THE RUSSELL BABY, now what was that? When and where did Edward, Prince of Wales, first meet Mrs. Ernest Simpson? Who said about what play, "The public are asking for filth"?

Andrew Barrow is a journalist who has had the bright idea of giving us the news of half a century, as it was recorded in contemporary newspaper gossip columns and diaries. The place is Britain; the gossip columns have been supplemented by such books as Oswald Mosley's and Cecil Beaton's autobiographies and the history of the Savoy Hotel. The result is -- well, hardly history and certainly not social analysis, but an account that gives the changing flavor of British top society and shows the decline in our national vice of snobbery better than many serious social histories. When World War II ended, evening dress was again made obligatory for those dining at the Savoy. Today London's grander restaurants still ask for a jacket, although not a dinner jacket, but not many insist on a ite.

Few people are likely to read straight through the thousands of four or five-line entries that make up the book. The most rewarding approach is to use the index, look up names, and follwo the careers (or at least the gossip column careers) of the late Lord Louis Mountbatten, Harold Macmillan and dozens of others through the whole half-century. Both appear on the opening page, Lord Louis at the Chelsea Arts Ball and Macmillan becoming engaged to the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire ("Much regret was expressed in certain quarters that all the Duke's daughters were marrying commoners.") They are on the last page too, Macmillan attending a Mayfair wedding, Mountbatten at a televised Savoy Hotel banquet for Noel Coward.

Coward, naturally enough, also makes many appearances. It was about Coward's The Vortex that the veteran actor Sir Gerald du Maurier made the condemnatory remark quoted above, in 1924. And this seems the place to answer the other questions with which I began. The Russell baby was one of the great legal dramas of the '20s. John Russell, heir to Lord Ampthill, had agreed with his wife Christabel that they should have no children. When one arrived, he sued for divorce on the grounds of her adultery. He lost the case, won it on appeal, and lost it again -- and finally -- by the verdict of the House of Lords. And the first meeting of the couple who became the Windsors took place in 1930 at Burrough Court, home of Lord and Lady Furness. Mrs Simpson practised her curtsies on the train. A later entry reveals that the lady named in the Simpson divorce suit had the exotic name of Buttercup Kennedy.

The text is supported by pcitures: up-and-coming Oswald Mosley with his trilby set at a dashing angle, the Russell baby himself in Kensington Garden, diners at the Cafe de Paris reading papers that broke the news of Edward VIII's projected marriage. Here is Barbara Hutton with her second husband Count Reventlow and their baby, which is to be christened at Marlborough House Chapel; there are Princess Margaret and old friend Billy Wallace on holiday; and there again Somerset Maugham diving into his private swimming pool.

The arts, as Barrow admist, don't get much of a look in, and Maugham is here because he is "the world's richest writer." A touch of scandal also may make an artist eligible, so that Augustus John is frequently mentioned. "Who is thi" chap?" asked General Montgomery, one of his subjects. "He drinks, he's dirty, and I know there are women in the background." T. S. Eliot finds a place because in 1957 he "astonished the literary world by suddenly marrying his 30-year-old secretary." Picasso and Matisse are in because their art was thought in 1954 to "verge upon the obscene," but Barrow's subjects are mostly those who appear in Debrett's , or Burke's Peerage . Marxists wanting to document the frivolity and extravagance of the British upper class. And rightly so. The vacuity of much that is recorded -- for instance, of the Bright Young Things at the end of the '20s giving a party where everybody came as a baby, and dolls and comforters were provided -- would seem unbelievable if it was not firmly authenticated. Yet this deadpan account of scandal and triviality does illuminate at times a broad-bottomed obstinacy and refusal to accept reality that has served Britain well. "At lunchtime on September 12 [it was 1940, and the air attack on London had begun] the grouse served at the Refrom Club in Pall Mall won high praise." Those who cannot appreciate the importance of praising the quality of the grouse at such a time will never understand the British character.