(I wrote this for an essay competition with the Telegraph. Although I didn’t get a prize or a place, it was such a great pleasure to interview my writing hero, and a useful journalistic experience in learning how to interview someone. An edited version of this article was published in Varsity here: https://www.varsity.co.uk/arts/17603)
What was Michael Frayn like at 18 years old? He laughs. Unlike his wide-eyed interviewer, a heavily caffeinated 20-year-old student, he is now far from the days of noisy adolescence, but the answer is delivered in a breath: ‘Extremely tedious, a Communist, an intellectual snob, and very bolshy’. Matching such a character with this linen-suited 85 -year old in front of me requires a certain artistic license. The white light of the late morning falls across his precisely arranged collections of awards and certificates: Golden PEN award, Tony award, Whitbread Best Novel (etc.,). Polished and well-spaced recognitions of his life’s work, they sit next to the novels and plays that fill the book-lined walls of the spacious London home he shares with his wife, the literary biographer and journalist Claire Tomalin. Entering, he points out to me that the excessive number of shelved walls had significantly reduced their home’s value. Spotting the absurdities of human exchange and interaction has defined Frayn’s life and career, and recollections of his early adulthood add yet more to the stock.
Before Frayn was a celebrated journalist, novelist and playwright, and a pencil-sharp model of elegant reticence, he was a bolshy teenager. Yet not just any bolshy teenager – but a trainee spy and elite recruit at the ‘Joint Service School for Linguists’. To describe this unique institution is to begin from a premise as stylishly eccentric as any Frayn tale. A project of the cold war, the JSSL was a form of national service that spanned the universities of London, Oxford, and Cambridge, to equip an intellectual elite of Britain with high level military Russian language skills, through a training programme of industrial intensity. Whilst Bletchley Park, the famous code-breaking centre responsible for Enigma, has spawned enough anecdotes, books and films to have been digested by the national hive-mind, this similarly elite, similarly intensive, similarly strange institution has received nothing like the same attention, despite its impressive imprint onto British cultural life. Frayn aside (for now), graduates of the school include Alan Bennett (a life-long friend and fellow classmate of Frayn’s), Denis Potter, Sir Peter Hall, an eclectic ‘Who’s Who’ of intellectual luminaries. The writer DM Thomas considered the school to have ‘created a generation of young and influential Britons who had generous, respectful and affectionate feelings for Russia — the eternal Russia of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Pasternak,’ and its influence remains undimmed; on the day that I leave Cambridge for London, some of my fellow students are ambitiously staging Frayn’s own translation of Chekov’s Wild Honey.
In 1950 the glittering careers of the youthful recruits were still suspended in the future, as Frayn and his contemporaries were dragged into the tedium of camp life. Basic training for the national service was ‘shatteringly boring and miserable’, its existence dedicated to, Frayn remembers, ‘breaking your spirit’. It seems the camp had not, however, reckoned with the indominable satiric drive of their latest sardonic recruit, and the picture conjured by Frayn of his successful application to the school is one not far from farce. He and another initiate were summoned to see the Camp Services Officer, and instructed to stand to attention. Frayn recalls the mismatch of their pairing, as ill-fitting as their khaki fatigues: he was very tall (a quality, like his eye for ridiculousness, that remains unchanged by decades passed), the other man very small, and the officer deliciously self-important in executing his commission. ‘I suppose you think it’s a skive, and you’ll get out of doing the work. Well, I tell you, it’s very serious – you might find yourself dropped behind enemy lines at any point’. Far from the indignities of national service, Frayn’s eyes scan the neat study, with an adolescent glint. ‘It was complete nonsense, of course!’
Following this pompous call to linguistic arms, Frayn was deployed to Coulson Common Camp, where he and the other ‘rather scruffy’ students spent a few months on a Russian translation course, among the ‘surprisingly green’ landscape of South Croydon. This marked the first of a series of gruelling language aptitude tests: at every exam lurked the possibility of being ‘chucked off the course’, whereupon one might be sent to fight in Korea, against the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, or the guerrillas of the Malayan National Liberation Army. Frayn’s schoolboy communism was judiciously forgotten, devoting his energies instead towards mastery of the gruelling exams.
