Travels with a Typewriter: A Reporter at Large, By Michael Frayn

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The Independent Culture

The title of this rather disjointed collection – a compilation of Michael Frayn's journalism from the 1960s and 1970s – is misleading. There is travel writing here, but there are also snatches of memoir, social history and literary criticism. (An insightful, if rather incongruous, study of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is included.) But the incontestable quality of Frayn's writing holds all these disparate elements together.

There are disappointments. The autobiographical essays, though sprinkled with arch, redemptive humour, are ultimately slight: Frayn recalls unremarkable vignettes from his life in Notting Hill when the area was on the cusp of gentrification in the late 1950s, and allows himself a faintly embarrassing paean to Cambridge ("a sort of Avalon... a perpetual source of strength"), where he was an undergraduate. He visits Paris in the wake of the May 1968 riots – the place still spattered by gauchiste graffiti – but eschews journalistic enquiry for a nostalgic tour around familiar haunts.

Far better are those pieces that find Frayn as a kind of roving investigative reporter. His accounts of countries still under the yoke of communist bureaucracy are fascinating: he visits Castro's Cuba 10 years after the revolution; surveys divided Berlin in 1972; and recounts a Kafkaesque quest to recover book royalties from Moscow in 1973. In each piece, Frayn garnishes serious journalism with arresting literary flourishes – grey Cuba "hangs like a discarded morning suit upon a gaunt refugee"; East Germany's architectural curiosities are "a vision of the future off some ancient pinball machine".

At their best, these brief, fragmentary articles manage to capture "strange, half-glimpsed visions from the passing parade" of history, as Frayn himself nicely puts it, and seem as fresh and evocative now as one imagines they did 40 years ago.