PICNIC ON VESUVIUS: Steps Towards the Millennium By William Rees-Mogg (Sidgwick & Jackson, $165) WHEN I was a cub football reporter covering Britain's minor leagues, we occasionally came across some great names of the past, now fat and 40 plus, still turning out for some obscure outfit like Northwich Victoria or Blyth Spartans. Were we reporters, who were mostly much younger than he was, to feel embarrassed at this ancient's flaunting of age's physical decline and retirement's continuing financial needs? Or were we to be pleased that the old boy was still game for a game? Similar ambiguous feelings are evoked by the discovery that William Rees-Mogg, once the editor of The Times of London, has recently been garnering the odd crust by contributing a weekly 1,200 words to the Independent, a selection of which is collected here. Happily we do not need to fear that Lord Rees-Mogg (as he now is) was driven to this by need. The House of Lords pays generously. Also, Lord R-M has developed a nice little line in doom-laden books about the economic future, the tone of which can be gathered from their titles: The Great Reckoning and Blood in the Streets . So what is he up to here? Well, one answer is plugging the books. A fussier editor would have put a stop to this. I know the then Mr R-M specialised in financial matters but his vast experience in the matter does not seem to have instilled any sensible idea of what you can get away with in 1,200 words. The coming end of the economic world is just not one of those nifty little topics to which you can do justice in a tidy slot on the leaders and letters page. In fact, I rather wish His Lordship had commissioned some sensible stranger to pick his pieces for him. I do not know what was left out, but an elementary calculation indicates that this book contains 80 pieces out of a total output of about 300. Any columnist will tell you that when you look back at your work you usually find a large number of pieces which were out of date about two days after they were written. You also find some which now give their embarrassed author a strong urge to hide hishead under the blankets and scream quietly to himself. What is left can be considered for hard covers if the offer comes along, and what is left in this case does not seem to have been quite enough. I could have done with less on the American economy in the late 80s, less superficial stuff on American cities, less on Archbishop Lefebvre (who was of scant interest to non-Catholics at the best of times and is now dead), and less on AIDS, a subject forwhich Lord Rees-Mogg appears to have a morbid fascination. I could also have done with less on the Rees-Mogg personal past, on which our author seems somewhat over-satisfied. As he revelled in the intelligence of his young colleagues on the Financial Times I could not suppress the thought that in this company the young Rees-Mogg was an under-achiever: Nigel Lawson went on to wreck the British economy, Shirley Williams to split the Labour Party. Rees-Mogg only ruined The Times . This is not a kind thought, and may owe something to my discovery that the young Rees-Mogg not only never learned shorthand (a skill which eludes many journalists, including me) but never even bothered to learn to type. A couple of years with Blyth Spartans would have done him good. As a journalist he seems to have neglected every branch of the trade except leader-writing. On the other hand, at that side of the business he is marvellous. I still remember, after George Brown had fallen down publicly drunk in the House of Lords car park, a wonderful Times leader which culminated in the deathless observation that the newspaper preferred George Brown drunk to Harold Wilson sober. There are some lovely passages in this book. Try this on state socialism: ''The British National Health Service is the largest state employer in Europe after the Red Army; we all devoutly hope that the Red Army enjoys the same standard of efficiency as the NHS.'' Or this on proposals for a national dog registration scheme: ''The droppings of a large bird, such as a Canada Goose, are at least as large as those of a small dog, such as a Yorkshire terrier. Perhaps all Canada geese should be registered and muzzled. ..'' Or this epitaph for Robert Maxwell: ''I am glad he was buried yesterday on the Mount of Olives, which is a place of grace. I shall remember him with affection; for all his faults, he was always generous to me, and I was always suspicious of him.'' We can never have too many people about who believe that this sort of writing is not wasted on newsprint. Readers of the Independent were lucky. Readers of this book are luckier still. They can skip the sections on politics, economics and sexually-transmitted diseases. What is left is excellent reading.