HOW WE MET: JULIAN BARNES AND JANCIS ROBINSON
Sunday 23 August 1998
JULIAN BARNES: We met in 1983. I was then television critic of the Observer, so I reviewed Jancis's first series of The Wine Programme. I said one or two kind things about her writing and narrating, and some satirical things about production values. About a month or two later I was at a party somewhere in London and Jancis was there - she was wearing a long white dress - and as she came up to me she did a slight twirl and a semi-curtsy. It was acknowledging that I had said something nice about her, but at the same time undercutting the seriousness of subject meeting critic. It was perfectly done, very funny, and I thought: "This is someone nice."
My first impressions of her person- ality went with that moment of self- presentation: she was direct, clever, capable of irony, and very winning. And I haven't changed my opinion substantially since then.
She had a book coming out and asked me to a party, that was the next step, and after that I think I asked them to dinner, her and Nick. We often met as a foursome. I had a burgeoning interest in wine, and of course thought of her at the time - and still do - as one of the finest and most democratic authorities on the subject. I'm a sort of wine obsessive and she's a wine professional. In a world which is still fairly snobbish and bloke-ish, Jancis is a force for egalitarianism; I remember her once saying rather fiercely to me - when I said I preferred one wine to another - "It's not a competition."
In this respect my friendship with Jancis is rather different from other friendships in that it revolves around a certain subject. While we do discuss the normal things, it's comparable to a friendship where you meet someone to go to a football match, or to an art exhibition: things revolve around that point. And so I guess when we do meet, which is probably 10 or 12 times a year, it will usually be at her house, my house, or some other wine-obsessive's house, and part of the point of the meeting will be to drink wine. It's always extremely relaxed. She lives on the other side of Parliament Hill Fields, so part of the ritual is walking across ... and then walking back, rather more slowly, and in a more bow-legged fashion.
We talk about our professional lives, the friendships we have in common, our partners (though they are almost always present). And politics. She and I are both on the left, and feel more on the left, as the Blair government seems to be proving that they're trying to be nice Tories. I don't like talking about work in progress. One difference between us is that while Jancis is very happy to continue her professional preoccupations after 5.30pm, when my office closes I'm relieved to get out into the world where one discusses other things. And so I tend to cringe at the "What are you working on?" question. So I talk about her business and she doesn't talk about mine.
Jancis is highly intelligent, she has a very good analytical mind. After all, she read maths and philosophy at university. She says: "I've got this grammar-school side to me: show me an exam and I'll go for it, show me a hurdle and I'll try to jump it." So, even though she is highly established and regarded, she does think she has to prove herself. This means that she takes on jobs like editing the Oxford Companion of Wine, a work of great scholarship and authority.
She's good company, a generous host and an understanding guest. Jancis is not a person who panics, loses her temper, behaves irrationally. In some notional dinner-party circumstance where the food was filthy, the wine waiter spilled the wine down Jancis's new white frock and one of the guests threw up, Jancis's response would probably be "The view is extremely fine." I don't think of her as a person who sulks or enjoys the miserable side of life. She has a scholarly side which can come across as austerity, but beneath that she's a hedonist.
Apart from our meals, our relationship is mainly one of faxes. Perhaps it's because we're both writers. I prefer long quirky faxes; Jancis has length to her faxes as well. It's hard to characterise them, they're just extensions of our meetings.
I'd have to work really hard to come up with something that sounds like a defect. I can't remember a single argument or serious disagreement, but I think that's partly because neither of us is confrontational. We will each state our opinion with clarity and, if necessary, force. Some people enjoy a good argument, but I'm not sure I do - and I don't think she does either.
Ours is not a confessional friendship, but it's a deeply sympathetic one, in that I know that if I wanted or needed to call on her she wouldn't pause or question - and vice versa. But that hasn't arisen so far.
JANCIS ROBINSON: I've always loved Julian's fiction - the voice: witty, intelligent and very, very sensitive. Nick and I used to go and stay with Edmund Penning-Rowsell, my wine mentor, in the Cotswolds, and one sunny Sunday morning after a very clarety night before, they'd got the Observer. Julian was then writing the TV criticism and I remember seeing this very enthusiastic review of The Wine Programme (the first television I ever did, on Channel 4). So I thought: "Oh, good. I'm a fan of his and he's a fan of mine, that's very nice."
It was in the mid-Eighties that we met for the first time. My first impressions? North-London literary. He'd have been wearing a well-cut jacket and trousers and an open-necked shirt. The second time around, in 1986, I was launching a book about grape varieties, at L'Escargot. I'd set out a table on one side that had some (then) very unusual wines made from unusual grape varieties, and we were discussing those. I was probably trying to get him to lean over backwards and like them, and he was probably thinking "These are a bit strange".
Paul Levy, another writer, organised the first wine-related event that we were both at. We had several of those dinners, either here or at Paul's, or at Pat and Julian's. Then he was almost quite timid in terms of what he would say about wine. Now, he's very confident, with good reason; but he isn't one of these domineering wine bores who hijacks the conversation. He knows what he likes, more than anyone I know. He doesn't like Burgundy. He loves red Bordeaux, hates white Bordeaux; tolerates Champagne if it's good; loves red Rhone - and a bit of port, as long as it's very old. I love all those things, but I have more catholic tastes.
I'm tremendously in his debt because he's terribly generous. When he comes over to dinner, even if we say, "No no no, don't bring any wine", typically he will usually do so. We've got a lot of friends in common, but there are never more than eight around his table. Regulars would be Simon Hopkinson (ex-chef, now food writer), Jay McInerney (he and Julian are great friends), Stephen Fry, Carmen Callil.
We're all very keen on food as well. I love his food. They both cook very well, often around a particularly good ingredient that they've brought back from somewhere. Pat is a very good gardener, and they've got lovely herbs and the odd veg. And they always have the most delicious salad.
Julian's 50th birthday celebrations were wonderful. He was born in 1946, a horrible wine year, so he always hoped that no one would give him a bottle from his birth year, but he's a great planner, and organised lots of parties and fantastic dinners. And it went on and on: the last celebration of his birthday was in January 1997. With mind-blowing wines, thoughtfully, cleverly, chosen.
There's quite a bit of faxing between us. I can't remember a fax of more than a page, but then the typeface he uses is very small and he's just switched from a typewriter to a word processor. There's quite a lot of words on them, and they're always beautifully written, as you can imagine.
We have a similar sense of humour which depends a lot on observation of people, not slapstick. We do laugh a lot, but not at jokes. Listening to a particularly witty or apt description by him is a joy ... Our volume level always goes up after wine. He has a much better capacity for alcohol than I have - I think men do generally. It's very unfair.
We talk more about journalism than books. I have absolutely no imagination, so I admire anyone who can write fiction, even bad fiction. But to write good fiction seems to me the summit of human achievement. As for appearing in his work - well, I think there are two Masters of Wine in his collection of short stories called Cross Channel, and one is blonde. But there the similarity ends. The closer you are to a novelist, I suppose the less likely it is that you end up in one of their novels.
I've floated the odd idea with him because he, I suppose, would be a typical buyer of wine books. He's been very helpful: if he finds an old passage in a book which is of interest, he might send me a copy. So I think his would be a very good shoulder to lean on - but I hope that I never have to.
'England, England' by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99) is published on 3 September. A second series of 'Vintner's Tales' begins on BBC2 on 15 October
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