Julian Barnes worked at the New Statesman in the late 1970s, an era that has since become famous for its bibulous “Friday lunches”. Yet these days Barnes, who was not much of a drinker and even less of a talker, has less to say about carousing with Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Clive James than he does about the sporting opportunities the NS offered at its Great Turnstile House office in central London. “There was a table tennis table in the basement, and we’d go down and play there. And Lincoln’s Inn Fields had tennis courts and that was just 50 yards away.” As well as defeating most of his colleagues at ping-pong – admittedly the film critic John Coleman was often “rather pie-eyed” – Barnes was, he claims, “the New Statesman tennis champion. It only consisted of beating Martin and Patrick Wintour, but I was very proud of that.”
A few years ago, a rotator cuff injury in his right shoulder put Barnes out of action, he tells me, as we sit upstairs in the bay window of his double-fronted house near Parliament Hill in north London – which means no tennis of either variety. The full-size snooker table that dominates the room has been decommissioned and is piled high with books.
Barnes had “a lot of serious fun” at the NS, as deputy literary editor and television critic. Having “fucked up my university career roundly” at Oxford, flitting from French and Russian to philosophy and psychology and then back again – he graduated in modern languages in 1968 – and worked for a spell on the Oxford English Dictionary, Barnes was testing the waters as a freelance reviewer when he had his first NS piece published in October 1975. It was, uncharacteristically, a report on US Senate hearings scrutinising the CIA, which he’d written and submitted on spec while on holiday in Washington DC.
He was brought into the NS for a formal interview by Amis, who Barnes had met through the poet Craig Raine. The NS’s headmasterly editor Anthony Howard “liked to try and be strict with his boys. But in fact, he was a softy.” Howard was very pleased at having signed Barnes up for a modest salary of £3,000, only to be told by Hitchens, “Oh, you could have got him a lot less than that.” At which point the frugal Howard performed a perfect “man being strangled from behind” – Amis’s name for his boss’s most appalled expression.
Barnes could not believe his luck at landing a dream job. He was deputy briefly to Claire Tomalin and, when she left, Amis. Barnes was “very shy, and I couldn’t speak. And they all seemed to know so much more than I do. We’d have whole paper meetings on a Friday. And you’re meant to have a view on anti-fascism and what’s happening in the Politburo, and Indian politics and so on. And, of course, Hitch and James [Fenton] and Martin were well able to hold their own. But I just sat and listened really.”
Among Barnes’s practical work tasks was driving to the printers in Southend very early on a Wednesday – he and Amis alternated weeks – “on the dreadful A120” to make final corrections to the text of that week’s magazine. “I’d take a home-made bacon sandwich as a treat for lunch.” Critics would regularly visit the NS office and “most were very welcome”. But when a reviewer who Amis wanted to sack came looking for his next commission, Barnes was sent downstairs to fend him off. Panicking, all Barnes could think to say was “I’m afraid we haven’t got any new books! I did Martin’s dirty work more than once.”
When the TV column became vacant – the previous reviewer, Ian Hamilton, disliked television so much that he “spent an entire column reviewing the Radio Times” rather than watching anything – Barnes was pleased to be offered the gig. “It was meant to be entertaining, and occasionally you sought more gravity. I mean, the whole of life is on television.” Barnes’s writing on TV was witty and often cutting, whether describing Russian athletes goose-stepping at the Moscow Olympic Games opening ceremony, noting Michael Parkinson’s “constant verbal lechery” or Dick Van Dyke’s “umber tan warring bizarrely with his bright grey locks”. For Barnes’s final Christmas round-up in 1980 he resorted to inventing all the shows, from Dennis Potter’s Mould on the Cupcake (“In the Bethlehem Suite of the Bristol Hilton, a group of advertising executives are getting drunk and swearing before going to bed with one another’s wives”) to The Queen (“HM tosses a pebble into pond to symbolise how all actions have wider effects, advises us to stay in the Common Market”).
Did his time at the NS teach Julian Barnes anything as a writer? “My shameful secret is my first novel took about seven years to write,” he says. “Journalism gave me confidence that you could write a sentence, you could write a paragraph, you could write a coherent piece. And people didn’t come up to you in the street and say, ‘You can’t do it. You’re just no good.’”
[See also: Ian Hargreaves on 110 years of the New Statesman]
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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue