by John Maier
In Lynn Barber’s downstairs toilet there hangs a framed letter from Lucian Freud, politely declining her many requests for an interview by explaining that he doesn’t feel like being ‘shat on by a stranger’. Perhaps he had a bad experience with a journalist? I think, re-reading it. Though not that bad, one hopes. At any rate, many people have agreed to being ‘shat on’ by the ‘Demon’ Barber of Fleet Street, some no doubt considering it a test of character or sign of distinction, and besides, Barber tells guests she has an original Freud in the bog.
Barber is the foremost print interviewer of her generation. Some go a shade bolder and speak of her as virtually re-inventing the celebrity profile and she seems, obliquely, to accept the credit: ‘Interviews used to be such crap anyway’, she reminisces sweetly. Her renown is owed to a flair for hatchet-jobs; her column inches run thick with the blood of many victims – Jeremy Irons, Rafael Nadal, Harriet Harman, Marianne Faithfull (my god, Marianne Faithfull!) – each of them hauled up and slain in the Barber’s chair.
But what really to make of this reputation, and the handy barbarous metaphors that accompany it? To earn a name like that on a street like that, the thought goes, she must be a piece of work indeed! It conjures up a quite lurid carousel of possible characters – some duplicitous old hack with a poisoned pen, or perhaps a formidable headmistress- type with a bustling manner and nuclear impatience for bullshit. Well, abandon carousel! None of these impressions survive acquaintance with Barber, or for that matter with her writing, and so, I assume, must rely for support in popular consciousness on those who won’t or can’t read. The doppelganger (Demon-Barber) was likely birthed in the Frankenstein laboratory of some vengeful PR, with the aim of obscuring the fact that Barber is actually a quite clear-headed journalist, funny and a practiced judge of character, and consequently a terrifying natural predator to species like Hollywood actors and Harriet Harman.
She appears at the door of her grand house in Highgate – all high ceilings and cigarette smoke – busy with tea, the slightly awkward hostess, like somebody else’s grandmother. But occasionally, there is that other note, one of brisk forthrightness, which she seems unwilling or unable to contain. ‘You’re on time. That’s good. That’s rule number one’, she notes aloud, like she is awarding me a point. I am seized briefly by a vision of myself as a learner driver, Barber in the instructor’s seat, foot arched on her pedal.
Does she like being interviewed herself? I ask from the sofa, rummaging around for my sheets of questions, which seem to have crumpled themselves into a little origami cowpat at the bottom of my bag.
‘No’, she says pleasantly, settling down.
‘You’re fine,’ she says in footnote. ‘It is a bit awkward, I find.’
The task of actually carrying out the interview is Barber’s least favourite part of the job, one she approaches with a curious, competitive fervour. Research is exhaustive, taking in her subject’s work, boxes of press clippings, particularly previous interviews. She is interested exclusively in famous people and not ashamed of it. The condition of fame is interesting inherently, but also for the pathologies it breeds into people’s characters, and the way it causes them to bifurcate into public and private selves. The interview is ‘an attempt to read someone’s character in an indecently short space of time’. There is no time to waste. At the start of an interview, Julie Andrews once asked, with all her irrepressible politeness, whether Barber had any children. ‘No’, lied Barber: she has two girls, but Andrews’s question is a quintessential piece of time-wasting and therefore not to be engaged. Talking to Barber and knowing all this of her sense of strategy, occasionally there descends a fog of paranoia that she might be outmanoeuvring you somehow, keeping herself just out of sight. ‘I’m quite confessional to myself, but I don’t share very much’, she says. ‘I’m not particularly giving, as you’ll find,’ she adds, teasingly, lighting up. It is a little odd to imagine Barber in the grip of her inquisitorial monomania. She seems so essentially passive; her favourite activity, as far as I can tell, is smoking; her favourite exercise is coughing.
