An education, by Lynn Barber
On the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1174732/
My harsh lesson in love and life
Sunday 7 June 2009
An education, by Lynn Barber, Penguin, published June 25, 2009
Observer writer and interviewer Lynn Barber was an innocent 16-year-old schoolgirl when she met an older man and began a relationship that lasted two years. By day she was a diligent student; by night 'Simon' charmed her with dazzling stories, expensive restaurants and foreign films. And then came a rude awakening. In this exclusive extract from her memoir - now made into a film starring Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike - she describes her introduction to an adult world of sexuality and betrayal and how she was damaged by her suitor's lessons in life.
I met Simon Goldman in 1960 when I was 16 and he was - he said - 27, but was probably in his late 30s. I was waiting for a bus home to Twickenham after a rehearsal at Richmond Little Theatre, when a sleek maroon car drew up and a man with a big cigar in his mouth leant over to the passenger window and said, "Want a lift?" Of course my parents had told me, my teachers had told me, everyone had told me, never to accept lifts from strange men, but at that stage he didn't seem strange, and I hopped in. I liked the smell of his cigar and the leather seats. He asked where I wanted to go and I said Clifden Road, and he said fine. I told him I had never seen a car like this before, and he said it was a Bristol, and very few were made. He told me lots of facts about Bristols as we cruised - Bristols always cruised - towards Twickenham. He had a funny accent - later, when I knew him better, I realised it was the accent he used for posh - but I asked if he was foreign. He said: "Only if you count Jews as foreign." Well of course I did. I had never consciously met a Jew; I didn't think we had them at my school. But I said politely: "Are you Jewish? I never would have guessed." (I meant he didn't have the hooked nose, the greasy ringlets, the straggly beard of Shylock in the school play.) He said he had lived in Israel when he was "your age". I wondered what he thought my age was: I hoped he thought 19. But then when he said, "Fancy a coffee?" I foolishly answered, "No - my father will kill me if I'm late." "School tomorrow?" he asked, and, speechless with mortification, I could only nod. So then he drove me to my house, and asked: "Can I take you out for coffee another evening?"
My life might have turned out differently if I had just said no. But I was not quite rude enough. Instead, I said I was very busy rehearsing a play which meant that, unfortunately, I had no free evenings. He asked what play, and I said The Lady's Not for Burning at Richmond Little Theatre. Arriving for the first night a couple of weeks later, I found an enormous bouquet in the dressing room addressed to me. The other actresses, all grown-ups, were mewing with envy and saying, "Those flowers must have cost a fortune." When I left the theatre, hours later, I saw the Bristol parked outside and went over to say thank you. He said: "Can't we have our coffee now?" and I said no, because I was late again, but he could drive me home. I wasn't exactly rushing headlong into this relationship; he was far too old for me to think of as a boyfriend. On the other hand, I had always fantasised about having an older man, someone even more sophisticated than me, to impress the little squirts of Hampton Grammar. So I agreed to go out with him on Friday week, though I warned that he would have to undergo a grilling from my father.
My father's grillings were notorious among the Hampton Grammar boys. He wanted to know what marks they got at O-level, what A-levels they were taking, what universities they were applying to. He practically made them sit an IQ test before they could take me to the flicks. But this time, for once, my father made no fuss at all. He asked where Simon and I had met; I said at Richmond Little Theatre, and that was that. He seemed genuinely impressed by Simon, and even volunteered that we could stay out till midnight. So our meeting for coffee turned into dinner, and with my father's blessing.
Simon took me to an Italian place in Marylebone and of course I was dazzled. I had never been to a proper restaurant before, only to tea rooms with my parents. I didn't understand the menu, but I loved the big pepper grinders and the heavy cutlery, the crêpes suzettes and the champagne. I was also dazzled by Simon's conversation. Again, I understood very little of it, partly because his accent was so strange, but also because it ranged across places and activities I could hardly imagine. My knowledge of the world was based on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, and none of them had a word to say about living on a kibbutz or making Molotov cocktails. I felt I had nothing to bring to the conversational feast and blushed when Simon urged me to tell him about my school friends, my teachers, my prize-winning essays. I didn't realise then that my being a schoolgirl was a large part of my attraction.
Over the next few weeks, it became an accepted thing that Simon would turn up on Friday or Saturday nights to take me to the West End. Sometimes we went to the Chelsea Classic to see foreign films; sometimes he took me to concerts at the Wigmore or Royal Festival Hall, but mostly we went to restaurants. The choice of restaurants seemed to be dictated by mysterious visits Simon had to make on the way. He would say, "I've just got to pop into Prince's Gate", and would disappear into one of the white cliff-like houses while I would wait in the car. Sometimes the waiting was very long, and I learnt to take a book on all our dates. Once, I asked if I could come in with him, but he said, "No, this is business", and I never asked again.
Besides taking me out at weekends, Simon would sometimes drop in during the week when he said he was "just passing". (Why was he passing Twickenham? Where was he going? I never asked.) On these occasions, he would stay chatting to my parents, sometimes for an hour or more, about news or politics - subjects of no interest to me. Often the three of them were so busy talking they didn't even notice if I left the room. I found this extraordinary. It was quite unprecedented in our house for me not to be the centre of attention.
Perhaps I should explain about my parents. They were first-generation immigrants to the middle class and all their hopes were invested in me, their only child. They had no relatives in London, and no friends who ever came to the house - my father had his bridge club, my mother her amateur dramatics, but all they talked about at home was me, and specifically my schoolwork. My father often quoted Charles Kingsley's line "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever", but he said it sarcastically - he wanted me to be clever, and let who will be good. I had been reared from the cradle to pass every possible exam, gain every possible scholarship and go to the best possible university. By the time I met Simon, I was well on track. I had a scholarship to an independent school, Lady Eleanor Holles, a royal flush of O-levels, and my teachers predicted that I would easily win a place at Oxford to read English. But still my parents fretted and worried. Their big fear was that my Latin would "let me down".
Simon in theory represented everything my parents most feared - he was not one of us, he was Jewish and cosmopolitan, practically a foreigner. He wore cashmere sweaters and suede shoes; he drove a pointlessly expensive car; he didn't work in an office; he was vague about where he went to school and, worst of all, boasted that he had been educated in "the university of life" - not a teaching establishment my parents recognised. And yet, inexplicably, they liked him. In fact, they liked him more than I ever liked him, perhaps because he took great pains to make them like him. He brought my mother flowers and my father wine; he taught them to play backgammon; he chatted to them endlessly and seemed genuinely interested in their views. I suppose it made a change for them from always talking about me.
Yet none of us ever really knew a thing about him. I think my parents once asked where he lived and he said "South Kensington", but that was it. I never had a phone number for him, still less an address. As for what he did, he was "a property developer" - a term I suspect meant as little to my parents as it did to me. I knew it was somehow connected with these visits he had to make, the great bunches of keys he carried, the piles of surveyors' reports and auction catalogues in the back of his car, and the occasional evenings when he had to "meet Perec" which meant cruising around Bayswater looking for Perec (Peter) Rachman's Roller parked outside one of his clubs. Rachman would later give his name to Rachmanism when the press exposed him as the worst of London's exploitative landlords, but at that time he was just one of Simon's many mysterious business colleagues.
Simon was adept at not answering questions, but actually he rarely needed to, because I never asked them. The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect - I blame Albert Camus. My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions, to ask about every detail of their lives. But just around the time I met Simon I became an existentialist, and one of the rules of existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naïve and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated. And, as it happened, this suited Simon fine. My role in the relationship was to be the schoolgirl ice maiden, implacable, ungrateful, unresponsive to everything he said or did. To ask questions would have shown that I was interested in him, even that I cared, and neither of us really wanted that.
