BOOK REVIEW / Marmite for New Yorkers

LETTERS FROM LONDON 1990-1995 Julian Barnes Picador £6.99

A favourite way of slighting the novels of Julian Barnes has been to mutter that he is essentially an essayist. Personally, I'd rather have Flaubert's Parrot and A History Of The World In Ten And A Half Chapters than hundreds of books that picked up their certificate from the fiction inspectorate without a second glance. But Barnes has certainly used the essayist's techniques more than most novelists - the urbane dissertation, the sardonic commentary - and so his employment as London correspondent by the New Yorker from 1990 to 1995 made perfect sense.

Letters From London, a paperback collection of these despatches, is journalism, but of an unusual kind. The classic foreign correspondent decodes a foreign country for readers in his own. Barnes is here decoding his own country for readers in a foreign one. The 15 articles cover the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the rise and decline of John Major and the emergence of Tony Blair, as well as cultural eruptions serious - the bankrupting of the Lloyd's names - and trivial but resonant, such as the comedy of Norman Lamont's off-licence bills.

The fact that Barnes is writing for readers who broadly share the language, but are strangers to the culture, produces, for the English reader of these pieces, epiphanies impossible under the normal circumstances of domestic composition. Barnes's necessary fear of American incomprehension gives the writing a Martian quality: a fresh-eyed commentary on England in which none of the standard shorthand between natives is allowed. One casual bracket offers a sweet linguistic note: "(This, by the way, is the British `Quite', meaning `fairly', rather than the American `Quite', meaning `very'.)"

Similarly, what makes Barnes's 20,000 word "The Deficit Millionaires" the finest single article yet written about the Lloyd's names is that the author, mindful of his audience, has been forced to agonise over the meaning and clarity of every fact and nuance while denied any of the class spin nearly inevitable in Englishman-to-Englishman writing. The Lloyd's essay is also exemplary for its diligent leg-work and original interviewing.

Occasionally, the origin of the pieces produces irritations for the essayist's compatriots. A sentence like, "On the other hand, the trade unions are now in a much weaker position than they were a decade ago", may have made them grateful in Peoria, but, in London, leaves you startled that anything so flat and platitudinous could come from Barnes. The same applies to what reads like forced elucidation for foreigners. When you read of "Bovril, an umber spread made from ground-up ox, and Marmite, a vegetarian equivalent of take-no-hostages pungency", you can almost hear someone at the New Yorker saying: "For Americans, you must describe these spreads."

In his Preface, Barnes details with sardonic awe the legendary pedantry of the New Yorker fact-checkers, so it is a delight to identify a howler in the piece on Harrods. Barnes wryly notes that both the chief executive of Lonrho and the editor of the Observer, Messrs Rowland and Trelford, had the nickname "Tiny". Surely, though, Mr Trelford's nickname is "Pixie."

The humour in these pieces mainly provides work for the lips - where Barnes's television reviews and novels often threatened the ribs and belly - and the reader slightly suspects that the New Yorker may employ gag- inhibitors as well as fact-checkers. Certainly, there is a marked skittishness in the sections of book which were not written for the magazine: the Preface and the Index, compiled by the author himself. The entry for Margaret Thatcher, for example, includes, "omnipresence, 241; admired by Philip Larkin, 241; half-admired by President Mitterand, 241", and reads as a demob-happy exercise in highly English irony.

But even when dampening his style for Manhattan and the facts, Barnes is still a joy to read. The book is quite splendid: the American "quite" not the British one.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most