Reflections on this mortal coil

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TO GET to Julian Barnes’s part of London, you stay on the Northern Line for two stops after passing through Martin Amis’s part. The pair used to be friends, back when they were the young groovers of our literary scene. If there was such a magazine as Smash Lits, Barnes and Amis would have been its poster boys.

No mere contemporaries, they were firm friends who bonded over heroic New Statesman lunches and gladiatorial snooker matches. Then, amid much dark talk of seven-figure deals, Amis changed agents. The agent he dumped was Barnes’s wife and, in the fallout, the friendship was well and truly snookered.

In the Lord Palmerston, Barnes’s local in Tufnell Park, I bring up Amis’s name. Barnes points at a bundle of grey fur on the floor: "Isn’t that a great pub dog?" He points at the Gaggia coffee-maker: "This place does wonderful coffee, you know."

Doesn’t he even miss the snooker, and those elegantly argued interludes over kissing balls? "Well," he says, seeking closure for this chapter of the discussion, "Martin’s in Uruguay."

Barnes, 57, is as slippery as an eel, though the creature he most resembles is a curlew: the view from the top of that long, thin nose must be one of the most stunning in all literature. And the word most used to describe him is fastidious.

Not content with merely answering a question with a question, this son of a teacher-man (two teachers, in fact) takes a red pen to your half-baked theories, or if by some fluke they happen to contain the germ of something, he polishes it until it sings. You think: wow, that’s impressive; and then you realise this is his trick for saying very little.

While waiting for him, I re-read old interviews, including one which also took place in the Lord Palmerston and during which he consumed a small bowl of pasta, a glass of red wine, a glass of water and a solitary cigarette with his coffee.

"What do you fancy?" he says, nodding to the regulars as we stand under the menu. "It’s all good, although I usually end up going for a small bowl of pasta." He goes for exactly the same as before, right down to the ciggie, and you think: this is a man who lives his life in a calm, ordered, untroubled way.

Yes, he has his routines. But another thing he does a lot is think about death. That can’t be very untroubled. He’s said previously that he’s been thinking about it since he was 15. So how often is it on his mind now? "No day goes by without me thinking about it. I don’t get anywhere doing it - I don’t become wiser about death, I don’t become more accepting of it - it’s just always there, like your tongue probing a tooth and finding the same hole."

Barnes’s new book, The Lemon Table, is much concerned with death. In its 11 short stories, people suffer death, await it or are affected by the deaths of others, but when I suggest that mortality is the central theme, he squints at me down his beak.

"Sex is in there - love too. I think what the book is about is this: it’s against serenity. It’s against the notion that things calm down when we get older, when philosophy is supposed to kick in - that the body, the heart and sexual desire develop and age in the same way. They don’t, they develop with great disjunctions. I’ve always been aware of this - it’s just one more thing that’s likely to go wrong, down the track, in a humiliating way."

The young Barnes might have become a tax inspector. Now he’s dealing with the other certainty in life. This makes 11 works of fiction in a career that began late, at 34, with Metroland, and includes other books reflecting his love of things French and a stint as The Observer’s TV critic as the follow-that successor to Clive James.

James has said this is TV’s tin age and he couldn’t do the job now. Could Barnes? "Well, there’s more dross these days, but more channels too. Remember how BBC2 started out terribly serious, then suddenly it was showing snooker? Channel 4 is lighter than it was and now we have BBC4, which is where programming responsibilities can be met while ensuring no one is watching."

We talk about football - he’s a long-suffering Leicester City fan who believes the current half-black, half-French Arsenal team have done more to improve race relations in his part of London than any politician - but ultimately the chat comes back to death. "It’s the near certainty of absolute and eternal non-existence, that’s what bugs me," he says, sparking the ceremonial fag.

So he must fear it. "Absolutely and utterly." Is there a way by which he would least like to go? "Ah, now you’re talking about dying, not death." Surely they’re related? "Well, I once had a terrible fear of flying, which I used to blot out with alcohol." Does he drink a lot? "Um, well, okay: something before dinner, then half a bottle of wine with it." The "something" used to be gin and bitter lemon - which some friends viewed as unmanly and one, the late poet Ian Hamilton, would only order if Barnes uttered the name of the offending mixer.

As a lover of classical music - the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is the subject of his final short story - he must know how he would like to be played out. "I haven’t gone that far." But he has gone this far: "I’m worried about the sound systems in crematoriums - they’re not very good. Should you supply your own? Is that allowed? Do you have to pay for an extra half-hour while it’s set up? Or will your executors say: ‘It doesn’t really matter about the speakers’?"

Sibelius spent his last 30 years in artistic retirement, but left a symphony unfinished. Barnes says he embarks on each book thinking it might be his last, and all he’ll reveal about the work in progress is that it’s set in Edinburgh.

Despite the subject matter, The Lemon Table is not short on humour, and even its sly dig at Amis ("Many entertaining descriptions of pubs, and much voyeurism on women’s breasts") reads like a compliment. And when his name crops up again, Barnes is happy to defend his former friend over the kicking given to his last book. "Martin is one of our greatest stylists," he says.

Life’s too short. Maybe the Smash Lits boys should settle their differences over a game of snooker. They could flog the rights to BBC2 for a fortune.

The Lemon Table, Jonathan Cape, 16.99