Simon established early on that I was a virgin, and seemed quite happy about it. He asked when I intended to lose my virginity and I said: "17", and he agreed this was the ideal age. He said it was important not to lose my virginity in some inept fumble with a grubby schoolboy, but with a sophisticated older man. I heartily agreed - though, unlike him, I had no particular older man in mind. He certainly didn't seem like a groper. I was used to Hampton Grammar boys who turned into octopuses in the cinema dark, clamping damp tentacles to your breast. Simon never did that. Instead, he kissed me long and gently and said: "I love to look into your eyes." When he kissed me, he called me Minn and said I was to call him Bubl but I usually forgot. Eventually, one night, he said, "I'd love to see your breasts", so I grudgingly unbuttoned my blouse and allowed him to peep inside my bra. But this was still well within the Lady Eleanor Holles dating code - by rights, given the number of hot dinners he'd bought me, he could really have taken my bra right off.
And then one day, on one of his drop-in visits, Simon said he was going to Wales next weekend to visit some friends and could I go with him? I confidently expected my parents to say no - to go away, overnight, with a man I barely knew? - but instead they said yes, though my father added jocularly, "Separate rooms, of course." "Of course," said Simon. So off we went for the first of many dirty weekends. I hated Wales, hated the grim hotel, the sour looks when Simon signed us in. We shared a room, of course, and shared a bed, but Simon only kissed me and said: "Save it till you're 17." After that, there were many more weekends - Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges, and often Sark in the Channel Islands, because Simon liked the hotel there, and I liked stocking up on my exciting new discovery, Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes. They brought my sophistication on by leaps and bounds.
As my 17th birthday approached, I knew that my debt of dinners and weekends could only be erased by "giving" Simon my virginity. He talked for weeks beforehand about when, where, how it should be achieved. He thought Rome, or maybe Venice; I thought as near as possible to Twickenham, in case I bled. In the end, it was a new trendy circular hotel - the Ariel? - by Heathrow airport, where we spent the night before an early morning flight to somewhere or other, I forget. He wanted to do a practice run with a banana - he had brought a banana specially. I said, "Oh for heaven's sake!", and told him to do it properly. He talked a lot about how he hoped Minn would do Bubl the honour of welcoming him into her home. Somewhere in the middle of the talking, he was inside me, and it was over. I thought: "Oh well, that was easy. Perhaps now I can get a proper boyfriend." (I think the word that best describes my entire sex life with Simon is negligible. He was a far from ardent lover - he seemed to enjoy waffling about Minn and Bubl more than actually doing anything. And whereas my games mistress was always bellowing across the changing room, "But you said it was your period last week!", Simon always took my word for it when I said that Minn was "indisposed".)
The affair - if it was an affair - drifted on, partly because no proper boyfriends showed up, partly because I had become used to my strange double life of schoolgirl swot during the week, restaurant-going, foreign-travelling sophisticate at weekends. And this life had alienated me from my schoolfriends: if they said, "Are you coming to Eel Pie Jazz Club on Saturday?", I would say: "No, I'm going to Paris with Simon." Of course my friends all clamoured to meet Simon, but I never let them. I was afraid of something - afraid perhaps that they would see through him, see, not the James Bond figure I had depicted, but this rather short, rather ugly, long-faced, splay-footed man who talked in different accents and lied about his age, whose stories didn't add up.
Because by now - a year into the relationship - I realised that there was a lot I didn't know about Simon. I knew his cars (he had several Bristols), and the restaurants and clubs he frequented, but I still didn't know where he lived. He took me to a succession of flats which he said were his, but often they were full of gonks and women's clothes and he didn't know where the light switches were. So these were other people's flats, or sometimes empty flats, in Bayswater, South Kensington, Gloucester Road. He seemed to have a limitless supply of them.
But by now there was a compelling reason for staying with Simon: I was in love. Not with Simon, obviously, but with his business partner, Danny, and his girlfriend, Helen. I loved them both equally. I loved their beauty, I loved their airy flat in Bedford Square where there was a harpsichord in the corner and pre-Raphaelites on the walls. At that time, few people in Britain admired the pre-Raphaelites, but Danny was one of the first, and I eagerly followed. He lent me books on Rossetti and Burne-Jones and Millais, and sometimes flattered me by showing me illustrations in auction catalogues and saying "What do you think? Should I make a bid?" I found it easy to talk to Danny; I could chatter away to him whereas with Simon I only sulked.
Helen was a different matter. She drifted around silently, exquisitely, a soulful Burne-Jones damsel half hidden in her cloud of red-gold hair. At first, I was so much in awe of her beauty I could barely speak to her. But gradually I came to realise that her silence was often a cover for not knowing what to say and that actually - I hardly liked to use the word about my goddess - she was thick. I was terrified that one day Danny would find out. And there were sometimes hints from Simon that Danny's interest in Helen might be waning, that there could be other girlfriends. Knowing this, keeping this secret, made me feel that it was crucial for me to go on seeing Helen, to protect her, because one day, when I was just a little older and more sophisticated, we could be best friends.
Simon always refused to talk about business to me ("Oh you don't want to know about that, Minn") but Danny had no such inhibitions. He loved telling me funny stories about the seething world of dodgy property dealers - the scams, the auction rings, the way the auctioneers sometimes tried to keep out the "Stamford Hill cowboys" by holding auctions on Yom Kippur or other Jewish holy days, and then the sight of all these Hasidic Jews in mufflers and dark glasses trying to bid without being seen. Or the great scam whereby they sold Judah Binstock a quarter acre of Ealing Common, without him realising that the quarter acre was only two yards wide. Through Danny, I learnt how Peter Rachman had seemingly solved the problem of "stats" - statutory or sitting tenants - who were the bane of 1960s property developers. The law gave them the right to stay in their flats at a fixed rent for life if they wanted - and they had a habit of living an awfully long time. But Rachman had certain robust methods, such as carrying out building works all round them, or taking the roof off, or "putting in the schwartzers" (West Indians) or filling the rest of the house with prostitutes, that made stats eager to move.
So I gathered from Danny that the property business in which Simon was involved was not entirely honest. But my first hint of other forms of dishonesty came about 15 months into the relationship when I went to a bookshop on Richmond Green. Simon had taken me there several times to buy me books of Jewish history and the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer - I was glad to have them, though I never read them. But on this occasion, I went alone and the bookdealer, who was normally so friendly, asked: "Where's your friend?"
"I don't know anyone of that name," I said truthfully.
"Well, whatever he calls himself. Tell him I'm fed up with his bouncing cheques - I've reported him to the police."
That evening I said to Simon" "Do you know anyone called Prewalski?"
"Yes - my mother, my grandparents, why?"
I told him what the book dealer had said.
Simon said: "Well don't go in there again. Or if you do, don't tell him you've seen me. Say we've broken up."
"But what did he mean about the bouncing cheques?"
"How should I know? Don't worry about it."
So that was a hint, or more than a hint. But soon there was unmistakable proof. Simon and Danny were buying up a street in Cambridge called Bateman Street, so we often stayed there. One weekend I was moaning - I was always moaning - "I'm bored with Bateman Street", so we drove out towards Newmarket. At a place called Six Mile Bottom, I saw a thatched cottage with a For Sale sign outside. "Look, how pretty," I said. "'Why can't you buy nice places like that, instead of horrible old slums?" "Perhaps we can," said Simon, so we bounced up to the cottage and an old lady showed us round. I was bored within minutes, but Simon seemed unconscionably interested in the bedroom corridor which he kept revisiting. Then I saw him going out to the car, carrying something. Eventually we left and went for lunch at a hotel in Newmarket. We were having a rather lugubrious meal when two men came into the dining room and one pointed the other towards our table. The man introduced himself as a detective. He said: "We've had a complaint from a Mrs so and so of Six Mile Bottom. She says a couple visited her cottage this morning and afterwards she noticed that a valuable antique map by Speed was missing from one of the bedrooms." "Oh, Simon!" I said. He shot me a look. "Perhaps we could have this conversation outside," he suggested. He went outside with the policeman. I waited a few minutes and then went to the Ladies, and out the back door and away down the street. I had just enough money for a train back to London. I hoped Simon would go to prison.
