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Michael Frayn Author 6th Form

A review by Maddie Jones, English Literature A-level student. “Cambridge produces in abundance talents with the ability to please, but few with that greater ability to disregard whether they please or not.”- Michael Frayn

This statement perfectly outlines the place where true literature comes from- within oneself, created due to the love of writing and want to tell a story, not because it was learnt out of a textbook or forced upon them. It is Michael Frayn’s want to write, not to please others or become famous, that was clear in the meeting that the A-level English Literature students had the honour of attending with him on 24th February. The meeting was arranged by English Department’s Mr Taylor with the intent for us students to further our knowledge of Frayn’s book, Spies, and gain an insight into his thoughts behind the award- winning novel and start to better understand the man behind Copenhagen, Noises off, The Russian Interpreter and many other plays and novels written over his lifetime.

Spies is a novel based in war-time Britain in a small ‘close’ in the suburbs and follows an elderly Stephan as he recalls a significant ‘game’ in his youth that soon turns into a real life, serious event as his best friend, Keith, and he try to uncover a German spy. However, things take a dark turn and secrets are revealed: not everything is what it first appears to be.

In the meeting, when asked the question, ‘How much of your book reflects your actual childhood, and how much is made up?’ (Lilli- Rose Barsky, Year 12) Frayn began to reminisce on what it was like when he began writing the book almost 20 years ago: “It was a struggle at first, but I found that once I started to remember, all the memories started coming back and I was plunged back into my childhood and my friend’s lives.”

One of the more violent characters of the book, Mr Hayward, the aggressive father of Stephan’s best friend, Keith, and domestic abuser, is revealed to us by Frayn to be one of the few characters based on an actual person. Mr Hayward was based on the father of one of Frayn’s childhood friends that he hadn’t heard from since they were children. As Frayn had based a character so entirely on an actual person, he was wary about how his old friend may react to the book: “if he did not like what I wrote about him I would have scraped the novel and that would have been that.”

However, he describes how, through a reconnection with his childhood friend, Frayn was pleased to hear that his friend loved the way the father was portrayed. The childhood friend even told Frayn that, “He truly did hate him” and admired how Frayn had captured his terrible characteristics. Frayn told us that he, “doesn’t usually take characters from his actual life,” as shown in the fully fictional characters that are Stephan’s parents; however, Mr Hayward’s character fitted so perfectly into the novel that he was the exception.

As Frayn remembered the friendships of his childhood, he was asked, “Were Keith and Stephan ever meant to have a true friendship?” by Jessie Fairclough. Keith and Stephan are the main characters in the book, who bonded over playing their imaginary game. Frayn answered without hesitation: “No, I don’t think they were. At that age friendships, for boys at least, aren’t very emotional and are mainly based on who you play a game with”

Frayn described that he wanted to portray the equality of childhood ‘friendship’ that lacks the emotional warmth of an adult friendship. This information seemed somewhat shocking to some in the meeting as it provided a realistic point of view of how a child would view their own friendship- no emotional attachment, just the basic and shared imaginations of children.

One of the answers that stood out most was the insightful question asked by Amy Verhoven, a Year 13 who said, ‘As children we “half understand” the world. As we grow up, do we understand fully or remain to “half understand” as we lose the imagination of a child?’ Frayn’s response to this was “You can’t go into the world without putting your own construction on it – that’s how we make sense of the world.”

As an A-level Literature students, we really appreciated Frayn’s honesty as he talked about his experiences and opinions of life. Having a better understanding of the intended meanings behind Spies has been invaluable to our studying of the text.

Following our meeting with Frayn, we spent a couple of lessons as a class discussing what we learnt and applying it to the context of the book. In the discussions, after the meeting, it was clear that we all shared the same opinion that we enjoyed meeting ‘an accomplished author and to hear his thoughts and opinions’- Freya Hall, Year 13. We gained knowledge from his ‘very insightful response to all of our questions and provided a new way of understanding and interpreting the novel’- Lily Williams Year 12.

Going forward, the students can now write about the book with the advantage of a wider understanding of the roots of the characters and life of the author, allowing for deeper analysis of Spies in the exam and appreciation of Frayn’s work.

So, what’s next for Michael Frayn?

The Deadline revealed in an interview with film maker Rebecca Frayn, daughter of Michael, that she “is set to direct Spies, based on her father’s 2002 Whitbread Prize- winning novel.” Frayn will be handling the adaptation of his own work alongside his daughter and The Deadline writes that “Final touches are being made to the screenplay and the team will soon go out to attach a lead actor.” There are high expectations of the film following the reputation of the award- winning book paired with the success of the director’s previous work Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightley, and with the adaptation led by the author himself, Michal Frayn.

Overall, we would all like to thank Michael Frayn for giving us an amazing chance to hear his views on his book Spies as well as, his views on life and literature. Frayn gave up his time to talk to us and share his precious knowledge that will be priceless to us in the exam when analysing the book. It is rare for students to meet the author behind the books we spend months picking apart and studying in depth- we consider ourselves very lucky. Finally, we would like to thank Mr Taylor for organising the meeting with Michael Frayn and providing us with this remarkable opportunity.

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