We are, none of us, very good judges of character in our daily lives, thinks Barber. ‘If I’m interviewing them, I look at people in a very clear-eyed way and am mentally questing everything they say.’ She has penned her own creation-myth regarding the source of this uncommon curiosity and distrust: her memoir An Education, which was adapted for film by Nick Hornby in 2009 and had Barber played by Carey Mulligan. The theme is a loss of innocence. Barber was born in Bagshot, (a suitable enough sounding place for the protagonist of a bildungsroman to be born in), but grew up in the suburban idyll of Twickenham, where she went to Lady Eleanor Holles School. ‘I suppose I really wanted to be a film star, or a princess, or a duchess, or I don’t know what’, Lynn says of her early ambitions. Her father was a minor civil servant, who was given to outbursts of comical rage, and had a disagreeable habit of clipping Lynn around the ears; her mother was an elocution teacher, who practiced on her only daughter, and had a disagreeable habit of entering Lynn into speaking competitions. Lynn still has this wonderfully drawling, girly voice (‘I hated the elocution accent! And I still hate it! But what can you do, actually? Because it’s not that there’s some, as it were, “real” accent that I’m covering up!’) She is also fluent in this awfully infectious Mallory-Towers/1960s-Independent-London-Day- School patois: she has the ‘jammiest’ job in the world, has known people ‘for yonks’, and talks as if she is the last custodian of the sub-modifier (at one point she unselfconsciously utters the sentence, ‘I don’t think there’s an awful lot of point in regretting things awfully.’)
Anyway, one day a man called Simon came kerb-crawling into 16-year-old-Lynn’s life: he offered her a lift in his car and in an act of self-proclaimed ‘sluttishness’ Barber climbed in. Cue a life of glamourous expense, fine-dining, raucous club-going, hushed business-dealings – and all on a school-night! Her parents remained strangely passive throughout the affair, overwhelmed by the charisma of the older man. Lynn almost abandoned her application to Oxford in order to marry Simon, only for her to discover, somewhat by accident, that he was already married with children. It is easy to situate this spectacular case of mistaken judgement as the formative event in the life of a writer who has remained suspicious of people and their motivations, to whom others remain ‘fundamentally unknowable’.
Barber was thoroughly alienated by the experience. One gets the impression that she felt a little failed by her parents, and she says she didn’t have anything like a confidant to lean on for emotional support while she remained at home. Still, a little belatedly, she took up her place at St. Anne’s to read English, and soon she seemed to be having more fun than ever. She briefly dated notorious drugs-baron-of-the-future Howard Marks, who was at Balliol. In fact, Lynn got around rather a lot at Oxford. She went on, well, a bit of a spree, actually, which lasted two terms and which she described on Desert Island Discs to scandalous effect. It all happened when Lynn’s long-term boyfriend from first-year jilted her, or dumped her, or whatever the expression was...
[Flashback: Desert Island Discs recording studio]
‘... [He] jilted me, or dumped me, or whatever the expression was, and my thinking was I must find another boyfriend immediately, and I haven’t got time to waste going out to dinner with them or going punting with them – you know – why don’t I just go to bed with them first and then if they’re no good I can just eliminate them and not waste any time? Which I suppose is a pretty bad attitude...’
How many? Kirsty presses, looking for figures.
‘Oh, probably fifty’, muses Lynn.
There is a suitably pregnant pause. Silence. It doesn’t last long by the clock, but whole civilizations seem to rise and fall in that pause.
‘Right...’, says Kirsty, leaving a further momentary gap so that a nation of horrified listeners can choose between fainting or quickly switching to Radio 3. ‘And they’re quite short those Oxford terms, aren’t they?’ Kirsty points out, helpfully.
At this point, in an I’ve-made-my-bed-and-god-knows-I’ll-lie-in-it sort of spirit, Lynn replies, gleefully:
‘Absolutely! I was jamming them in’.
Lynn! Desert Island Discs is broadcast on a Sunday! It’s right after The Archers Omnibus! The Omnibus! The Queen was probably still listening!