He didn't of course; he bounced round to Clifden Road a few days later and took me out to dinner. "How could you steal from an old lady?"
"I didn't steal. She asked me to have the map valued."
"No she didn't - I was with you."
"All right, she didn't ask me. But I recognised that the map was by Speed and I thought if I got it valued for her, it would be a nice surprise."
I knew he was lying, but I let it go. I said: "If you ever really stole something, I would leave you."
He said: "I know you would, Minn."
But actually I knew he had stolen something and I didn't leave him, so we were both lying.
When I did try to leave him a few weeks later, it was not out of moral outrage but because I was bored. I was bored with Minn and Bubl, I was bored with the endless driving round, the waiting while he ran his mysterious errands, the long heavy meals in restaurants, the tussles in strange bedrooms, the fact that we never met anyone except Danny and Helen. I told Simon: "We're finished - I've got to concentrate on my A-levels." He said: "We're not finished. I'll come for you when you've done your A-levels."
On the evening after my last A-level, Simon took me out to dinner and proposed. I had wanted him to propose, as proof of my power, but I had absolutely no intention of accepting because of course I was going to Oxford. Eighteen years of my life had been dedicated to this end, so it was quite impertinent of him to suggest my giving it up. I relayed the news to my parents the next morning as a great joke - "Guess what? Simon proposed! He wants me to marry him this summer!" To my complete disbelief, my father said, "Why not?" Why not? Had he suddenly gone demented? "Because then I couldn't go to Oxford." My father said: "Well - is that the end of the world? Look," he went on, "you've been going out with him for two years; he's obviously serious, he's a good man; don't mess him around." I turned to my mother incredulously but she shook her head. "You don't need to go to university if you've got a good husband."
This was 1962, well before the advent of feminism. But even so, I felt a sense of utter betrayal, as if I'd spent 18 years in a convent and then the Mother Superior had said: "Of course, you know, God doesn't exist." I couldn't believe my parents could abandon the idea of Oxford. But apparently they could and over the next few days they argued it every mealtime - good husbands don't grow on trees, you're lucky to get this one ("And you not even in the family way!"), why go to university if you don't need to? Simon meanwhile was taking me to see houses, asking where I wanted to live when we were married. I couldn't resist telling my schoolfriends: "I'm engaged!" And they were all wildly excited and thrilled for me, and said "You'll never have to do Latin again!" Even so, I was queasy - I'd always liked the sound of Oxford, I even liked writing essays, I wasn't so keen to give up the idea.
Events overtook me in the last few days of term. Miss R Garwood Scott the headmistress somehow got wind of my engagement and summoned me to see her. Was it true I was engaged? Yes, I said, but I would still like to take the Oxford exams. She was ruthless. I could not return to school (in those days you had to stay for an extra term to do Oxbridge entrance) if I was getting married. When was the wedding and which church would it be in? Not in church, I said, because my fiancé was Jewish. Jewish! She looked aghast - "Don't you realise that the Jews killed Our Lord?" I stared at her. "So I won't take the Oxford exams," I said. My little gang was waiting for me outside her study. "I told her I was leaving," I announced. "She tried to persuade me to stay but I refused." They all congratulated me and begged to be bridesmaids. Then I went to the bogs and cried my eyes out.
I told my parents: "I'm not going to Oxford, I'm marrying Simon." "Oh good!" they said. "Wonderful." When Simon came that evening, they made lots of happy jokes about not losing a daughter but gaining a son. Simon chuckled and waved his hands about, poured drinks and proposed toasts - but I caught the flash of panic in his eyes. A few days later, probably no more than a week later, we were in the Bristol on our way to dinner when he said he just needed to pop into one of his flats. Fine, I said, I'll wait in the car. As soon as he went inside the house, I opened the glove compartment and started going through the letters and bills he kept in there. It was something I could have done on any one of a hundred occasions before - I knew he kept correspondence in the glove compartment, I knew the glove compartment was unlocked, I was often waiting in the car alone and had no scruples about reading other people's letters. So why had I never done it before? And why did it seem the most obvious thing in the world to do now? Anyway the result was instantaneous. There were a dozen or more letters addressed to Simon Goldman, with a Twickenham address. And two addressed to Mr and Mrs Simon Goldman with the same address.
I behaved quite normally that evening though at the end, when he asked if Minn would welcome a visit from Bubl, I replied smoothly that she was indisposed. By that stage, I was at least as good a liar as Simon. As soon as I got home, I looked in the phone book - and why had I never thought of doing that before? - and sure enough found an S Goldman with a Popesgrove (Twickenham) number, and the address I'd seen on the letters. It was only about half a mile from my house, I actually passed it every day on the bus to school. I spent the night plotting and rehearsing what I would say, working out scripts for all eventualities. When I finally rang the number the next morning, it was all over in seconds. A woman answered. "Mrs Goldman?" I said. "Yes." "I'm ringing about the Bristol your husband advertised for sale." "Oh," she said, "is he selling it? He's not here now but he's usually back about six." That was enough or more than enough - I could hear a child crying in the background.
I took the train to Waterloo, and walked all the way to Bedford Square. Helen was in, and guessed as soon as she saw me - "You've found out?"
Yes, I said - "It's not just that he's married - he lives with her. And there's a child."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm sorry. I wanted to. The other night when you said you were engaged, I told Danny we must tell you, but he said Simon would never forgive us."
This was - what? - my third, fourth, fifth betrayal by adults? And I had really thought Helen was my friend.
"What was Simon planning to do?" I asked her. "Commit bigamy?"
"Yes," she said soberly. "That's exactly what he intended to do. He felt he'd lose you if he didn't. He loves you very much you know."
I went home and raged at my parents - "You did this. You made me go out with him, you made me get engaged." My parents were white with shock - unlike me, they had no inkling before that Simon was dishonest. My mother cried. When Simon came that evening, my father went to the door and tried to punch him. I heard him shouting, "You've ruined her life!" From my bedroom window, I saw Simon sitting in the Bristol outside with his shoulders shaking. Then my father strode down the front path and kicked the car as hard as he could, and Simon drove away. I found the sight of my father kicking the car hilarious and wanted to shout out of the window, "Scratch it, Dad! Scratch the bodywork - that'll really upset him!'
It was a strange summer. My parents were grieving and still in deep shock. I, the less deceived, was faking far more sorrow than I felt. After all, I never loved Simon whereas I think perhaps they did. I stayed in my room playing Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor very loudly day after day. My main emotion was rage, followed by puzzlement about what to do next. I had no plans for the summer or - now - for the rest of my life. When my A-level results came, I not only got the top marks I fully expected in English and French, but also - mirabile dictu - top marks in Latin. I slapped the letter on the breakfast table and said, "You see? I could have gone to Oxford."
My father took the day off work, probably for the first time in his life, and went to see Miss R Garwood Scott. God knows what humble pie he had to eat - and he hated humble pie - but he came back with a grim face and a huge concession. She had agreed I could be entered for the Oxford exams as a Lady Eleanor Holles pupil, and I could sit the exams at school. But she was adamant that I could not attend the school - it was up to him to arrange private tutorials. Mum and Dad talked far into the night about how they would find a tutor, and how they would pay. A day or two later - presumably at Miss R Garwood Scott's instigation - one of my English teachers rang and volunteered to be my tutor. So I spent that autumn writing essays and going to tutorials, working hard and feeling lonely. My parents were in such deep grief that mealtimes were silent. Once or twice I saw the Bristol parked at the end of the street, but I was never remotely tempted to go to it.
