Review in Speaks Volumes, No. 36, August 2023, the journal of The Leeds Library
I first came across Michael Frayn and his Miscellany column on 19 October 1960. I can date it so precisely because our family were News Chronicle readers, on my part because of Roy Webber’s cricket scorebooks published in full! Alas the paper suddenly ceased publication on 17 October 1960 and our newsagent delivered the Daily Mail the following morning. Its manifest right wing content was anathema to our Liberal family and we immediately switched to The Guardian. Much later on Michael Frayn became recognised as a writer with a far broader range of skills, including novels, plays and film scripts.
With this sixty-plus years background I immediately reserved his latest book and read it in a couple of days whilst on holiday in France. It is an affectionate collection of memories of personal friends, most of whom are deceased but some of whom are very much alive. It is unusual in that, unlike the standard biographies, they are all based on Frayn’s personal recollections. He describes the portraits as not “intended as biographies of them, comprehensive accounts of their lives for the historical record, nor as they see themselves - just a few impressions of my own passing contacts with them, as fleeting snapshots.” As one might expect from such an experienced and respected author, it is beautifully written.
His subjects are a mix of individuals fairly well-known, such as the drama director, Michael Blakemore, but others are simply Frayn’s persona friends and even family. Curiously, I have had tangential contact with three of the individuals pictured therein. One of these was Bamber Gascoigne well-known as the eternal presenter of University Challenge. I knew him in a very different context – as a lifelong supporter and financial backer of the Liberal Party. Reading Frayn’s chapter on him it is easy to appreciate how his life and personality was consonant with his politics.
The second was Eric Korn whom I was pleasantly surprised to see included. I knew Korn as a seller of antiquarian books. For many years he was an ever-present at major book fairs. A well-loved eccentric and louche member of that fraternity, his stock was as eclectic and as curious as the man himself. I bought many unusual items from him over the years. Frayn portrays him as a friend whose aim from his student days was to know every piece of knowledge in the world! He eventually accepted that this was an impossible task but his phenomenal reading capacity equipped him for an extended role on the BBC’s somewhat esoteric 'Round Britain Quiz'.
My third link with the book is the presence of Neal Ascherson who is depicted as another hugely intellectual friend and one with an apparently inexhaustible collection of influential contacts which Frayn uses successfully. My slight link with Neal Ascherson is once again political in that he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the first election for the Scottish Parliament. The party was delighted to have him as a candidate and was sorry that he did not persevere at future elections.
All the chapters are compelling, particularly as Frayn produces frank comments and perceptive insights into the character and life of each of his subjects and certainly does not spare himself - often including embarrassing incidents from his own life in connection with his friendships with his friends.
Among Others - Friendships and Encounters, by Michael Frayn, pub. Faber, 2023, ISBN 978-0-571-37860-9