Still gripped by shock, I begin to turn over Lynn’s confession in my mind, puzzling through its apparent implications. Recall now that Lynn had a single, simple desideratum – so what does this imply about every-one-but-last of the probably-fifty men she performance-tested? What an indictment of the male student body. And actually, what sheer resolve on Barber’s part to carry on with the selection-process in the face of such dismal results. Imagine confronting, only to swiftly eliminate, say, candidate 29, or 35, or 49 – all of them stinkers, by the way – and just, well, ploughing on regardless.
On a serious and perhaps legally necessary note, it is hard to say whether Barber’s – um, how to put it delicately? – sixteen-week sex-bonanza really was either as frustrating or methodical as is implied above, or whether she perhaps lost sight of its original purpose, or something. Whether or not Oxford provided Barber with the necessary seed of inspiration, a few years later she published her first book, How to Improve your Man in Bed. This is actually the book of which Barber says she is still most proud and is still her go-to wedding present.
(Because I believe in research, I did try to purchase a copy of HTIYMIB on Amazon. Unfortunately, sellers of Barber’s book drive a hard bargain. ThriftBooks, the least mercenary of the vendors, demands £42.37 before they will give you what they describe as ‘a readable copy’ of the book, one whose pages may be obscured by ‘considerable notes... in pen or highlighter’. On second thoughts, this is no time to scrimp, I think to myself, navigating instead to the hardback options, where no less than £129.49 will get you ‘a clean copy’ – I commend myself for exiting the ‘readable’ but presumably ‘soiled’ paperback market – though hardback readers will still have to put up with some ‘minor wear to the spine’... Well, no doubt, if the reader is being prescribed the Lynn-Barber-fifty-a-term- method. My research thwarted at every conceivable turn, I decide it will probably be easier to just get married and invite Lynn, and so, after becoming briefly distracted by the “customers-also-viewed” scroll-bar, I give up.)
Having left Oxford, Lynn cherried an already louche cake by taking a job at Penthouse. Her duties included applying powder to the Pets’ bottoms and keeping a good record on the go during photo-shoots, where she would otherwise give herself to the Times Crossword. She also started writing the magazine’s loftily-titled interview feature, ‘Parameters of Sexuality’, where she would interview foot-fetishists and amputee-enthusiasts and learned to keep a straight face. Here, she started to think of the interview as a professional transaction and discovered the importance of detail (e.g. ‘Do you have a favourite limb?’). When not foraging in fetish-forest, Lynn might have been lunching Auberon Waugh or Kingsley Amis at the Penthouse Club, a venue which attracted few second-time visitors.
After what sound like seven quite uninhibited, busy years, she quit Penthouse and – a little unexpectedly for someone with such a well-developed sense of fun – resigned herself to family life, if only in part. In part because for most of these six years she occupied herself with perhaps the oddest project of her career, placing it perhaps beyond explanation. She wrote a book called The Heyday of Natural History, examining the relationship between Darwinism and popular Victorian natural history books. I am holding it now (it can be purchased for £0.01 on Amazon), and still I cannot really understand its existence or connect it to any other point in the map of Barber’s life. Lynn seems rather mystified by having written it too, and says, with a little self- effacement I think, that all it demonstrated was something that her Oxford tutors could have told her, namely, that she had little vocation for scholarship. As is illustrated in her attitude to it now, what is so surprising about the book is the aspiration behind it, given the obvious fact of Barber’s wide-ranging horror of pretention. She is bemused, for example, by critics who began referring to her as a ‘writer’ rather than a ‘journalist’ following the success of An Education. ‘I love journalists’, says Lynn. ‘Actually, I don’t know if they like me, but I like tabloid journalists. And I like sports journalists. The rougher the better, in my opinion.’ Such buoyant unpretentious urges are one of the most distinctive things about Barber’s journalism: an active suspicion of the priggish and pompous or unjustifiably high-brow, and impatience with those who aren’t game or good fun; running alongside, there’s a kind of knowing indulgence of frivolity and excess, drama, and a boredom with normality which leads her to be more compelled by the bizarre or unpleasant than morally outraged by them. Lynn doesn’t lead with moral categories and it confers on her a terrible advantage when it comes to understanding others.
