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 b