes. There’s no real plot of which to speak, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because this is a witty and wholly entertaining story in its own right. Dickens expertly conveys all the petty drama of working in a newsroom, but she’s a dab hand at revealing the ups and downs of living in a boarding house populated by a cast of wonderful characters and ruled by a strict take-no-prisoners landlady.

The book opens with our narrator (dubbed Poppy by her colleagues “for no better reason than that a Sunday paper was running a crude cartoon about a blonde called Poppy Pink”) apologising to a disgruntled reader who’s turned up in the reception of the Downingham Post complaining “you’ve made a libel of me. […] I could sue, you know.” The gut-wrenching fear that this evokes in a rookie reporter is palpable, and not helped when she confesses to her fellow reporters that she needs to print an apology in the next edition.

“Apology?” said Vic. “You’re for it. The old man [the editor] hates putting them in. Says it’s the hallmark of second-rate journalism.” He imitated Mr Pellet’s crusted accents to the life.
“Well, but surely, if it saves a libel action –”
“I said, he hates putting in apologies,” repeated Vic, who could be annoying when he liked.
“Perhaps I might get it in without him seeing.”
They laughed scornfully. The editor saw every word of copy that was written.

Indeed the editor, Mr Pellet, is the quintessential newspaper editor of the time, prone to high blood pressure, a raging temper and very strong views about journalism. But to Poppy he doesn’t look like she expects an editor to look. She describes him as looking like “a man who prods pigs with a stick on market day” and later goes on to confess that he is the “most unliterary-looking person I had ever seen” .

Journalism is not literature, he was always telling me.  I thought it ought to be, although the others downstairs told me that when I had been there as long as they had, I wouldn’t waste my time thinking up original adjectives which the old man always replaced with some of the tried favourites from stock.

The book largely works by showing how Poppy’s misconceptions about journalism fall by the wayside as the practicalities of producing a weekly newspaper fall into place. This was in the day when reporters carried out all their reporting in person — not by telephone or email — and everything was written up by hand or using the office’s sole clunky manual typewriter.

Later, Poppy has grand ideas about introducing a woman’s column or making up letters to the editor that would be of interest to a female readership. But these are shot down by Mr Pellet before they even get off the ground.

“Everyone who comes here,” he said, “starts off by thinking this is a lousy old rag and they must have been sent from Heaven to bring it up to date. Victor, Mike, even Murray — they all started like that. It didn’t last, when they rumbled what the job was. Do you know why people read this paper? Because they’ve been reading it for umpteen years, and it’s still more or less the same as the first copy they ever read. It’s safe. They know where they are. In Downingham they’ve been eating meat pie and chips on Saturday nights since the world began, and if they were suddenly asked to eat their joint on Saturday and their pie on Sunday they’d think the bottom had dropped out of life.”

Oh, how very true this all sounds!

My Turn to Make the Tea is fairly light and fluffy stuff, but its packed with terrific characters and a lot of humour. Despite being set in the early 1950s, it reminded me of my own stint working on a similar type of newspaper, and later, of training graduates who thought they were journalists because they could write well, not realising that journalism is less about writing and more about fact gathering. I reckon anyone considering a career as a reporter should read this novel first — it will entertain and enlighten more than any text book about the media.


* Cue that time I spent hours tracking down a family in the rain sodden hills of South Gippsland whose dog had given birth to 14 puppies and then got virtually kidnapped when the chap realised my dad was the local school principal with whom he had a major beef; cue that other time I got savaged by a pack of emus on an emu farm while the farmer stood by and laughed at me; cue that time my boss wanted to know why I was always the first to the scene of a fire — he hadn’t clocked, and I kept it very much secret, that I had buttered up the fire captain’s wife and all I had to do was call her at the first hint of smoke or sirens and she’d tell me the location before anyone else knew; I could go on…

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Frayn, Publisher, Setting

‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 221 pages; 2000.

Michael Frayn’s  Towards the end of the Morning should come with a warning: don’t read in public. Honestly, I have not read such a humorous book in a long time. It is laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s set in London at an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners.

At the heart of the story are two journalists – the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads.

Through their day to day struggles, Frayne is able to tackle some big themes – old school journalists coming to grips with an emerging tide of bright, young and worryingly efficient graduate trainees; newspaper journos trying to break into the much better paid field of broadcast journalism; the class system; how to get on the property ladder; and race relations – but he does it very deftly and with great humour.

Towards the end of the Morning was written in 1967, but it holds up well as a modern classic. And Frayn’s use of dialogue is spot on. He captures the art of conversation very well, often with more than three or four people speaking at once, very tricky if you’ve ever tried to do it yourself. It is perhaps Frayn’s ear for dialogue that has made him such a gifted and much-praised playwright (Copenhagen and Noises Off are two of his more well known ones, although he has written 11 others).

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It would appeal to anyone looking for a fast-paced funny read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Michael Collins, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix – Orion Books; 297 pages; 2001.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Michael CollinsThe Keepers of Truth has been widely applauded — and with good reason.

I found it to be a gripping, unputdownable read about a misfit journalist working on the biggest story of his new, fledgling career. Bill, the narrator, is well educated and well-off, but he is not unlike the more lowly masses he finds himself writing about — the only difference is the money.

Dark, disturbing and at times downright morbid, Collins’ tale centres on a murder in small town America in the seventies. But it goes way beyond the crime genre, charting the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline.

Some of his descriptions are particularly poignant given the recent events in America:

It’s maybe the greatest secret we possess as a nation, our sense of alienation from everyone else around us, our ability to have no sympathy, no empathy for others’ suffering, a decentralised philosophy of individual will, a culpability that always lands back on us.

Not only is The Keepers of Truth an intelligent read, it’s a gripping read as well.