After her six-year self-imposed domestic exile, she returned to journalism, first at the Sunday Express and subsequently taking turns at seemingly every other broadsheet, all the while testing shelve strength with a growing collection of British Press Awards. Relieving, Fleet Street sounds like it was an opportunity for yet more fun. ‘We spent the entire morning planning where to have lunch. If ever you knew anyone who could possibly call a contact, you’d just put down “lunching contact” on expenses and then you’d just take the whole office out somewhere very posh. If we didn’t, we had a relatively cheap local Italian. We went out for lunch for probably three hours every day. It was fun. Much fun was had.” ‘God!’ – I sit there thinking, contemplating this vanished world – this is so unfair, I love lunch. It wasn’t until she went to the Independent on Sunday in the 1990s that people suddenly noticed how rude some of her copy was and she was ordained ‘mega-bitch hatchet-woman who stitched everyone up’.
‘I don’t think I’m rude’, she coos innocently. ‘But some people are sometimes offended by my questions. I don’t think they should be, actually.’ Yet, let us consult the record. Barber was moved, mid-discussion, to ask Harriet Harman whether she was thick; she set Stephen Fry the punishing task of quantifying how ‘seriously screwed up’ he is; she asked a rather loathsome Jeremy Irons whether he was the ‘kind of person who would watch someone do the washing up and then tell them they were doing it badly’. One theory – this, floated by fellow interviewer Tanya Gold at a speaking event with Barber at Hay – is that Lynn’s success derives from her total indifference about being liked. The way she can talk about people in print as if they are out of earshot is indeed shocking, and surely requires the suppression of some deeply socialised instincts. And she does reflect that were she a man, someone would probably have punched her by now. It is interesting, incidentally, to note how serviceable feminine qualities seem to be in interviewing. Just consider how many of the most entertaining or provoking or probing interviewers are women – Kirsty Young, Sue Lawley, Oriana Fallaci, Ruby Wax, Dame Edna – and how many of the dreariest, men.
Barber insists that people are well served by her sparing questions. It forces them to push back. Anyway, she owes it to the reader to satisfy deep and even tasteless curiosities: ‘It’s a wimp-out if you don’t.’ It is also, no doubt, an easy method of collecting relevant evidence to bolster a lurking theory about a person (see: Harriet Harman, thick). The questions which reliably produce the worst reactions are apparently:
(a) whether the interviewee has ever visited prostitutes, and (b) whether the interviewee has ever had a homosexual encounter.
I decide that I would be letting Lynn down if I didn’t ask at least one of these questions. Rolling what feels like a slightly weighted dice, I go for (b). I think Lynn is pleased by my asking – it’s hard to tell – but, ‘No’, comes the considered reply...But then, ‘When I was at Penthouse I had a threesome that involved another woman. Actually, it was interesting, because I thought, “No, it’s not for me really”.’ Oh, was Penthouse office-life quite a lot like that, then? “Not a lot like that, but we did occasionally break out and have orgies, organised by the art director. It was good fun.’ (I can’t help but think that she gives me this for free: there’s one for the pull-quote, she thinks; throw him a bone, as it were.)
Of course, the tragedy for those whom Barber shocks with her rudeness is that were they only to return the serve and behave like absolute bastards, she would inevitably love them. She seems disposed to be endlessly forgiving of hell-raisers, curmudgeons, and temperamental arseholes, people who take up space and whose personalities inflict a certain amount of collateral damage – men, one thinks, a bit like her father. She has spoken of her father as the rudest person she ever met; does he continue to set a high bar for the celebrities, I ask. ‘Absolutely!’ she laughs. “I am completely embarrassment- proof, and it’s amazing how [...] quite often, a male interviewee will say “fuck” and look at me – sort of “Oo! Is she going to be terribly shocked?” ... You are so wasting your time’. ‘I feel probably more secure if someone’s shouting at me’. This is certainly borne out in her work. A positively ogreish Roald Dahl shouts his way through most of a 1989 interview with Lynn but he is a ‘great man’ and ought to be knighted; John Paul Getty is almost inhumanly rude – not so much possessing ‘bad manners as no manners at all’ – yet she seems to want to forgive even him.
