Towards the End of the Morning

by Michael Frayn

An early work by this accomplished author, this story is based in a newsroom of the 1960s, where Frayn himself cut his journalistic teeth.  It is satirical, and often very funny – as when an international group of reporters is taken by air to report on a Middle-Eastern resort, and the journey is held up in every conceivable way, which had me laughing out loud.

John Dyson, the main character and a sub-editor on a newspaper which is, we assume, a thinly-disguised Guardian or Observer, fumbles his way through the demands of work and family life in a snapshot of what now seems to be irretrievably in the past.  Even the description of the sparse lodgings of the new recruit to the team, which I recognise only too well from my student years, is redolent of something that has gone for ever.  As has the Fleet Street pictured so well in this novel: indolent journalists (all male), smoky atmosphere, long lunch breaks in the pub.

The title reflects the fact that most work in such offices was done “towards the end of the morning”, when journalists scurry to complete their assigned tasks before heading off to the pub.

The book reminded me strongly of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I think I prefer the Waugh book – though perhaps I should read it again before making this judgement.  It was, after all, the first Waugh book I had ever read.

The best part of reading this charity-shop acquisition was the introduction to this edition, written by Frayn some 40 years after the original publication.  Insightful, thoughtful, beautifully put.  Boy, that man can write!

For an entertaining commentary on journalism in C20 fiction, read Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian.

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A Room of One’s Own

by Virginia Woolf

Listening to not one but two podcasts concerned with Virginia Woolf as I did some garden work (one from BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives, the other from In Our Time) prompted me to read this essay, which I had long been aware of as an important piece of Woolf’s writing and a work of feminist literature.

What can I say that has not already been said?  Woolf is speaking to an audience of young women and she encourages and indeed incites them to hold their own in a world of men.  Powerful and convincing stuff.

I am glad I read this now, as a mature adult, and not as a young student.  I am also happy – as so often when I read ‘classics’ these days – that I was not obliged to read it as part of a course of study.  Though studying a text can undoubtedly add to one’s appreciation of it, it can also put you off, as you are not reading in the way the author intended.  I find this is especially true of fiction – which this essay, of course, is not.

The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service

by Rosina Harrison

I’m not at all sure what prompted me to read this.  It was a cheap buy on Kindle, and I suppose it was one of those impulse browse moments.  I’m glad I took the plunge.  This is an easy read and very enjoyable.

Rose (as her employers called her – her own family dubbed her Ena) was, by any standards, plucky, ambitious, confident and with bags of common sense.  With a life in service as the only career option open to her, she decided at an early age, encouraged by her mother, to aim high and work towards becoming a lady’s maid.  The reason for this choice was that she wanted to travel.

Her family made the sacrifices required to allow her to stay on at school for an extra two years till the age of fourteen, and then to start a dressmaking apprenticeship.  She knew that she would need excellent dressmaking skills, as well as a knowledge of French.  Her first job was as a “young lady’s maid” to a 17-year-old girl, but pretty soon she moved on to working for a lady, and from there she moved into the Astor household, where she remained for 35 years, most of it as Lady Astor’s maid.

Inevitably, the story is as much about Lady Astor as it is about Rose.  The servant has an intimate view of the family she serves, and Rose was bright enough (as well as discreet enough) to tell their story well.  True, she manages to gloss over some of the more dubious aspects, such as the activities of the ‘Cliveden set’ in the 1960s; but her time with Lady Astor, who died in 1964, was drawing to an end by then, and the lady and her household no longer lived at Cliveden.  Rose does however show her lady’s character warts and all.  It is clear from this account that Lady Astor was not an easy person to get on with; she could be temperamental and was often rude.  Rose puts up with her behaviour after a succession of lady’s maids have failed to do so.

The book abounds with delightful anecdotes that not only shed light on the relationship between a wealthy family and their servants, but also read as good stories in themselves.  Witness the account of a journey to Istanbul with Lady Astor and Dame Edith Lyttelton, where the Dame – an absent-minded academic – keeps losing things.  Rose eventually and assertively takes charge.

An engaging narrator and a fascinating story, beautifully told.