I sat the Oxford exams, I went for interviews, I was accepted at St Anne's. In my second term at Oxford, one of the nuns at the convent where I boarded handed me a note which she said a man had brought. It said "Bubl respectfully requests the pleasure of the company of Minn for dinner at the Randolph Hotel tonight at 8." I tore it up in front of the nun. "Don't ever let that man in," I told her. "He's a con-man." I went round to Merton to tell my boyfriend, Dick, and he said, "Well, I'd like to meet him - let's go to the Randolph." So we did. Simon was sitting in the lobby - on time, for once in his life - looking older, tireder, seedier than I remembered. His face lit up when he saw me and fell when I said, "This is my boyfriend, Dick." Simon said politely, "Won't you please both stay to dinner as my guests?" "How are you going to pay for it?" I snapped and Dick looked at me with horror - he had never heard me use that tone before. Simon silently withdrew a large roll of banknotes from his pocket and I nodded, OK.
Dick was enchanted by Simon. He loved his Israeli kibbutz stories, his fishing with dynamite stories, his Molotov cocktail stories. I had heard them all before and sulked throughout the meal. As Dick walked me back to my convent, he said, "I see why you were taken in by him - he is quite a charmer, isn't he?" "No," I said furiously, "he's a disgusting criminal con-man and don't you dare say you like him!"
Was Simon a con-man? Well, he was a liar and a thief who used charm as his jemmy to break into my parents' house and steal their most treasured possession, which was me. Of course Oxford, and time, would have stolen me away eventually, but Simon made it happen almost overnight. Until our "engagement", I'd thought my parents were ignorant about many things (fashion, for instance, and existentialism, and why Jane Austen was better than Georgette Heyer) but I accepted their moral authority unquestioningly. So when they casually dropped the educational evangelism they'd sold me for 18 years and told me I should skip Oxford to marry Simon, I thought, "I'm never going to take your advice about anything ever again." And when he turned out to be married, it was as if, tacitly, they concurred. From then on, whenever I told them my plans, their only response was a penitent "You know best".
What did I get from Simon? An education - the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford - I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.
But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people - even when you think you know them well - are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.
Born 22 May 1944 in Bagshot, Berkshire.
Educated at Lady Eleanor Holles School, Hampton and St Anne's College, Oxford.
Career Her first job in journalism was at Penthouse. She went on to work for the Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph magazine. She has worked at the Observer since 1996.
Awards Five UK Press awards and a What the Papers Say award (1990).
Books How to Improve Your Man in Bed, The Heyday of Natural History, Mostly Men, and Demon Barber
Turning point In 1986, when interviewing her ex-employers Bob Guccione and Kathy Keeton, she decided to write for the first time in the first person: "I felt I'd finally found my voice. I never believed in 'objective' interviews anyway - if there are two people in the room, you can't pretend the interviewee is talking into space."
Personal life Married David in 1971, with whom she had two children, Rosie and Theo.
Hobbies Gossip, lunch, birdwatching, contemporary art.
When a version of this story first appeared in Granta, a young woman called Amanda Posey said she'd like to buy the film rights and said she had a screenwriter in mind. I thought she was mad, but the screenwriter turned out to be her then boyfriend, now husband, Nick Hornby and they spent literally years honing the script and finding backers till it finally went into production last year. Amanda asked if I'd like to watch some of the filming, and said I should come to the Japanese School, Acton, to watch one of the classroom scenes.
Only as I was driving there did I think: why on earth would they film my story in a Japanese school and why is there a Japanese school in Acton anyway? And at that point I registered the date - 1 April - and decided I must have been the victim of an April Fool.
But no - the Japanese school was there and in fact turned out to be the old Haberdashers' Aske's girls' school which we used to play at lacrosse. It was so eerily like my old school, Lady Eleanor Holles, that I kept looking at the school photos in the corridors to see if I could see myself in them. And entering the classroom was a real madeleine moment because it even smelt like my old classroom.
I met the Danish director, Lone Scherfig, and Carey Mulligan who plays me in the film, and was knocked out by the brilliance of the acting and the incredible care and authenticity that had gone into getting the period detail right.
I saw an early rough cut of the film last summer and the finished version at Christmas. It comes out at the end of October and I firmly believe it will be a hit. Carey Mulligan is amazing - when the film was shown at Sundance earlier this year (and won the audience prize) all the critics hailed her as a star. But the other actors are great too - Peter Sarsgaard as my dodgy boyfriend, Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper as Helen and Danny, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour as my parents, Emma Thompson as my hated headmistress, Olivia Williams as the good teacher who saved me.
Of course I now routinely refer to it as "my" film and have almost convinced myself that I not only wrote it but produced and directed it - but anyway huge thanks to Nick Hornby, Amanda Posey, Finola Dwyer, and Lone Scherfig for making such a good job of it. And if anyone wants to believe that I was as pretty as Carey Mulligan when I was l6, by all means go ahead.
It’s not all good manners
Wednesday, 24th June 2009
Penguin, 182pp, £8.99
Lynn Barber’s interviews are one of the main reasons to subscribe to the Observer: on any Sunday when a piece of hers appears, it’s always the first thing to turn to, even — or make that especially — when she’s profiling someone unsympathetic. Not for nothing has she earned the nickname the Demon Barber.
On John Prescott, for example: ‘You wouldn’t want to invite Prezza to dinner, not because he might eat peas off his knife, but because he’d bore the other guests to death.’ What makes Barber such an unfailingly enjoyable read is that she makes her own judgments about people, which means she often likes monsters or disdains saints. Her style is brisk to the point of breathless and so informal (a typical sentence is ‘Crikey.’) that the reader is flattered into feeling as if they were an intimate of hers, catching up on private gossip. The fact that she tends to highlight her own failings adds to the fun.
This style characterises her memoir, An Education. There is swanking: ‘I know it’s appallingly naff to boast about awards, but I adore them’; undergraduate promiscuity: ‘I probably slept with about 50 men in my second year’; as well as disloyalty, impatience, indiscretion. She relishes her own perversity: ‘I have always found it difficult to hate the rich, as good leftie journalists are meant to do, because they’ve always been so nice to me’. She will confound feminists by refusing to condemn soft porn (her first journalistic job was on Penthouse), on the grounds that old men and young boys need ‘something to wank over’. All of which makes An Education an absolutely marvellous read. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s too short.
July 11, 2009
An Education by Lynn Barber (Penguin, 182pp)
The Sixties by Jenny Diski (Profile, 138pp)
What is it about the 1960s? Bridget Riley called it “the party at the end of the war”; Jenny Diski suggests “the longest gap year in history”. Certainly something happened then that makes people either envy or denounce the decade. So it’s intriguing when writers as different as Lynn Barber and Diski offer us their own Sixties stories. Plenty happened to each of them, along not entirely predictable lines.
Barber begins An Education with a startling tale of her teenage years first told in the pages of Granta and soon to be released as a film. She tells how in 1960 as a 16-year-old grammar school girl waiting at a bus stop, she hopped into the car of a cigar-chomping stranger who offered her a lift, and thus began a two-year affair with someone who turned out to be a colleague of the notorious 1950s landlord, Rachmann.
“Simon” woos and wins her, charms her parents, seduces her, and finally proposes. Her parents urge her to seize this promising offer until the whole thing is revealed to be a massive con. This is the most riveting part of the book and told with the casual insouciance of Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries or Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Unlike them, however, Barber remains concerned with the surface of things, never examining her motives or offering any insights into such wayward behaviour. We never learn what she truly felt about Simon, why she accepted his advances, never inquired about his life or family; only that she grabbed the flowers, the restaurant meals, the foreign trips with naive eagerness. It left her morally damaged, she tells us, and leaves it at that. It makes for an intriguing but opaque account.
Barber is more generous to herself than she is to her journalistic victims who have won her fame and numerous awards. She has a shelf-load. But the acerbic scrutiny she affords her newspaper profile subjects is never turned on her own life. Instead her savage put-downs are reserved for her family: She mocks at length her mother’s elocution lessons, how she forced her daughter to enter poetry competitions and even offer her voice to read letters on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, a role where she was superseded by a supremely confident Jane Asher. She is brutal, too, about her father. Yet these were aspiring parents who had made it from the working class into lower middle and wanted her to go farther. They even make the mistake of thinking that the creepy Simon may be a way to the good life. But she takes another route, via a fee-paying girls’ independent school, then Oxford and marriage to an Etonian. At the wedding she “dreaded our parents meeting — I knew I would squirm with embarrassment”. It’s shocking to find the so-called Demon Barber revealed as a social snob ashamed of her origins.
