The JSSL scheme is attributed with having created a generation of young and influential Britons with affectionate feelings for the eternal Russia of the literary world Alisa Santikarn

What was Michael Frayn like at 18 years old? He laughs. He is now far from the days of noisy adolescence, unlike his wide-eyed interviewer, but his answer is delivered in a breath: "Extremely tedious, a Communist, an intellectual snob, and very bolsh." Matching such a character with the linen-suited 85 -year old in front of me requires artistic license. A Golden PEN award, a Tony, and a Whitbread Best Novel sit polished among the novels and plays lining the walls of the spacious London home he shares with his wife, the literary biographer and journalist Claire Tomalin.

Before Frayn became a celebrated journalist, novelist and playwright, he was a bolshy teenager. Yet not just any bolshy teenager: a trainee spy and elite recruit at the ‘Joint Service School for Linguists.’ A project of the cold war, the JSSL was a form of national service that spanned the universities of London, Oxford, and Cambridge, and aimed to equip an intellectual elite of Britain with high-level military Russian language skills. Its graduates also include Alan Bennett (a life-long friend and fellow classmate of  Frayn’s), Dennis Potter, and Sir Peter Hall; and it is said to have created a generation of young and influential Britons with generous, respectful and affectionate feelings for Russia — the eternal Russia of Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Pasternak.

Following his call to linguistic arms in 1950, Frayn was deployed to Coulson Common Camp, where the ‘rather scruffy’ students spent a few months in South Croydon on a Russian translation course. This marked the first of a series of gruelling language aptitude tests, and at every exam lurked the possibility of being dropped from the course and instead sent to fight in Korea, or against the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, or the guerrillas of the Malayan National Liberation Army. Frayn’s schoolboy communism was judiciously forgotten, and his energies devoted to staying on the course.

It’s a relief when Frayn adds that Alan Bennett worked considerably less. Everyone seemed to have passed, even, he admits graciously, the ones he thought ‘extremely thick’

Exam purgatory resolved into a year-long spell in Cambridge, at the interpreters’ course, reserved for the most advanced students (although Frayn bats away such praise). This English idyll harboured a microcosm of Eastern Europe, and the Centre for Slavonic Studies had become, under the guidance of its fierce course director, Elizabeth Hill, an asylum for tsarist White Russians, Soviet Émigrés, and a clutch of dispossessed Polish, Latvian, Ukranian, Estonian, and Czech exiles. Memories of this time come fast, with a self-conscious affection that falls just short of nostalgia. 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 Oxbridge seclusion. The pay was better too: the £5 a week officer’s salary offered ‘wealth beyond imagination.’

The language-learning continued with military-style discipline. Frayn recalls that they worked for fourteen 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. Everyone seemed to have passed, even —he admits graciously — the ones he thought were ‘extremely thick.’

Completion of the Cambridge course led to a final six months in Cornwall, where swimming and surfing on the south coast made an incongruous background to learning military vocabulary in a ‘fairly grotty army camp.’ Pressure eased as the recruits realised that they were now rather too valuable to be sent to far-flung battlegrounds on the basis of an inadequate translation or poorly-performed grammar test. Frayn reached the highest rank of the JSSL and was selected to train as a General Service Officer in the Intelligence Unit, but claims that he did not actually understand what ‘Intelligence Unit’ meant. He had assumed that ‘intelligence’ required a certain level of cerebral excellence, and was swiftly disappointed by his fellow officers.


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In spite of this disillusionment, the JSSL proved to be a vital intellectual incubation period for Frayn. Did the experience make him mature more quickly? Frayn sits back for a moment. It made him more confident of his position in the world, more settled. He was stimulated by his bright, interested, and interesting friends, with whom he began to stage plays and write articles. The JSSL was, after all, just the beginning, but those friendships stayed with him throughout his Cambridge education — Frayn went on to study 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.

Just as the close friendships developed, so too did his bolshy attitude towards authority, and it was at this pivot-point of his youth that important contours of the now acclaimed writer emerge: "There was a great outbreak of satire in this country, people writing satirical columns and putting on satirical tv shows … 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 this healthy disrespect for the authorities? Again, the thin-lipped smile: "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. But then you get to a political situation like the present one, seeing people make this total mess of everything and you can’t help reverting to the kind of attitudes you had as a young man."

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