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.

Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star