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

Reports from times when things were done differently
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

How times change. I'm lying on a sun-lounger in a hotel on Turkey's Lycian coast, reading an article from 1972 about the influence of the Wall on Berlin life. The woman on the next bed is also absorbed in a book, the name of which I couldn't tell you because it's written in Cyrillic – she is Russian. Back in 1972, travel outside the Soviet Union was, of course, unthinkable for ordinary citizens. It is to that Cold War world that I return, through a collection of travel articles by Michael Frayn, written while he was working as a journalist in the 1960s and 1970s.

Frayn's on-the-spot portrait of Berlin from the early 1970s, "Capital of Nowhere", reveals a city defined by its role in the Cold War. He describes the state of paralysis brought about by its division at the end of the Second World War, by offering a picture of the city as he experiences it. West Berlin, he tells us, is "maintained with much of the magnificence and luxury of a capital", and East Berlin, a bona fide capital, feels "like a large provincial town". Frayn describes the divided city in a series of snapshots: the collapse of the revolutionary left; summer living in the middle-class suburbs; the relationship between West and East Berliners as the rules governing travel are relaxed for the first time. Finally, punctuating observation with inquiry, as a journalist should, he wonders whether the wall will ever come down, and, if it did, whether this would spark a mass exodus westward.

Thirty-seven years on, we have witnessed the denouement of this sorry episode in history and can answer Frayn's questions. But that doesn't time out his tale or detract from the reader's enjoyment. For those of us who lived through this era, his reports provide a sharp reminder of a world that seems so distant now; younger readers will gain an insight into a very different time that is yet in living memory.

Beyond Berlin, Frayn's tales take us to other troubling spots. In Cuba, in 1969, he assesses the state of the country 10 years after the revolution, and in Israel, in the same year, he charts the fall-out from the expansion of the Jewish state. He reports from less contentious areas of the globe, too. In Sweden, in 1974, he punctures the myth of the country's changeless prosperity and social harmony, and in 1965 he pokes fun at the sybarites on the Cote d'Azur.

But this selection of articles, originally written for The Observer as an occasional series about places that interested him, isn't purely about Frayn's travels abroad. In 1963, he takes a nostalgic journey to Cambridge, his alma mater, reproaching himself for his sentimentality (and telling us along the way a newly interesting tale of meeting an emerging pop star – the now disgraced Jonathan King). In 1964, he looks back on life in his first marital home at the end of the 1950s, on the frontline of the already gentrifying Notting Hill. Sometimes the observer becomes the observed, though the point is always the place.

Frayn's easy style is enjoyable if not thoroughly engaging, perhaps because he chooses the wry smile over the belly laugh. Yet each of his pieces, whether from home or abroad, takes an approach to travel writing that is employed too little today – observing life within the context of the times, and harnessing the power of the narrative form to conjure up images in the reader's mind. It's a method that, in the hands of a talented writer such as Frayn, keeps a destination fresh – whether it's a place the reader knows well or will ever, indeed, visit.