Books: A man for all morgues

Fleet Street has reached its last edition, but old hacks don't fade away. Valentine Cunningham acclaims a masterly comedy of changing times
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

by John Preston

Doubleday, pounds 16.99, 428pp

JOHN PRESTON is a mordantly satirical wit to die for. His second novel, , is a lovely Chaplinesque farce set in Old Fleet Street, a daft remake of Modern Times for our recent Thatcher-Murdoch times, done both with a lot more jokes and a lot more post-Kafka angst.

The novel's main man is Hugh Byrne, a lonesome journalist at the end of the Thatcherite Eighties who is suffereing from a bout of writer's block. And that, as every cynic on his very cynical paper agrees, is an unheard-of plight. Meanwhile, the paper is being sold up the river, transplanted to some fairy palace in Docklands. Fleet Street, ancient haunt of rogues, named for the rancid sewer, the Fleet Ditch, is soon to be no more. Pissed old hacks are having to take computer lessons. Mobile phones are the thing of the future. The inkily overalled masters of the presses have received their notice.

Lame-dog Hugh is about to get his. His ignominious last-chance posting is to be sent out to investigate an anonymous Thames suicide and also - the task everyone in the building fears - to be sent down into the cuttings library to compile the Queen Mother's obituary.

What unfolds, as Byrne reluctantly turns old-time investigator, is not just a cannily contrived mystery, but a jigsaw- puzzle of interlocked deaths and disappearances that makes up a kind of exemplary parable about the virtues of old-fashioned newspaper ways.

Elegiacs pile on elegiacs. Old Fleet Street lies dying as it waits for the Queen Mother to pop her clogs. Byrne gradually works out what links the Thames jumper, the dockland Seaman's Missions, the round-the-world yachtsman the Queen Mother once met, the missing reporter, and the dead print workers. Like someone out of a Dickens novel - like Dickens, as a matter of fact - Byrne becomes a man for all morgues. He even lives in Kensal Green, where the dead in the great cemetery call to him "like a chorus of skeletal Swingle Singers". Property values in Kensal Green are not rising, but the novel's many dead keep turning out to be resurrection men. The Queen Mum, naturally, survives the obit. Perhaps there's even hope for the survival of real journalism.

John Preston's superior touch for the comic amid gloom-making modern times does indeed suggest some such survivalism for the human spirit. Byrne's colleagues are stars in a managerial tragedy that comes wonderfully alleviated by the author's sustained genius for farce. Cliff, the loopy Thatcherite (birds shouldn't be fed in winter lest they lose "the will to forage") goads his wife into eye-muscle exercises which prove worthless when she runs over the paper's editor - dashing Cliff's hopes of succeeding the old boy. Stanley, who can't alter years of habit, reads his Memorial Service address as if to copy-takers ("New par, cap T. Those qualities that had stood him in such good stead in cap B Barnsley, comma, were to prove especially valuable when he and cap J Janice moved to cap L London, stop"). Rottweiler panic spreads when tea-boy Darren's tiny mutt runs amok. And Hugh finally clinches it with the moody Vivian when the hot- drinks dispenser explodes over them both as well as the office.

All, of course, like the running Queen Mother obit gag, very unlikely - and all the lovelier for it. The novel's jokey tendencies run and run on these looping farcical threads. They make an admirably soft narrative core which exfoliates into the most pleasing set of softish endings. Byrne's revenge on the boss who consigned him to the obit room is sweet. His joy in the arms of the coffee-scorched Viv is what every Kafkaesque soul needs. And when he finally eschews the scoop his gumshoeing brings him, it's because he has made one of those old-fashioned moral decisions modern business finds so "quaint". Sharp satire, absurdist relish and the elegiac desire for morality in a sordid world could hardly converge more satisfyingly.