State of the nation? Darwinian

NEW WRITING 4 ed AS Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst Vintage/British Council £5.99
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THE preface to this largely excellent anthology of contemporary British writing promises a "multi-faceted picture of modern Britain". We then launch headlong into an extract from Lawrence Norfolk's new novel, The Pope's Rhinoceros, about fish and the Scandina-vian ice-age. The precise relevance of your primordial Baltic herring to '90s Britain remains unexplained, although in the final analysis it doesn't matter, as the extract provides one of the most densely spellbinding pieces of prose yet to have emerged this year.

The fourth of the British Council's annual anthologies is a collection that promises one thing and delivers another. In defiance of its Preface, it remains resolutely silent on the state of modern Britain - over half the assembled poems, essays, short stories and extracts are set in foreign countries, or bygone days, or, most commonly, bygone days in foreign countries - while several contributions, and most contributors, are far from new.

What we do have - and why not? - is the A S Byatt / Alan Hollinghurst spring collection of British writing. "Our criteria for inclusion have been ... the ability to surprise and reveal and move," proclaims Hollinghurst's introduction. Within such virtually limitless parameters the anthology succeeds admirably, marshalling an eclectic rattlebag of literary gems into a forceful argument for the burgeoning strength of British writing.

At times, admittedly, the argument fails to convince. Alan Fuller's 100 stanza poem "Star-Gazing" won't be doing much for British literary exports with lines like: "And so she suddenly departed/ And finished what her parents started/ Her final face was broken hearted." The not-so-good, however, is gratifyingly outweighed by the good and, in many cases, the exceptional. Hanif Kureishi's "My Son the Fanatic" starts as a lightweight tale of a boy's conversion to militant Islam, and concludes with his gentle- hearted, Anglophile father practically beating him to death. "So who's the fanatic now," challenges the final line. Conor Cregan's "Ochon" is a searing piece of tragi-comic Irish blarney, while Tibor Fischer's "Then They Say You're Drunk" contains some deliciously irreverent swipes at the great British criminal. "Street robbery was suited to the nifty," explains Guy, a legal clerk cum failed actor, "It was an offence much favoured by failed athletes who hadn't got it right at county level but who were happy to have a chance to put their training to use."

There is notable work from, among others, Adam Thorpe, Fay Weldon, Nadine Gordimer, Philip Hensher, Andrew Motion and Penelope Fitzgerald. Best of all, perhaps, is Louis de Bernires' rip-roaring "Labels", the salutary tale of a bailiff who bankrupts himself in his obsessive search for tinned cat-food labels, and then becomes a millionaire by selling the discarded heaps of Whiskas and KiteKat as his own brand of exotic pat. Side-splitting, tumble-off-the-sofa stuff.

The anthology concludes, appropriately, with A S Byatt's piercing essay "A New Body of Writing: Darwin and Recent British Fiction". Appropriately because it explores the one discernible theme linking the majority of works collected here - namely their utter dis-inclination to tackle the larger issues currently facing contemporary Britain.

Byatt perceives an increasingly "Darwinian" outlook in British writing, with authors focusing down on the genetic individual rather than up on the society to which that individual belongs. This "deliberate limitation of texts", as she calls it, in no way affects the quality of writing here, which is, in the main, outstanding. What we don't get, however, is a picture, multi-faceted or otherwise, of the world from which that writing has sprung. If, on the other hand, you're interested in herrings ...