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By any other Name

LETTERS FROM LONDON:1990-1995 by Julian Barnes, Picador £6.99
FOR the past five years, Julian Barnes has contributed essays on events in England to the New Yorker - the reverse of Alistair Cooke's "Letter from America" - and striving after a similar mixture of instruction and gently humorous scepticism; things written, he says, as if he were "a foreign correspondent in [his] own country".

To collect them today for a British readership that has lived through what they describe is to place a lot of faith in the transforming charm of Barnes' style. They are yesterday's journalism, after all, and we now view such episodes as the "war of Jennifer's Ear" and the scramble for control of Harrods with the dead feeling Barnes had then about the Westland Affair: "four years later, few can remember, fewer still care about, the details of this imbroglio". And yet, while these exercises are obviously peripheral to Barnes' ambitions as a writer, they are done with such skill, curiosity and evident enjoyment that they amount to more of a book, and a better one, than we are at first led to expect.

Some of the earlier essays do give a sense of an author constrained by commission against his instincts. Though Barnes's most recent novel, The Porcupine (1992), dealt with an Eastern European dictator, and while he has himself been called a "chameleon sort of writer", English politics has not seemed a natural habitat. When, indeed, he leaves his North London home to canvas for the Labour Party on the streets - the streets of North London, mind - the shock is palpable: "plunged hip-deep into the carbon monoxide" of Chetwynd Road, NW5, he seems only more remote from the voter.

At home, England seems less his "own country" than France would be: when he describes locals lining the shores beneath a collapsing clifftop hotel at Scarborough "in the hope of plundering an intact bidet", he surely mistakes the toilet habits of the North Yorkshire scavenger.

In time, however, Barnes allows himself to wander off the political main road into quirkier byways of detail which better suit his authorial temperament. There are essays on mazes and on our stamps and coinage, and an enchanted piece of sportswriting, an account of Kasparov's humiliation of Nigel Short in the World Chess Championship.

The political commentary, too, is increasingly salted by his own prejudices, admittedly on the safe side (versus Thatcher, the Sun, Andrew Lloyd Webber). The indignation of two more recent pieces - on Thatcher's memoirs and the fifth anniversary of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie - is a surprise, though cynics might observe how it takes a bad book, and a threat against another novelist of his generation to get Barnes' blood properly boiling.

The sharpest single putdown in a book which is otherwise genial to the brink of a fault is aimed at Rushdie's ex-wife Marianne Wiggins, executed through typically inspired play with the proverbial: "I remember ... how she once winsomely declared to me that she wanted to be, as a writer, no more than a mere foothill beside the mighty mountain that was Salman. Alas, when Muhammad came to the mountain the foothill hightailed it over the horizon."

One piece by itself justifies the whole book, a 50-page exploration of the Lloyds dbcle: an institution which has been genuinely mysterious to the great majority of Britons, and in recent times a rare instance of privilege proving a curse. Richly researched but engagingly anecdotal, Barnes' report combines factual authority with metaphorical panache, of the sort that imagines the Hardship Committee set up to see that "every last Irish sixpence is wrung out of [the Names] before depositing them like dishrags on the shores of destitution".

The people Barnes interviews are given, or miraculously have, the same knack of vivid expression, from the burnt Name who doubts the influence of the Masons within Lloyd's - "I don't believe they all climbed into their aprons and said 'Let's shaft the Names' " - to the financial journalist who pictures the firm in the gorged 1980s as "a garden in which the rabbits were in charge of the lettuce". Barnes ponders how little public sympathy has been extended to those ruined by their own wealth; but his own compassion for the likes of his West Country Widow ("The worst part is the post. You literally shake for half an hour when it comes") is evident, and raises the suspicion that he might, like his fellow novelist Melvyn Bragg, have been a Name himself. In which case the reader can imagine the New Yorker's giant fee for the piece being swallowed by the subject.