There is, however, little embarrassment about her sex life. This is the Sixties, after all. “I was going to be a good time girl, dammit. I was going to work really hard at this pleasure lark.” The girlish idiom belies a heavy commitment: sleeping with 50 men in her second year, and having , quite early on, a Harley Street abortion. She gets a good English degree, then serves a seven-year stint atPenthouse. There she developed her interview technique for a series called “Parameters of Sexuality” and went on to write a book, How to Improve Your Man in Bed. There was a deep divide in the Sixties between women who thought breaking sexual taboos in soft-porn publications was a stroke for freedom, and those who thought it was time women deserved some self-respect. Barber was in the former camp: “I know it probably seems deluded now, but we really did feel we were part of the sexual revolution, fighting a crusade against censorship.”
Then the story becomes familiar — a rise through Fleet Street towards that shelfload of awards. But the mood changes as we travel with her through the final illness of her husband David. It is only here that we get a sense of the vulnerable heart beating behind the effortlessly engaging prose.
Diski is altogether more seriously engaged with the concept of the Sixties, a concept often challenged by the millions who were around at the time but didn’t notice it happening. Surely it must be some cultural myth, a construct. Diski acknowledges as much: “We were certainly not in the majority . . . not even in our own generation. There were far more ‘straight’ young people than those of us living self-consciously outside the law . . . but most people aren’t actively engaged in what any era is later characterised by.” How many French fomented revolution in 1789? How many bright young things went mad in the 1920s?
Diski, however, was in at the deep end, involved with almost all the trends and fashions: in clothes (Biba); books (Our Bodies Ourselves) and ideas (R. D. Laing). Her testimony comes as close as any to frontline reporting of what was going on. And what was going on was serious: “There was no need to worry, as our parents did on our behalf, about ‘getting on’ because we had no plan to live in a world in which getting on was of any importance. If there was a plan at all it was precisely to prevent such a world from structuring our future.” These were serious aspirations that led to strange paths — drug-taking, squatting, weird clothes, casual sex and street demos.
Diski’s life catches the full flavour. Expelled from progressive school, overdoses, psychiatric hospitals — she sustained a reckless curiosity about all that was new. “I was certain that my chances of becoming irredeemably psychotic on acid were very high . . . nonetheless I took it.” She was alert to everything. She helped to found a free university, and went on the CND’s Aldermaston marches and Grosvenor Square protests. She even tangled with the anti-psychiatrist movement of Laing and Esterson. Yet she survived the mayhem to become a wise and sceptical judge.
She, too, is frank about the sexual revolution. From the inhibited repression of the Fifties with its ritual of tentative courtship towards conventional marriage, the young broke loose into a world of casual sexual abandon. For the first time there was the Pill; and there was no Aids. Sex became a way of sharing your sense of self with anyone who asked. “It was a way of being polite to those who suggested it or who got into your bed . . . It was uncool to say no.” Communes, squats, clubs, became places of writhing bodies, interchangeable attachments and casual partners. “Part of the newness of the world we were creating was the abolition of jealousy, and the idea of possessing other people.” Of course it failed. And the sad legacy of that so-called sexual revolution is still confusing young people today.
This is as excellent and honest a guide as you will find through the myths and often misremembered days. Diski not only celebrates the music — who can match Hendrix, Zappa, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Stones, the Beatles? — she captures, too, the mood of hope and idealism that fired so many of us then. But she also traces the ideal of personal liberation that was to evolve so shockingly into Thatcher’s values. “She was anathema to us . . . but perhaps our own careless thinking gave the radical individualism of her government at least a rhetorical foothold.” Diski deals fairly with the flawed achievements of the Sixties, which, despite their naiveté, left their mark on those who shared them. “Despite the manifest lack of success in the larger tasks we set ourselves I persist in regarding the commitment I acquired in 1968 as the most fruitful and rewarding of my adult life.” Who could say as much for the Eighties?
An Education by Lynn Barber
Barber's brief autobiography, she fully admits to being "a deeply unreliable memoirist" who is "never exactly a slave to facts". I'm not sure how her interviewees will respond to this, though by now Barber's reputation as the doyenne of British newspaper interviewers is pretty much unassailable. As she says, however, it's not really the facts that matter here. Barber's tale of sexual awakening in early-Sixties London is so wincingly self-revelatory (primarily of a rather chattering class kind of snobbery) that I read large parts of it as one might watch The Office or Fawlty Towers — chuckling, enthralled, but with one hand covering my eyes. This makes An Education lots of fun of course; it does not make you warm much to Barber.
The book is built around the second chapter, which first appeared in Granta magazine in 2003 and has now been turned into a film by Nick Hornby. At the age of 16, an attractive, naïve, yet horribly precocious only child living in Twickenham, Barber began a twoyear-long sexual relationship with a much older man whom she calls Simon. Nowadays flashy Simon, with his posh motors and fancy cigars, would be called a predator or a groomer — definitely a weirdo — but back then, still in the days when even the brightest girls were expected to bag a man at the first opportunity, it was Barber's parents who actively encouraged the affair. They knew almost nothing about him yet effectively "threw me into bed with him" by agreeing to his request that he take Lynn away for weekends. "Why go to Oxford when I could marry Simon?", Barber's father began to ask.
It's clearly the Simon episode that makes Barber so loathe her parents in retrospect. Boy, does she murder them. Her father — "formidably intelligent but socially untamed" — gets it in the neck for sticking to his working-class roots, not providing a big enough house for her to grow up in and having a broad Lancashire accent. But it's the newly middleclass pretension of her mother, an elocution teacher, that really winds her up. "My mother was far more civilised [than dad], but as I told my father, she had only a beta or maybe even beta-minus brain." Simon, it turned out, was a married father of two; a thief and a conman who consorted with the notorious Sixties landlord Peter Rachman. "My parents were white with shock — unlike me, they had no inkling before that Simon was dishonest." But by now Barber has done her best to make the whole family (including herself ) seem so awful, that you're very nearly rooting for him.
The second odd thing about Barber is that after Oxford, she worked for Penthouse. It's a career move she glosses neatly — "I know it probably sounds deluded now, but we really did feel we were part of the sexual revolution, fighting a crusade against censorship" — but I did find myself at this point wondering why on earth the young Barber can't escape the clutches of these relentlessly seedy men.
She does, eventually, when she marries David Cardiff, her saintlysounding husband. "David was good. He was thoroughly kind, thoroughly truthful, thoroughly decent. Whereas I was somehow morally damaged. I had become a proficient liar in my years with Simon and found it hard to break the habit." And so the final chapter, in which David dies a really quite vile death from the bone marrow disorder myelofibrosis, is suddenly very moving. The memoir changes pitch here. Barber's dreaded facts acquire crucial importance and intensity — the exact timing of hospital appointments, the barely comprehensible meaning of test results, the nasty medical detail of disease.
The rest of the book fills in the career gaps, and while there's no real insight gained from Barber's 28 years on Fleet Street (a shame, from such a heavy-hitter) its snapshot of the "entirely male cabal" who ran the newborn Independent on Sunday will undoubtedly raise some grizzled hacks' hackles.
Barber's voice is of course hugely confident — sometimes grumpy, often a bit snooty, very often funny and always extremely frank. Take this to the beach; and be grateful for feminism.