Certainly, to interview someone is already to treat them in a strange, unnatural manner, and could overstrain even the most normal of subjects. Barber’s interview with famous actor and accomplished drunkard Richard Harris ends with him, prancing alongside her through the lobby of the Savoy, shouting to passers-by, ‘She says I’m vain! Look at me!’ (Not to imply that Richard Harris counts as normal.) At another extreme, it is not uncommon to hear people completely decompensate on Desert Island Discs, as if unused to the kind of self-examination a thoroughgoing interview compels. The all-time record for this, as far as I am aware, is held by Martina Navratilova, who breaks down promptly inside the three-and-a-half-minute mark, just before she introduces her first track (‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga). For her part, Lynn Barber, the meanie, once made nice Julian Fellowes cry. ‘It wasn’t particularly anything I’d asked him,’ she protests. ‘...Well, I’d asked him about his first love, or something. But obviously there’s something going on that you’re not particularly privy to...” She trails off.
“But I’m embarrassed by people crying,” she concludes. “So, I don’t aim for it.”
Barber is not the kind of interviewer interested in luring her subjects to an emotional brink. The people who really stand to lose are those that are inauthentic or hiding – from others or themselves – wearing some kind of mask. Her pieces can wreck your view of a person or crystalize suspicions that have long been there. She has a novelistic eye for the individuating characteristic, for foibles and flaws. What is the worst quality an interviewee can have? ‘Pomposity I hate, and people – It’s always men – who are so confident that you’re listening agog, that they talk so slowly, delivering one word every five minutes. I actually want to go up and...’ She shakes the air in front of her. Yes, I reply, carefully hurrying my words, and there must be some people who are simply too irredeemably boring to participate in an exchange as one-sided as an interview. ‘One or two, yes, and that is hard. Once or twice I have come back from an interview and said it’s actually not worked, and not written it. The hard ones are where you’re flogging your way to try and make someone interesting and you can’t do it.’ On the subject of the irredeemably boring, we are sucked, as if by a swelling void, a vortex of mental association, towards the subject of our Prime Minister. Lynn got herself invited to tea with Theresa May some years ago, before she entered Number 10, but she was forbidden from doing any interviewing on account of May’s not feeling ready. ‘I wanted to ask questions, but I couldn’t. And it was just extremely awkward. Obviously, I failed whatever test it was, because she never did do an interview.’
I think it was very sensible of Theresa May to turn Barber down. This is because – and I suppose I should lay face-down on the table the cards that I have been flashing the whole while – I think Lynn is easily the best interviewer working today, despite the efforts of scores of imitators. Reading her work one notices how content other interviewers are to capture their subjects fleetingly and timidly and how trapped they are in a certain style of writing. It is amazing, for one thing, how many seem to consider the examination of character as superfluous to their task. Perhaps it is because there is so much interview in print that the form blossoms with distinctive and reliable points of irritation. (I have in mind the kind of one-size-fits-none pseudo-drama that invariably begins with the interviewer ‘nervously’ awaiting their interviewee in a café or restaurant, and then goes on to fascinate over the way they touch their hair or handle the menu. I suppose this descriptive style might be revealing in its own elliptical way; it certainly leaves much unsaid, though, somehow, not enough. I have developed a rule now that if I come across an interview that continues in this way I simply scream and defecate.) Lynn nods in agreement when I voice my reservation about the quality of a lot of print journalists’ writing, as if such is obvious. ‘There are now too many columnists. I won’t name names’, she pre-empts.
So, while Tanya Gold is certainly right that Lynn is little interested in being liked by her subjects, there is, I think, something distinct from this in her approach and more fundamental, more idiosyncratic, which explains her success. Her concerns have an old- fashioned emphasis. She is interested in childhoods (‘I believe that if you can understand someone’s childhood, you’re three quarters of the way to understanding them now’), sibling rivalry, people’s upbringings, therapy and analysis, relationships with parents, and repressed desires. These themes might have a dated, mid-twentieth- century aura about them, but they remain elementary concerns in Barber’s view of her subject, and reading her work one mourns that they are not generally thought more important. ‘I suspect we know less about character now’, she writes ‘...than at any previous time in history. It is an unfashionable subject, but I think it’s now dangerously neglected.’ Barber is even fond of astrological signs, not because she believes in the Zodiac, but because they are stimulating shorthands for distinctive character-types.
There is this curious traditionalist streak in Lynn’s outlook, which surfaces only occasionally in what she says. Later on, she puts in a little complaint about a recent commission from the Sunday Times Magazine. She has been asked to contribute to a feature about motherhood. ‘I’m a bad person to write about [it] because what I want to say is, becoming a mother is the most important thing you can do in your life and forget the boardroom if necessary.’ She says this all rather reluctantly, wriggling her toe near familiar hot water. She also declares boldly that ‘marrying David [her husband] was the best thing [she] ever did’.
David died in 2002, while being treated for myelofibrosis, and Barber has written of the months in and out of hospital over the last year of his life, dwelling on her feelings of inadequacy. ‘I was very aware that I was behaving wrongly, dashing in and out. Proper hospital wives sat like pylons at their husband’s bedside’, she writes. ‘I just couldn’t do this “caring” lark – it made me feel inadequate and cross.’ At one point in hospital, David thanked Lynn for her loyalty. ‘I winced that he used the word loyalty rather than love’. I wonder whether the remoteness she felt so frustrated by, her discomfort in the posture of carer, doesn’t express exactly the quality that makes her so unflinching an interviewer. I wonder if Barber also made the connection; perhaps, she even resented its discovery.
I try to put this to Lynn, but unfortunately my question seems to last for about a year and fails to end in at least five different places. When the question eventually does end, or rather simply stops, Lynn marks the occasion by making a noise, a kind of comedy gagging sound – a noise like I’d just wiped my bum on the nearest copy of Psychoanalysis Weekly and shown it to her. ‘...I’m not quite sure’. Lynn Barber would not have asked this question. Lynn Barber’s questions are short, direct, effective.
Trying to resuscitate the conversation, I bring up the topic of Lynn’s own death. The subject delights her. ‘I am surprised that you brought it up’, she beams. ‘I think a secret that the young don’t know very much, is that people of my age, whenever we get together, we talk about dying and illnesses quite enjoyably... that’s our favourite subject.’ She is a little worried though that, despite her best efforts – she has smoked her way enthusiastically through the interview – she might live into her 90s like her parents. She gestures to a colourful painting on the wall behind her head, consisting of the quotation: ‘Doctor, I want to die in my late 60s early 70s preferably of a heart attack.’ ‘I.e., that’s now’, adds Barber, turning back round to face me. Hopefully not right now, I think.
Apparently, George Michael owned the same fun little picture. Well, it seemed to work for him? I offer by way of consolation. ‘I have been thinking’, continues Lynn, ‘that if I were diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s – some sort of long-term-y thing – that I would hope to try and commit suicide quickly rather than go through all that. But actually, apparently, it’s quite difficult these days cause all those things like sleeping pills that used to work don’t work anymore, you can’t gas yourself...’ I agree, it is a pickle.
I must say, I hope Lynn doesn’t kill herself just yet. She is such good fun. And as it is with critics you admire, you just want them to go on, onto fresh and different ground, new subjects, new people. ‘I think the individual is always what’s important, and it’s sort of salvation in a way, because if everyone were just all the same in these neat little blocks of homogenous groups, life really wouldn’t be worth living – it’d be awful.’ Awfully awful, yes.
JOHN MAIER read PPE at Balliol, which turned out to be everything he wanted and less.
Art by Abigail Hodges