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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.