Exam purgatory was ended with a year-long spell in Cambridge, at the interpreters’ course, which was reserved for the most advanced students (although Frayn would bat away such praise). Memories of this time come fast, with a self- conscious affection that falls just short of nostalgia. It was ‘absolutely delightful’, and Frayn considers himself ‘very privileged’ to have spent his national service there, living as scholars have for centuries in the medieval-golden and marble-white bubble of studious seclusion. The money was better too: the £5 a week officer’s salary offered ‘wealth beyond imagination’, a fortune in comparison to a student grant or a sergeant’s 30s.
This English idyll harboured a microcosm of Eastern Europe as The Centre for Slavonic Studies had become, under the guidance of the fierce course director, Elizabeta Hill, an asylum for tsarist White Russians, and Soviet Émigrés, as well as a clutch of dispossessed Polish, Latvian, Ukranian, Estonian, and Czech exiles who, Frays remembers, ‘might have been different species’, with almost nothing in common but their crucial Russian fluency.
Acquisition of the language was carried out with military discipline, with language tests held every Friday. Frayn recalls that they worked for 14 hours a day, which leaves me guiltily remembering my own, comparatively pathetic, 9-5 library schedule. It’s a relief when he adds that Alan Bennett worked considerably less, and I cheerfully reflect that I probably would be much better at Medieval French if my supervisors threatened to send me to insurrections in Korea or Kenya. Frayn then adds that everyone seemed to have passed, even including, he adds graciously, the ones he thought ‘extremely thick’.
Completion of the Cambridge course led to a final sixth months in Cornwall, where swimming and surfing on the South coast made an incongruous background to learning more military vocabulary in a ‘fairly grotty army camp’. Pressure was eased as the recruits figured out that they were now rather too valuable to be sent off to far-flung battlegrounds on the basis of an inadequate translation or a poorly performed grammar test.
Frayn reached the highest rank of the JSSL, and completed his bizarre learning experience in the grotty Cornwall camp, where he was selected to train as a General Service Officer in the Intelligence Unit – although he claims that he did not actually understand what ‘Intelligence Unit’ meant. He offers another gracious reflection on the quality of his peers: he had assumed that ‘intelligence’ required a certain level of cerebral excellence; but was swiftly disappointed by his fellow officers.
In spite of this disillusionment, the JSSL proved to be a vital intellectual incubation period for Frayn. Did the experience make him grow up more quickly, straighten out the kinks of his cavalier and Communist adolescence? Frayn sits back for a moment. It made him more confident of his position in the world, more settled. ‘Rather like how you must feel about going to Cambridge now, I suppose.’ He was stimulated by his bright, interested, and interesting friends, with whom he started to put on plays, and write journalism, editing the school magazine ‘Samovar’. Friendships stayed with him through his Cambridge education – Frayn studied French and Russian, and then Philosophy, at Emmanuel College – and JSSL Friends from across the different colleges would hire a car at weekends, zooming along quiet country roads to visit their Oxford counterparts. For this gangly grammar-school boy, the JSSL was, after all, just the beginning,
Just as the close friendships developed, so too did his irreverent attitude towards authority, and it was at this pivot-point of his youth that important contours of the now acclaimed writer emerge.
‘A great deal of our time doing Russian was devoted to mocking the military life…. I think it affected our attitudes in life more than anything else. When we got out of the army, we arrived at the university with a very sardonic view about authority in general…There was a great outbreak of satire in this country, people writing satirical columns and putting on satirical tv shows; and I think it that was national service, in a way, where everyone had learnt these attitudes of basic disrespect to authority in the army, and it carried on into civilian life.’
Does Frayn still feel the same healthy disrespect for authority? Again, the thin-lipped smile is sketched. ‘To some extent’. He then goes on to bestow upon me the central problem of adult life (a gift I have successfully managed to avoid so far). ‘As you go into adult life… you realise that it’s extremely difficult indeed to do anything and, like it or not, anyone trying to do anything makes a mess of at least part of it’. A slight pause, the adolescent gleam briefly dimmed. ‘You become slightly more tolerant’. Then, in the book-lined warmth of his study, a straightening in his suit. ‘But then you get to a political situation like the present one, seeing people make this total mess of everything and’ – and the bolshy teenager returns – ‘you can’t help reverting to the kind of attitudes you had as a young man’.