A Curious Career, by Lynn Barber
NOTA DE LEITURA
Na sua autobiografia “An Education”, contou Lynn Barber como ela e seus pais foram enganados por um vigarista que a seduziu com promessas de casamento, apesar de ser casado e ter filhos. A partir do livro, foi realizado um filme de bastante sucesso, com uma bela interpretação da pouco conhecida Carey Mulligan.
Lynn Barber vem contar agora neste livro a sua carreira como entrevistadora de sucesso e os seus métodos algo durões que lhe deram a alcunha de “Demon Barber”. Diz ela que, sendo filha única, sempre fora muito cusca, querendo tudo saber das colegas de escola. E termina o livro escrevendo : “Quem teria pensado que eu teria uma longa e interessante carreira por ser cusca?”
O livro não tem índice, nem de nomes, nem mesmo dos capítulos. Também não é bem um livro, mas mais um livrinho, pois às 211 páginas, têm de se subtrair as transcrições de entrevistas que ela tinha feito e são reproduzidas tal e qual (até estão disponíveis online) e que somam 92 páginas:
Capítulo Entrevistado Páginas transcritas das entrevistas
2 – Os monstros – Marianne Faithfull – 13 p.
4 – Actores –Martin Clunes – 11 p.
6- Desportistas – Rafael Nadal – 13 p.
7 – A ir para o outro mundo – Christopher Hitchens – 11 p.
8 – Estrelas Pop – Shane MacGowan -13 p.
9 - Michael Winner e as mulheres-9 p.
10 – Escritores – Hilary Mantel -11 p.
11 – Artistas –Tracey Emin – 11 p.
Há muita gente a pensar que os livros da autora são vazios. Ela mesma diz : ”I retain my core belief that other people are essentially unknowable - that however well you think
Lynn Barber escreve bem e lê-se com muito agrado. E, digam o que disserem, fez uma carreira de excelente entrevistadora.
The New York Times
A CURIOUS CAREER
By Lynn Barber
211 pages. Bloomsbury. $27.99.
There are two stereotypical ways of becoming an older woman, Lynn Barber says in “A Curious Career,” her terrific new memoir. “You can either be a sweet old biddy, patting kiddies on the head and saying how you long to put your feet up and have a nice cup of tea,” she writes. “Or you can be a wicked witch who scares people stiff.”
She knows which team she’d rather play on. “It’s a choice between do I want to be feared or do I want to be patronized, and frankly I prefer the former.”
Ms. Barber is well known in Britain as a pugnacious interviewer of writers, artists and celebrities, for The Observer and The Times of London. She’s Barbara Walters with an extravagant vocabulary and a bad attitude. Along the way, she’s picked up a nickname: Demon Barber.
The thing about Ms. Barber, though, is that she’s not particularly vicious. It’s just that most interviewers are so timid, cowed by publicists, that her pluck stands out. She stands out, too, because she can really write. Her excellent memoir “An Education“ (2009), about a relationship with a much older con man that began when she was 16, was made into a lovely movie starring Carey Mulligan.
She grew up in a troubled middle-class family (there was a lot of yelling), yet she made it to Oxford. For the student newspaper there, she interviewed Bob Guccione, who had recently founded Penthouse in England. Once she graduated, he offered her a job.
Mostly she interviewed people about their sexual fantasies. But one day in 1969, when she was 25, Guccione growled at her: “You speak French, don’t you, honey? Get over to Paris and interview Salvador Dalí — he’s at the Hotel Meurice.”
Dalí was an eyeful, and an earful. Ms. Barber’s first question, at Mr. Guccione’s urging, was about his sex habits. “Ha-beets!“ Dalí replied. “Ha! First masturbation. Le-mast-urb-ation, you know? Zee painters are always zee big masturbators — nevaire make love, only watch, and sometimes masturbation!”
Dalí brought his ocelot to lunch in the hotel dining room. About his daily schedule, he said things like “at 8, many pederasts arrive, because Dalí like zee androgyne people.” He gave Ms. Barber a vintage avant-garde hat as a parting gift. She decided she liked this interviewing game.
She got quite good at it. So good that The Observer put up a billboard in London (it is pictured on the back cover) that declared in large type: “Doner kebabs. Tequila slammers. Being Interviewed by Lynn Barber.” It added, in only slightly smaller type: “You know you’ll pay.”
“A Curious Career“ is in part a how-to guide for aspiring interviewers.
“Ideally, you should always interview people at home because you can learn so much about them,” she writes. “A trip to the loo is often instructive — it’s where people put their awards and cartoons — things they’re proud of and want visitors to see but without obviously showing off.”
She adds: “Of course if you can go to their own bathroom, rather than the guest cloakroom, better still — look for the pills!”
She recalls some of her most memorable profiles, and reprints a handful of them in full. Gore Vidal, she reports, got drunk on sweet liqueur. “I have never, before or since, seen anyone drink crème de menthe right through a meal.”
Marianne Faithfull had a tantrum in a restaurant. James Stewart didn’t want to be photographed until his new toupee arrived. David Attenborough was not sympathetic when her tape recorder ran low on batteries. Interviewing Muriel Spark was “like inching up a rock face,” though Ms. Spark later had Ms. Barber care for her cat and house in Tuscany.
Ms. Barber’s interviews are prized because of her ability to seize on a telling detail, and to not let go even if clubbed with a stick.
“I do believe that detail is everything,“ she says. “Detail is evidence. When I interviewed the novelist Lionel Shriver, she obviously thought I was mad to keep asking about her central heating. But I was trying to nail my hunch that she was frugal and ascetic to the point of masochism, and I needed the evidence — which indeed she delivered. She told me that she prefers to wear a coat and gloves indoors rather than have the heating on, even though she suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which means her hands and feet are always cold, and she will only let her husband switch the heating on if it is actually freezing outside, but not until 7 p.m.”
This book has its soft spots. Some of the long profiles she reprints here haven’t aged especially well; her short, witty accounts of these articles are often better than the whole schmear. Two of these iffy longer pieces are of celebrities who aren’t well known in America, the actor Martin Clunes and the film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner.
But in general, Ms. Barber is top-flight company. She doesn’t have a sanctimonious bone in her body. “I have never hacked a phone, or door stepped a celebrity,” she writes, “but I don’t want to sound pi about it because the simple explanation is that I’ve never worked for the tabloids.”
She adds: “I can’t be as disapproving as most of my non journalist friends seem to be because the fact is: I like reading those stories. I do love a big tabloid scandal.” The details in these stories, she says, “are the spice of modern life.”
Ms. Barber’s idea of hell is a sane, polite, well-adjusted subject. “Where’s the fun in that?“ she says. “Give me a monster every time.”
Thursday 1 May 2014 11.00 BS
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber – review
'More, more!' demanded Salvador Dalí when her questions stopped – Lynn Barber has turned the interview into an artform
Lynn Barber claims that the most frightening thing anyone ever said to her was a remark by a doctor about to operate on her back, who promised they'd have her walking again in a fortnight – "or if we don't, we'll send Jimmy Savile to visit you". This happened even before her tour of Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1990, when she watched Savile himself bend down to murmur to a young female paraplegic: "Aha, now I can have my way with you, my dear!"
In A Curious Career Barber recalls asking Savile if it was true that he liked little girls. It was a bold question but what she doesn't mention is that she believed him when he said no. The strange thing about all her best interviews – including the one with Savile – is that they are based in the end on admiration, even if it's only for the subject's monstrous vanity, colossal cheek or compulsive lying.
Admittedly there is nothing in this latest book of memoirs to match her elegant, effortless skewering of Harriet Harman, or the scarifyingly sharp, subtle probing that worked so well in the past on actors like Stephen Fry, William Hurt and Richard E Grant. Actors more than most need to beware of Barber, especially in fake confessional mode ("Basically, there is almost no way into the inner life of actors, and God knows I've tried"). Others in the high-risk category are sportsmen, academics and bores, by which she means anyone too polite or not extrovert enough to strip down at sight to the bleeding core.
The eight or nine interviews included here are unexpectedly affectionate portraits because, at heart, Barber likes people, which is why she wants to know what makes them tick. She certainly made the most of her trade name, Demon Barber, but, as she says herself, she's more of a pussycat these days. The nearest we come to the old demon is her graphic account of Rafa Nadal fiddling with his underpants on court (he made the mistake of receiving her in his hotel suite in Rome lying on a bed with his flies open).
It was not a wise move. Nor was Marianne Faithfull's dodge of keeping her interviewer waiting for two hours during a photo session with David Bailey, which ended with Barber shouting, stamping and walking out. "When I get back … Marianne, in a black mac and fishnet tights, is sprawling with her legs wide apart, her black satin crotch glinting between her scrawny 55-year-old thighs, doing sex‑kitten moues at the camera." Faithfull hit back afterwards by claiming she'd been asked if she'd ever had sex with a dog, which riled Barber so much she threatened to sue.
The critical point of these interviews is power, and who has it. Barber has always been generous with do-it-yourself tips – bone up first, be interested, get under the subject's skin – but the key is always the same: stay in control (this includes pretending to lose it, as she did with Faithfull, "probably the most enjoyable interview I've ever done") so as to make them lose it. She has useful techniques for "getting the bile flowing before an interview", defusing tension deceptively early on and tripping the subject up later if things start running too smoothly. Old pros recognise these ploys but can't always withstand them. Toby Young capitulated – "I was fucked" – almost before their duel began. Honours remained roughly even with Muriel Spark, who made Barber feel she was inching up a rock face (and that's certainly how the interview reads). But even Barber can't help being "suckered by charm", spectacularly so ("I surrendered") after five minutes with Boris Johnson.
Her own early history has largely passed into legend but can still do with rehashing here. The only child of uptight lower middle-class parents,she was seduced as a schoolgirl by a conman almost twice her age before moving on to Oxford, then London and her first regular job at Penthouse. She spent the next seven years interviewing sex fetishists – voyeurs, transvestites, dominatrices, shoe fans, rubber fans and men who wore nappies. Never having met a pretty, witty young Oxford graduate before, they turned her training into a doddle because "these people were always so eager, even grateful to talk". Keenest of all was Salvador Dalí who kept her at it in Paris for four days on end, shouting "More! More!" whenever her questions showed signs of drying up.
She was still in her 20s when she wrote How to Improve Your Man in Bed, the first female sex manual since Marie Stopes's Married Love, but much funnier and more down-to-earth (it's still her favourite of all her books, and her standby wedding present). After a few years off to have babies and another seven on the Sunday Express, she switched to the Independent on Sunday, which made her an overnight sensation at the age of 46.
Her interviews widened the field to include celebrities of all sorts – pop stars for preference – shifting the emphasis away from academic deference, impersonality and firsthand research towards something more like an eye-catching, stomach-churning spectator sport: "above all what I like and need is the competitive edge of going where many journalists have gone before, and trying to do better". Barber's boast is that she asked all the questions other people want answered but were too embarrassed to ask themselves. She could hardly have taken her remit more seriously, going to bed early the night before and suffering terribly from stage fright on the day itself. Her crack interviews are clearly as much of an ordeal for her as for her subjects – but risk and danger on both sides are what keep us all watching as she briskly rattles the bones in their closets.
Barber still claims not to understand how she came to be known and feared as the rottweiler of Fleet Street. This seems a bit rich coming from someone whose first book of memoirs described her ferociously loud-mouthed, ill-tempered and tyrannical father as the Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of pensioners. Barber insists there's never "a single toe-bone of a skeleton" in her own cupboard but if she were my subject, that's where I'd start digging.
Her extreme frankness about everyone else is matched by conspicuous caginess when it comes to those closest to her, especially her daughters and her late husband ("he made me a better person"). She is unnecessarily respectful to literary heavyweights such as Spark and Hilary Mantel, and disconcertingly girlish about meeting fashionable Young Brit artists like Sarah Lucas ("I have never so much since school wanted to call someone my friend"), and Tracey Emin ("doing the biennale with Tracey was probably the most glamorous week of my life").
But Barber undercuts any charge of smugness or self-indulgence by glorying in her own success, her six British Press awards ("I adore them"), her celebrity status ("I love stars") and the privileges it brings ("I saw my first ever glass washbasin in Elaine Paige's penthouse"). Being interviewed by her confers the same sort of public recognition today as appearing on Desert Island Discs. Twenty years ago she wondered why Spark hadn't been made a dame (of course she became one shortly afterwards). Now I feel the same about her.
Barber turned the interview into an art form that, in her own words, "sings the strangeness and variety of the human race". She defines it as a conjuring trick, "an attempt to read someone's character in an indecently short space of time". Like all the best conjurors, she relies on speed, practice, psychological insight, a powerful imagination and phenomenally acute observation. For nearly half a century she has held up a mirror in which her contemporaries see themselves reflected with a precision and panache most novelists would envy – and most biographers too. Readers worldwide will be as relieved as I was by her pledge at the end of this book: "I will never voluntarily retire. They will have to prise my gnarled fingers from the keyboard."
11 MAY 2014
A Curious Career review – sharp cuts from Lynn Barber
Lynn Barber's incisive interviews, recalled in this entertaining memoir, simply define the genre
Lynn Barber believes that she owes her career as a newspaper interviewer, at least in part, to her childhood, which was at once perfectly ordinary and strikingly odd. She grew up an only child in a perfectly ordinary Edwardian house in a perfectly ordinary Twickenham street, and in the 50s, too – a decade in which perfect ordinariness was the sine qua non of successful suburban life. Her mother taught elocution, and her father was a civil servant. Yet only rarely was she inclined to invite other girls from her posh school over for tea. Her parents had no family and seemingly no friends, and as a result of this relative isolation their behaviour could seem odd, even alarming, to outsiders. God forbid that someone might pop over for a glass of orange squash only to find her father doing the ironing while singing the song Hitler Has Only Got One Ball. "We were not the sort of family you came across in Enid Blyton," she writes. "Or indeed anywhere as far as I could see."
Not unnaturally, Barber was curious to know how other families lived, and she was always asking questions. Her friends thought this quite weird: why did she want to know whether their fathers kissed their mothers when they came home from work? But it was also useful: "I was always the one deputed to ask Virginia if she'd snogged the Hampton Grammar boy who took her to the cinema last night." Combine this intense nosiness and flagrant lack of inhibition with the fallout from her teenage love affair with an older conman – a relationship she detailed in her 2009 memoir, An Education, and which taught her that people are not always what they seem – and you have pretty much all the qualifications a good interviewer needs. (Though a working knowledge of libel law is always a plus.)
Her first job after Oxford was on Penthouse, where she spent most of her time talking to people with unusual sexual fetishes – though happily, Bob Guccione, its proprietor, also dispatched her to meet Salvador Dalí in Paris. There, she struck gold with her first question, about his habits – "Ha-beets! Ha! First, masturbation… Zee painters are always zee big masturbators…" – and the die was cast. Once her daughters were safely at school, she worked at the Sunday Express, and then at the Independent, which was where she made her name (she would go on to join the Observer, and is now at the Sunday Times). As she found her voice – her interviews were not respectful transcripts, but mesmerising encounters in which, like a wrestler, she was wont to fling her subjects against the ropes – older hacks would warn her about objectivity. Thankfully, she ignored them. Like any good writer, she is entirely on the side of the reader, who expects and deserves to be entertained. Nowadays the only people she flatly refuses to interview are those she doesn't think "are worth five pages" of the reader's attention.
Personally, I'm not sure the actor Martin Clunes is worth five pages of the reader's time (A Curious Career, which is in essence a short guide to the art of the newspaper interview, is punctuated with some of Barber's greatest hits – or perhaps not, in the case of Clunes). But we all of us have our blind spots. Barber is, or was, daffy for Doc Martin, the TV series in which he stars, and was somewhat startled to be on the receiving end of his excessive grumpiness and unwarranted dislike. I think, too, that she is prone to lose her critical faculties when it comes to her beloved Young British Artists (YBAs). "I have never so much since school wanted to call someone my friend," she writes breathlessly of Sarah Lucas in the chapter on artists. When Lucas, having spent two hours sticking Marlboro Lights to an inflated lifejacket, murmurs something trite about the cigarettes representing self-destruction and the lifejacket a false hope of salvation, Barber doesn't, as they say in the art world, interrogate her practice; she accepts the statement at face value, her only comment being that Lucas's reluctance fully to explain her ideas did not make for the best kind of interview.
But this is nitpicking. Better enthusiasm than cynicism, and at least her unlikely passions have the very useful function of reminding her detractors that her dial isn't always set to demon. A Curious Career, though somewhat slim, is incredibly satisfying and enjoyable: witty, mischievous, insightful, and, on occasion, elegiac. Her interview with Marianne Faithfull for the Observer is still a delicious car crash, more than a decade after it was published, and I adored her account of the times she spent with the hymn-singing Muriel Spark (the novelist took Barber to her favourite dress shop in Valdarno, Italy, where she forced her to try on various ghastly mother-of-the-bride outfits; she only escaped by buying a pair of trousers). Those who don't believe she can induce a lump in the reader's throat should turn to her tender but utterly unsentimental interview with Christopher Hitchens, a veritable masterclass in how it's done.
I expect some reviewers will see this book as required reading for journalism students, and it's true that Barber has sage advice about such things as tape recorders (use two) and the best kind of question (be open-ended, the better to encourage words of more than one syllable). But the people who should really be force fed it are those in desk jobs fairly high up the media food chain: the ones who commission and edit. Barber has righteous things to say about copy approval, phone interviews and pieces that are written too hastily, without any real research or thought, all of which result in interviews that are at best insipid and at worst soporific. In the 21st century, newspapers certainly have their problems. Unfortunately, they're also their own worst enemy. Who wants to spend hard-earned cash on something that's going to bore them to sobs? Barber doesn't, and you feel this in every enticing and naughty paragraph she writes.
Friday 2 May 2014
Lynn Barber interview: 'I'm hopeless in social situations'
Journalist Lynn Barber has spent the last 30 years extracting revealing truths from famous people. How does she do it? Might her own background – already the subject of a Hollywood movie – provide some clues?
How human beings reveal themselves is an endlessly interesting question to anyone who interviews people for a living. The ideal interviewee would offer up all their secrets on a plate – but few do, so the job often involves a great deal of conversational ferreting around. The ideal interviewer might be one with that elusive ability to dissolve people's defences and make them blurt out their darkest truths. This quality is so rare that I don't think it even has a name. I come across it occasionally, and envy it madly. I'd wondered if Lynn Barber would turn out to have it, too, because she is Fleet Street's best interviewer by a mile.
Barber has been interviewing famous people for more than 30 years, and this month she publishes her second memoir, A Curious Career, explaining how she goes about it. But Barber is incapable of writing anything as dull as a journalism manual, and so of course it's a riot of a read – funny, irreverent, artlessly frank. She more or less invented the modern celebrity interview, and the book includes many of her gems – Marianne Faithfull behaving monstrously, Shane MacGowan getting her "drunk as a skunk". But it has little to say on dissolving defences with warmth or empathy – that is not how Barber does her job.
The book does reveal her repertoire of tricks for fathoming somebody's psyche. She asks them what they spend their money on, who they were closest to as a child, whether they prefer being a host or a guest. But most of us could memorise the lot and still wouldn't come close to unearthing the sort of truths Barber can divine simply from noticing, for example, how Rafa Nadal fiddle with his underpants. To do that you would need to share Barber's personality – and I've never met anyone who does. I'm not even sure many people would want to, because it makes everyday life quite tricky, and, she thinks, were she not a professional interviewer, it would probably be quite unhealthy. Barber doesn't disarm her interviewees so much as steal their souls.
We meet at her big north London house, where she has lived for 30 years. It has the comfortable feel of a family home unconcerned with faddish notions of updating, and Barber is a solicitous host, busying about making tea and hot cross buns while laughing politely at my jokes. She looks disappointed that the photographer parked on a meter when she had visitors' parking vouchers ready for him. But although sincere, the graciousness feels like a conscious effort, as if she has to concentrate on getting it right.
She says she often relies on the photographer to put her interviewees at ease, because forming a rapport is not her strong point. The hour she spends with them is the "least favourite" part of her job, and the bit she always frets about. At first I think she's being self-deprecating – but then, on learning that I recently moved to the countryside, she suggests I put out a request for new local friends via Twitter. Er, wouldn't that look a bit pathetic – and rude to the new ones I've already made? "Oh dear, yes of course," she laughs at once. "Get me on social situations – hopeless!" Her daughters, she says, "Think they had a very embarrassing mother. I always said weird things or I behaved oddly."
What like? "Oh God, well there was a young boy who used to come round who always had snot coming out of his nose, and I said, 'You know, if you don't bring a hanky next time you come, you're just not coming to my house again.' And my daughters were shocked, his parents were shocked" – she sounds vaguely bored – "so I suppose things like that." She brightens when another famous family faux pas comes to mind, this time from a visit to close friends when their children were all young. "Their boy, maybe four or five, came into our bedroom and started asking all sorts of questions. 'Why is the sky blue?' – that kind of thing. And I said, 'Oh do stop asking questions, just shut up, Will.' Well, I go down to breakfast about half an hour later into this sort of rigid family in shock" – she affects wide-eyed consternation – "saying, 'You must never, ever tell a small child to shut up.' And I say, 'What? I can't tell Will to shut up?' Well, that made it worse." She laughs happily.
Mild eccentricity has only become a problem for Barber since her husband died 11 years ago. "Well, David used to, as it were, protect me from myself, and other people from me. He would apologise, so he was, in a way, my sort of social shield. And he had very good manners. Particularly with dinner parties, he would very much sort of steer me through. David used to do this thing of saying, 'Oh we have to go to so-and-so's dinner.' I'd say, 'Why do we have to go?' He'd say, 'Well, they'll be hurt if we don't.' Well, I'm not hurt if they don't come here, so why should they be hurt?"
Now that he's no longer here to ward off diplomatic incidents, Barber steers clear of dinner parties. "It's just an ordeal, really, now. I mean, I'm not unsocial, I like drinks parties and things, and having meals with friends, but not the polite conversation. Especially now. If you can't smoke, and you can't get too outrageously drunk, I mean where's the point in that? When I could be at home watching telly." But she doesn't wish she were more socially conventional, does she? "No! No, no. I like unconventional people."
It all goes back, she thinks, to growing up in Twickenham as the clever only child of dysfunctional parents. Her father was a tax inspector who used to drink and bellow a lot; her mother was an amateur dramatist who taught elocution, and was "a bit head in the clouds, a bit actressy. I always thought that she felt that she was a princess of planet Zogg who'd been sent to Earth for a few years to live among the ordinary people." Her first memoir, An Education, became a hit film in 2009, and laid bare her parents' anxious snobbery and suburban repression – all of which she'd tried her best to hide from the wealthy girls with driveways and ponies who she found herself at school with after winning a scholarship. Detached from middle-class culture, Barber's parents had no friends. No one came to the house, and so their daughter approached the outside world rather as an anthropologist might study a Fijian tribe. She was never "in the gang", and as a consequence became incorrigibly nosy about other people.
"I used to be really obsessed with weird things. Like, if you're a man, what did it feel like to shave, you know? It was this sort of awareness that not only was I an only child, but that we were not a typical family, and so the inter-dynamics of other people's families were obsessively interesting to me." She didn't like to talk about herself, because she could never think of what to say. "I sort of accept the idea that other people's lives are more interesting than mine." She inherited her father's "clear-eyed realism", whereas her horror at her mother's capacity for self-delusion lives with Barber to this day. She finds actors and their implausible protestations of shyness tiresome, and if anyone tells her they are "romantic", alarm bells start to ring. "Self-deluding crap. Yes, romantic is a real turnoff."
She doubts she'd have been half as good at her job if she'd grown up in a bigger, happier family, because that would have lumbered her with inconvenient emotions such as forgiveness, making it harder to write so ruthlessly about her subjects. But the childhood sense of herself as a sharp-eyed outsider never left her. "After David died, I did sort of want to be part of a gang, as it were. But not for long. I mean, I'd accept invitations to stay over for weekends, or go on holiday with people, and I found actually, you know, I liked it, but I was quite glad to be alone again." In many ways she looks back on her 30-year marriage as "a sort of aberration", quite out of character.
The couple met in her final year at Oxford, where Barber studied English and slept with about 50 men in just two terms, chiefly out of curiosity. She wasn't expecting this detail to scandalise everyone when she mentioned it casually in her first memoir, but I think she enjoyed the fuss. "It does sound rather a lot," she muses idly. "On the other hand, you know, there might be one on Tuesday and another one on Wednesday and another one on Thursday, that sort of thing, so yes, it was quite a lot. I was a good fun girl, rather than one of those ones who might be hurt. If somebody asked me out, I intended to have fun – and usually did, you know," she laughs. The only snag is that when she runs into old male Oxford contemporaries, she can never remember if she slept with them or not.
But she had an uncharacteristically conventional idea of marriage, and after meeting David always defined herself first and foremost as a wife and mother. This order of priority was partly generational, "but I do think if you can't get your marriage and family right, you've fucked up, however well your career goes". After Oxford the couple moved to London. He became a communications lecturer and she went to work for Penthouse as an editorial assistant, where she interviewed fetishists about obscure sexual practices, wrote a book called How to Improve Your Man in Bed, and had a whale of a time. "But I just thought of this as a good, fun job until I had children." After spending much of the 70s changing nappies and going to playgroup, she was bored – "I'm not one of those totally 'motherhood fulfils' types" –
– but quite happy, and went back to work in 1982 only because an old Penthouse colleague begged her to join him at the Sunday Express. She promptly won two British press awards, moved on to the Independent on Sunday, became a Fleet Street legend and has since worked at Vanity Fair, the Telegraph, the Observer and now the Sunday Times.
I think age counted on her side when she reached Fleet Street at 38, because she didn't need new friends, so didn't care what interviewees thought of what she wrote. She's not exactly sociopathic, she says, "But I really don't think you should be swayed by how the interviewee will feel. You're not there to make friends with them. There are some women interviewers who go into it looking for a husband basically, don't they? I don't like that." If she runs into a former interviewee, her usual policy is to dodge them – though occasionally she'll come across a roomful of them at a party, "And it's a sort of 'Whoa, which way should I go?' thing," she giggles. She felt slightly more sympathetic towards celebrities following her own brush with Hollywood fame via An Education, but thinks that made her "probably worse at my job, actually".
She doesn't worry much, either, about getting an interviewee wrong. The only one she feels a bit bad about is Ben Elton, "because a whole lot of people I interviewed for years afterwards said, 'You shouldn't have been so nasty about Ben Elton, he's such a nice guy', so I sort of came to believe it". In 1992 she asked Jimmy Savile about the rumours that he liked little girls, which of course he denied. "And it was odd, because I had all the flak at the time of 'How dare you ask Sir Jimmy Savile this question?' from outraged Independent readers. And then when it was republished, when he was sort of found guilty, I got all the other sort of flak – 'If you knew he liked little girls, why didn't you expose him at the time?' But you can't expose somebody if you haven't got any fact, it's just a rumour that everyone tells you."