Synopsis by Foyles.co.uk
When the journalist Lynn Barber was 16, she was picked up at a bus-stop by an attractive older man who drew up in his sports car - and her life was almost wrecked. A bright confident girl, on course to go to Oxford, she began a relationship which, incredibly, was encouraged by her conventional, suburban parents and which took her into the louche, semi-criminal world of west London just as the 1960s began. Ruin beckoned, until one day she made an important discovery. "An Education", the opening piece of this fascinating memoir, was highly praised when first published in "Granta" magazine, and is currently being filmed by the BBC with a Nick Hornby script.
Friday, 19 June 2009
An Education, By Lynn Barber
Reviewed by Deborah Orr
It's quite peculiar, this celebrated journalist's memoir, and that is its peculiar charm. It's not peculiar with a capital P, like JR Ackerley's landmark memoir, My Father and Myself, in which family revelation is endlessly shocking and curious, pored over and understood. Barber's parents, if they ever kept secrets from her, are keeping them still. In fact, at times, An Education is peculiarly anodyne, as when Barber spends pages ridiculing her mother's elocution lessons.
Yes, elocution lessons seem absurd, now that a regional accent is no longer a dark and mysterious force that magically binds you to your region. But back then, the senior Mrs Barber was doing nothing that the demands of aspirational culture did not require.
Barber understands that much in her memoir is cruel to her parents, and explains in her introduction that she decided to write it anyway. She also explains that the book grew out of an essay that appeared in the literary magazine Granta, and is now chapter two within An Education.
It is in chapter two that Barber's parents – working-class people who had bettered themselves and were determined that their only daughter should better herself still further – are most ruthlessly exposed. It tells of Barber's affair as a schoolgirl with Simon, a friend of the notorious slum landlord, Peter Rachman, who was much older than she.
This creepy, borderline-paedophile boyfriend was feted by Barber's parents who, after a lifetime of encouraging her to get herself into Oxbridge, pressurised their daughter into accepting a marriage proposal, at 17, from this unattractive con-man instead. It's likely that they saw this as a way of keeping their daughter near them, instead of losing her to the big wide world, But Barber never analyses.
Only her own discovery of another wife and a couple of children saved her from disaster and sent her to Oxford to study English literature as previously planned. But even though she escaped, Barber never seems to have got over what she still sees as her parents' attempted betrayal.
It's a little-told story, in this culture that places so much importance on "social mobility": of how the achievement of decisive reinvention sometimes estranges children from their parents, with much unintended bitterness, and leaves the children uncertain of who they are. Barber tells this story, but with such a scrupulous avoidance of insight or speculation that you don't even know if she knows that it is what her story is about.
Barber worked very hard at Oxford but only enough to get by, in the academic sense. In perhaps a subconscious sneer at her father's Open University law degree, which he toiled so hard for in the evenings, Barber put fun, glamour, enjoyment and sex first. Breaking all her parents' rules, she still bagged herself a husband who was handsome, unlike Simon, "good", unlike Simon, and from a top-drawer English family, unlike Simon – or her parents.
Barber's parents had no friends; her own married life was a whirl of social activity. Barber's mother acknowledged her disappointment at having had only one child; Barber had two, to whom she is close. Barber, as a child, mocked her parents for believing their Edwardian family home was big and grand. Barber's own family home was big and beautiful. And this was not all. Barber also had a colourful and lucrative career that took her to the top of her profession, where she still is, unassailable, admired and hugely influential.
Except that Barber's husband died, suddenly, in 2000, while her parents outlived him. Barber had already written chapter two when she lost him. In the rest of the book, there is a sense of a woman who, without her husband to anchor her, is no longer sure of who she is. Barber's memoir is funny, bold, incisive, clever and interesting. But underneath all the brave chutzpah, wit, jokes and verve, it is touching, naïve and tenderly confused. Barber says her early experience of her schoolgirl affair taught her that people are "unknowable" and that this informed her ability to interview people well. Yet Barber interrogates herself very little. She finds herself unknowable too.
June 21, 2009
An Education by Lynn Barber
The Sunday Times review by Wendell Steavenson
An Education by Lynn Barber
Penguin £8.99 pp183
The journalist Lynn Barber is known for her acerbic features and interviews, and this memoir is no less candid, fun and down-to-earth. Written in a breezy vernacular — “I didn’t fancy”, “tremendous fun”, “appallingly naff”, “heaven forfend!” — An Education reads like a gossip over coffee with a fabulously irreverent mother-in-law.
It has been published, one suspects, to cash in on the release later this year of a Nick Hornby-penned film of the same name. That film is based on one of the book’s central events — an account Barber first wrote for Granta magazine of her affair as a 16-year-old schoolgirl with a thirtysomething charmer with a Bentley, a self-proclaimed property developer who picked her up at a bus stop, and who, after he had proposed to her, turned out to be already married.
Barber’s description of the liaison is a chilling glimpse into the guileless limbo between girlhood and adulthood. But the story swiftly moves on and any explanation of her parents’ strange encouragement of the affair (“You don’t need to go to Oxford if you’ve got a good husband,” her mother told her) is unsatisfyingly left unexplored. Barber does go to Oxford, marries, has children and appears to ascend the greasy pole of Fleet Street with ease. She writes a bestselling sex book in the 1970s, luxuriates in the generous expense accounts of the 1980s, complains about the insidious sexism at The Independent in the early 1990s, struggles against the stringent fact-checking of Vanity Fair, dashes off copy and reaps awards.
That is until her husband becomes seriously ill, and the paragraphs uncharacteristically clog with dates and doctors, bad test results and agonising decisions. For all her wryness, Barber can be bracingly sharp, and her forthrightness pierces the delusions of the celebrities she interviews and her own “pretty smug” life among London’s chattering classes. Nor does she shy from describing the guilt, regret and suspicions that cloud her memories of 30 years of marriage. Generally, though, she tends to skip over introspection; as a result her memoir feels a little slight, as the amusing and anecdotal are favoured over any deeper emotional perspective.
By Anne Chisholm
Published: 5:55AM BST 05 Jul 2009
An Education By Lynn Barber GRANTA, £8.99, 183pp
It takes courage for a journalist with a reputation for exposing the flaws, weaknesses and evasions of others to write a memoir exposing herself. Lynn Barber, who has made her name by filleting the people she interviews, is certainly brave; this short, breezily written memoir starts by recounting how she was seduced by a con man when she was still a schoolgirl and ends by describing in excruciating detail her much-loved husband’s illness and death. Her frankness, though, is perhaps as much artful as truthful. As she says at the outset, she has never been a slave to facts.
At 16, we learn, she was a pretty, clever, unworldly girl living in suburbia and working hard for her A-levels. Her parents, both of whom she describes as coming from 'the lower orders’ (she seems curiously preoccupied with class), had great ambitions for their only child. When she brought home 'Simon’, the charming man more than twice her age who had picked her up at the bus stop in his sleek maroon Bristol and proceeded to wine and dine her and turn her pretty, clever little head, they were as bowled over as she was. When he asked her to marry him her mother’s response was that there was now no need to bother with university after all. By this time, though, she knew he was not what he seemed and before long discovered that he was married, a father and a crook. She dropped him and went on to Oxford, a good degree, a happy marriage and a successful career.
But huge and lasting damage had been done. Barber’s account is almost without self-pity, but it is full of anger, towards 'Simon’ for his lies and his lechery, towards herself for being so gullible, but most of all towards her parents. Her hostility and contempt towards them make uncomfortable reading; she seems to resent to this day her father’s working-class origins, her mother’s genteel pretensions (she gave elocution lessons) and her 'beta’ brain. Not only had they failed to protect her from a sexual predator, they had betrayed her by not seeing through him before she did.
This brutal disillusionment with love, both parental and sexual, has conditioned her whole life. As she says, she had learned too young not to trust anybody and to believe that none of us can ever really know or trust anyone else. No doubt this cynicism has helped her become the journalist she is; she is proud of her career, which began on Penthouse (presented here as an unlikely force for good) and proceeded, via a book entitled How to Improve Your Man in Bed, to the Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair and now The Observer.
