The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

The finest Fleet Street novels

Including Evelyn Waugh, Michael Frayn and A N Wilson

Among the recent Man Booker Prize nominations was Not Untrue and Not Unkind by the Irish journalist Ed O'Loughlin, a novel that records the experiences of a group of war-weary foreign correspondents in Africa.

The title is taken from a poem (Talking In Bed) by the finest poet of the 20th century, Philip Larkin, which was always bound to endear me to it, but I was far more pleased to see O'Loughlin revive the rather moribund genre of the journalistic novel.

But which classics on the Fourth Estate are worth a look today? Evelyn Waugh's Scoop (1938) remains the supreme Fleet Street novel, telling the tale of William Boot, who in a severe case of mistaken identity is plucked from his nature column Lush Places and despatched to cover a civil war in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.

It was through Boot's pastoral reflections that Waugh provided perhaps the most famous example of overwrought prose in fiction, "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole", but his parody of the hapless foreign correspondent is far superior:

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn't know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway before his window -- you know.

The only Fleet Street work that can hold a candle to Scoop today is Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning (1967), recording the tribulations of John Dyson, a middling newspaperman who longs to branch out into TV.

Reading Frayn today reminds one that journalists, among other things, honed the art of SISO ("Sign in and sod off") long before members of the European Parliament:

Various members of the staff emerged from Hand and Ball Passage during the last dark hour of the morning, walked with an air of sober responsibility towards the main entrance, greeted the commissionaire and vanished upstairs in the lift to telephone their friends and draw their expenses before going out again to have lunch.

But it is Scoop that best depicts the induction into expense fiddling that was a rite of passage for many hacks. As Mr Salter, the foreign editor of the Daily Beast, remarks to Boot:

Take a single example . . . Supposing you want to have dinner. Well, you go to a restaurant and do yourself proud, best of everything. Bill perhaps may be two pounds. Well, you put down five pounds for entertainment on your expenses. You've had a slap-up dinner, you're three pounds to the good, and everyone is satisfied.

Of the more recent crop of Fleet Street works, A N Wilson's satirical novel My Name Is Legion (2004) stands out, and, in the form of the grotesque Lennox Mark, provided us with the most monstrous newspaper baron in fiction. Wilson bottled the grievances and resentment that are a common symptom of decades spent on Fleet Street and delivered a savage indictment of the modern press.

Winston Churchill once pithily declared that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it. In the case of journalists the reverse seems to apply: fiction has been unkind to them because they have chosen to write it.