She had, however, the good fortune to love and be loved by a decent man, her husband David, who she met at Oxford and married soon afterwards. Her account of him rings true and is deeply touching; he was, she writes, 'entirely good’, while she herself was 'morally damaged’. The final part of this book describes how he endured a failed bone marrow transplant and subsequently died; it makes painful reading, not least because of her own desperate feelings of inadequacy and guilt. In a postscript, she tells a strange tale of how, after his death, she became briefly convinced that he had been unfaithful to her, as if only another betrayal could give her the strength to accept his loss.
For all its black humour, this is a sad book. As well as being a cautionary tale about sex and class it is, in a small way, a tragedy of innocence lost.
By Jane Shilling
Published: 2:04PM BST 18 Jun 2009
An Education by Lynn Barber 183pp, Penguin, £8.99 (pbk)
Lynn Barber’s trenchant memoir begins and ends with the unknowability of other people – an unexpected theme for someone known as the “demon Barber” for the ferocious perspicacity of the interviews in which she takes apart her subjects as though stripping carcases.
She explains that her memoir came to be written almost by chance. Chatting one day to a colleague, she mentioned that she knew the slum landlord Peter Rachman slightly when she was at school. The conversation stirred up a memory. The memory grew into a biographical essay and subsequently expanded into a memoir of intense concision.
“Memoirs are supposed to begin with ancestors,” Barber writes, “but I don’t have any, because I come from the lower, unremembered, orders on both sides”. Her parents had arrived in the middle classes by the grammar school route. Her mother hoped to become an actress but instead taught elocution, bestowing on her only child an accent of terrible refinement and a repertoire of winsome recitation pieces – Up the Airy Mountain, Do You Remember an Inn, Miranda?, Is There Anybody There, Said the Traveller – and so on.
It was the elocution that led, indirectly, to Rachman. Waiting for a bus after a rehearsal for one of her mother’s am-dram productions, 16-year-old Barber was offered a lift home by a man driving a large car. His name was Simon. He said he was 27, but was probably older. Her father – usually a relentless inquisitor of prospective boyfriends – seemed impressed by Simon, who had a shadowy job that involved visiting empty flats and sometimes having meetings with “Perec” Rachman.
For a year, Barber lived a “strange double life of schoolgirl swot during the week; restaurant-going, foreign-travelling sophisticate at weekends”, until she was forced to make a choice between education and sophistication. The choice she made and its consequences are too far-fetched to be anything but true.
Barber writes that her experience with Simon cured her craving for sophistication and taught her not to trust people: “I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of ‘living a lie’. I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable.” It was a useful education for an interviewer, she concludes, but not for life.
At Oxford, Barber met David, the man she later married. He died in his mid-fifties, just at the point when “we had achieved the future we’d dreamed of”. Two of the eight chapters of this memoir are devoted to him: Barber’s elegant prose radiates love as she describes her manoeuvres to snare him.
“Marrying David was the best thing I ever did,” she writes. “I believe that to some extent his goodness was catching and that he made me a better person.” The speed of his death, from myelofibrosis, was appalling. Barber’s description of it is so self-controlled as to seem, at moments, almost chilly. The passages where she describes the guilt that paralysed her after his death would be unbearable were it not for a mordant humour that stalks even her darkest moments.
More often than not her parents provide the comic relief – especially her father, with his austere views on fun, or “fecklessness”, as he preferred to call it. There’s a glorious passage when his cottage floods, and Barber remarks that it looks as though the rainy day for which he has saved all his life has finally come. “Despite his being blind by this stage, in his mid-eighties and handicapped by water lapping around his ankles, he still tried to wade across the room to hit me.”
Another comic turn is Bob Guccione, for whom Barber worked at Penthouse, after proving she could spell “ecstasy”, “pulchritude” and “haemorrhage”. Her duties included powdering the girls’ bottoms at photo shoots, and she was offered a job in a dungeon by a famous dominatrix “who was supposed to lash half the leading politicians in Europe”.
One thing leads to another and we glide from Penthouse to the Sunday Express, the Independent on Sunday (run by an “entirely male cabal”, Barber notes, who would invite her to conference “if there were television cameras about”), and then to Vanity Fair, where she contrived to offend Nick Nolte so gravely that her career as a Hollywood interviewer ended before it began.
There is a postscript. When Barber was arranging David’s funeral, the undertaker said it was usual to have a photograph of the loved one on the order of service. The problem was that all photographs of him seemed to contain lobsters, which might detract from the dignity of the occasion. Then a letter arrived with a photograph of David, lobsterless and smiling at the camera with great affection.
Barber found this picture consoling. It seemed to reveal a secret about her husband that assuaged her guilt at having been (as she felt) a bad wife. But another version of the picture suggested there was no secret after all. Just the infinite unknowability of other people. Even the ones we love best.
16th July 2009
The liar and thief who stole a teenager's innocence, and what it taught her about true love
By Diana Athill
Few pieces of journalism have been more riveting than the hatchet jobs Lynn Barber used to make of the profiles she wrote for The Independent On Sunday and The Observer.
Waiting avidly for the next one, I used to marvel that anyone was fool enough to submit themselves to her merciless examination. And now she has written a book as riveting as the profiles, which comes near to being a hatchet job on herself.
After a brief introduction to her earnest working-class parents with their almost religious faith in education for their intelligent only child, she turns to a story so startling that I remembered every word of it from when it first appeared in the magazine Granta.
She tells the story of how, when she was 16, she was picked up by a man in his late 30s whom she disliked, but who improbably won over her parents so completely that they all but pushed her into his bed. There, half bored and reluctant, half seduced by the glossy life he introduced her to, so unlike that of her family, she stayed for two years.
He proposed marriage, and her parents shocked her by urging her to stop working towards Oxford and accept him. Finally her misery forced her to act and she saved herself from a bigamous marriage to an inept, fatuous and vicious crook.
From this experience she learnt to 'read a menu, recognise a finger bowl, follow an opera' - all useful up to a point - and also to prefer kindness and decency to the 'sophistication' usually admired by teenagers; but it also taught her to be 'too cautious, too wary, too un-giving'.
She reports that it damaged her, and indeed the person we see in this book, often funny and always intelligent, is also sometimes beady-eyed and self-centred. If you met her you might not like her.
With an almost frightening honesty, she tells us that at Oxford, for example, wanting to find a boyfriend quickly, 'I thought cut to the chase - rather than waste endless evenings going on dates with men, why not go to bed with them first and see if I fancy them? 'This was quite an unusual attitude at Oxford at the time and one that gave me a well-earned reputation as an easy lay - I probably slept with about 50 men in my second year.'
But she did end by finding David, 'the best husband I could ever have or wish for' (a triumph which she describes as 'bagging' him and 'never letting him go').
She then describes the many things they had in common and their one important difference: 'David was good ... whereas I was somehow morally damaged.
'But at least I knew that I needed to marry someone good. Thank God I had the sense to see that.'
There is a sturdy bluntness about this which doesn't seek to please, but which is admirable. It reappears towards the end of the book, after an entertaining account of her development as a very distinguished journalist - and accompanied by deep distress.
After 30 years of happy marriage, David died from a complicated and painful illness, during which Lynn failed to prove herself one of nature's carers.
She did what she had to do, but felt that she was doing it inadequately even at times resentfully. There can't be many people who, when suddenly plunged into this agonising situation, have not experienced at least twinges of such feelings.
But in Lynn they seem to have dragged up clots of guilt in the way that when you fish out something blocking a sink, it drags up other horrors. She only just manages to tidy up these unhappy feelings enough to bring her book to a decent conclusion.
But I think there is a postscript to be added. Just as I used to
enthusiastically read her hatchet jobs, now I read her theatre reviews, and is
it because they are merciless? No. It is because they are so good, clear-sighted
about short-comings, delighted by successes, kind about brave attempts. They are
written by someone far from beady-eyed, with a gift for empathy rare in the
self-centred. It seems to me that the education Lynn Barber gained from life has
12 Jun 2009
"Oh, it's a bad moment and it's going to be bad whatever happens..." Lynn Barber's voice trails off in a trembly way as she contemplates the savagery she has perpetrated on her elderly parents. Not that she feels remorse for exposing their small-mindedness and hypocrisy in her new book. On the contrary, she thought long and hard about what to do – and then did it.
"My parents are in their nineties," she reasons, "and my mother for sure will live to be 100. I am 65 and I smoke and drink like a fish and so I am very unlikely to outlive her. I thought: My time has come." And so everything from the flaming boils that would erupt on her father's neck when he was studying, to her mother's farcical elocution lessons and goofy prenuptial teeth are subjected to the same unsparing searchlight she trains on her interviewees. At one point she calls her father "intelligent but socially untamed" and refers to her mother's "beta or maybe even beta-minus brain".
Naturally, she has qualms, but quite small ones. "I know I've done a bad thing," she says, lighting up and recrossing her legs so vigorously that a shoe skitters across the floor. "But I also think I've been a dutiful daughter for 65 years and I'm going to be a bit undutiful now." Her voice is improbably light and glassy for someone of such trenchant views. She thinks it is "by far" the most repulsive thing about her.
At first, you wonder what this odd but apparently harmless couple could have done to merit so many years of filial scorn and stored-up revenge. In their suffocating, blinkered way, Dick and Beryl Barber wanted the best for their only child – a good education, top exam results, Oxford the ultimate prize. But one day, a plausible rogue in a Bristol picked up their swotty, super-intelligent, 16-year-old daughter at a bus stop and started to take her out. Simon was a sleazy sidekick of Peter Rachman, the notorious Fifties' landlord. He wore cashmere sweaters and suede shoes. Lynn used him to give her life some excitement and "impress the little squirts of Hampton Grammar". He, no doubt, used her to fuel his fantasies about schoolgirls.
Lynn Barber's personal story unfolds as compellingly as anything she has uncovered during a long career of skewering the famous. At the end of his long, careful courtship – both of Lynn and her gullible parents – Simon proposed. The conventional, suburban Barbers had already turned a blind eye to the fact that their daughter was sleeping with an older man in a variety of European cities – "they practically threw me into bed with him" – but marriage?
By this time, Lynn had a pretty good idea of her lover's criminal tendencies and had no intention of accepting. Was she not destined for Oxford? But poor Mrs and Mrs Barber had fallen hook line and sinker and, in a monstrous reversal of all they were supposed to value, urged Lynn to abandon all thought of Oxford and accept an utter scumbag for a husband.
"And you not even in the family way!" said her father, approvingly. Her mother reverted to classic pre-feminist twaddle: "You don't need to go to university if you've got a good husband." No wonder Lynn felt betrayed. "It was as if I'd spent 18 years in a convent and then the Mother Superior had said: 'Of course, you know, God doesn't exist.' I found them odd then; I find them odd now." But she means much, much worse than odd.
In a sudden access of common sense, she rummaged in the glove compartment of Simon's sports car and found letters addressed to "Mrs and Mrs Goldman". When she rang his home number pretending to be responding to an advert for his car, Simon's wife answered. Children were wailing in the background. More betrayal. When Simon next called at the house, a choleric, disabused Mr Barber lashed out. He tried to punch his would-be son-in-law, then kicked his car. Ever the observer, Lynn ridicules her father's puny efforts at revenge.
At Oxford, she says, she was "in a mood to value people who weren't flashy, who were just nice, honest, decent boys" – and for two years slept with a great many of them. Now, when she meets men who say they were her contemporaries, she feels a bit embarrassed. "Did we ever hit the sack, I wonder?"
For her new-found appreciation of human decency, she has the duplicitous Simon to thank. "But for him, I would probably have fallen for some bounder. I got that out of my system. I wanted someone who was kind, reliable and didn't tell lies."
She also credits the experience with giving her the necessary scepticism to be a good interviewer. "I lost innocence, and perhaps a certain goodwill towards people," she says. "I became suspicious. I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable. This was a good basis for my career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life."
Some impulse towards redemption must have been behind her choice of David, an olive-skinned, dark-haired artist and manifestly good man, to be her husband. He was "a sluggish wooer", she says, but she made up for his slothfulness by going in hot pursuit because she knew, at first sight, that he was The One. She hoped some of his goodness would rub off on her and believes it did. "He made me a better person."
Her book is a tremendous, pacy read – lean as a stiletto – and it becomes even more fun from here on. A chapter on her years at Penthouse magazine is a hilarious tale of eccentricity and chutzpah. Even though she suddenly became a respectable journalist in middle age, she has never disowned this louche period of soft porn. People dredge it from her past like some tarnished, barnacled trophy, expecting her to blush. Barber, blush?
"We did a wholly good thing in trying to talk about sex and improve the language of sex," she says. "It was worth doing. I never felt any shame; David's father was a bit embarrassed, so I stuck to my maiden name."
David, a media historian, was teased by his students when Barber went on to produce a manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed – the book of which she's proudest. Compared with her scholarly excursion into Victorian natural history ("a bit patronising"), her contribution to sexual enjoyment was another worthwhile cause. "It now seems terribly quaint, because there are much better sex manuals. But it was a sweet, well-intentioned book in that I was trying hard to be helpful. I give it to people when they are getting married."
After five years off work to have her two daughters, Rosie and Theo, Barber was asked (though an old Penthouse colleague) to interview the ethologist Konrad Lorenz for the Telegraph Magazine. She was put up in a nice hotel in Vienna for two days, all expenses paid, met a fabulously interesting man and suddenly knew, aged 36, what she wanted to do. After what now seems like an obscure interlude on the Sunday Express Magazine ("You felt you were dropping articles down a well") she became the "Demon Barber" of the new Independent on Sunday.
She affects to be baffled as to how her reputation for hatchet interviews arose, claiming she had been conducting much the same style of inquisition on theExpress but no one noticed. Suddenly, in a broadsheet newspaper and with far more words at her disposal, she was the rottweiler of journalism. "It was as if people had been put on red alert: this terrible bitch is coming to see you. I don't think I'm bitchy. I just think I'm fairly aggressive. I had always thought interviews were too fawning."
So over the years, in a series of killer encounters, we learn that Richard Harris fiddled inside his tracksuit bottoms, that William Hurt is a fruitcake, Tony Benn paranoid, Stephen Fry seriously screwed up, Jeremy Irons rude to waiters, Clare Short a clot. But such a roll-call doesn't do justice to her skills or her perception. She can't stand being fobbed off or kowtowing to PRs. "Now, I am sorry to say, we are going back into a mode of prostration before celebrity."
A grandmother now, she is genuinely curious; a good listener. When theObserver (her current employer) asks her to interview an actress she's never heard of, she treats it as a chance to learn. "I would be totally old farty otherwise." To her eternal regret, she has never been able to nail Lucian Freud despite years of "stalking". A childishly handwritten letter of rejection from the great man hangs in her downstairs lavatory, declining to be "shat upon by a stranger".
Since 2003, she has been a widow. David died prematurely at the age of 59 after an illness that tested the strength of their 30-year marriage. Barber admits to feeling guilty that she was not a better wife, that she would never have been able to play the part of "little nursey" if he'd had to be looked after at home, that she didn't stand "like a pylon" 12 hours a day at his hospital bedside. But it is the guilt of someone who loved and was loved and knows she would be forgiven.
He was a great foodie and always did the cooking. Now, for the first time, she is learning to cook and buying pictures, creating a life of her own. Her grown-up children live in Brighton. "I have freedom," she agrees. "But freedom means total selfishness. It means nobody cares much what you do." Except perhaps an elderly couple living in a residential home.
'An Education' by Lynn Barber is published by Penguin on June 25, £8.99. A film of the same name, based on her early life, made by Nick Hornby and Amanda Posey, will be released in the autumn.