Barber is very proud of her six press awards, but not terribly interested in other signifiers of status, because she adds, "Then I had that bloody dame, whatever her name is – Dame Janet Something, she's doing the Savile inquiry – wanting me to go and give evidence to their inquiry. I said: 'There's nothing I know that is not in the article.' But they said they still wanted to question me. Well, honestly, it's ridiculous, isn't it? And I said, 'Well, I can't spare a whole day, can we do it on the phone?'" So they did a conference call, "and there was something like four lawyers present, all billing away, and all for me just to say, 'Everything I know about Jimmy Savile is in that article'. I just thought, what a time-wasting exercise."
Oddly enough, the only thing she does worry about is travelling. She had a panic attack years ago in the arrivals hall at JFK airport, and the next time she tried to fly to New York she had another one at Heathrow, couldn't get on the plane, and hasn't flown to JFK since. If she has to do an interview in Paris she gets in a terrific flap and can't sleep for three nights before getting on the Eurostar. This seems weirdly out of character, and she's at a loss to explain it, but any potential interviewees who lose their nerve should probably suggest New York for a location.
She drinks a lot – "Oh yes, I like a drink" – but doesn't worry about that, because "My doctor is always banging on about smoking, and I always counteract by saying, 'I do drink like a fish', and he just carries on as if I've not opened my mouth. It's really odd." She doesn't worry about smoking, either, because "I sort of think if I was going to get the cancer I would have had it by now." She did try to give up once, and lasted two months. "But then I thought, I am a smoker, you know? It's about vanity, really. I just felt that I want to be one of those people on the pavement in the rain. I like it. Otherwise I'd just be a conventional, middle-aged, middle-class person, and that wouldn't do at all."
Her only worry about dying is whether she'd have the courage to end her own life if she got something like motor neurone disease. Her parents both lived to 92, "and you just saw their lives getting narrower and narrower," so it's longevity she dreads. "I'm puzzled by these young things who believe that if they eat x, or don't eat y, they're going to live for ever. And you sort of think, are you sure you want to? You're not having much fun now – so why do you think you'll have more fun when you're 80?" On her living room wall is a piece of art she loves, which reads: "I went to the doctor, I said, 'I want to die in my late 60s, early 70s, probably of a heart attack. What do you think, am I going about it the right way?' The doctor said, 'Nobody has ever asked me that before.'" She has to take pills every day for her heart, and it only occurred to her that morning, she laughs, "that if I really wanted to have a heart attack, I'd better stop taking these". She recently learned that George Michael has a bigger version of the same artwork. "Isn't that odd? You wouldn't think George Michael wanted to die in his late 60s/early 70s of a heart attack, would you, particularly?"
Her husband's unexpected death in 2003 from myelofibrosis was the one great catastrophe of her life. The marriage had accommodated her growing celebrity quite easily, she says, and been very happy and faithful. She looks surprised when I ask if she's since had other relationships. "No, no. I can't. It just felt quite natural to revert to being selfish and on my own, and doing what I liked, and not having to tell anyone anything or having to explain myself to anyone."
For someone with such a terrifying reputation – Demon Barber, queen of the hatchet job – she seems strangely unprovoked by almost anything. Bad behaviour comes under the category of absurdity for Barber, and amuses her, but nothing ever seems to enrage or outrage, so I ask what makes her angry. "Well, I'm currently at war with a neighbour about the fence, and that has me grinding my teeth in fury in the middle of the night. But I think you're trying to mean the injustices in the world. What do I think about the injustice in the world? Quite complacent, I suppose, is the answer. I'm just not into all that, I'm afraid. I mean, in the 60s we all went anti-Vietnam and that type of thing, but that was jolly. It was the social thing to do." During an interview with Vanessa Redgrave, the actor kept insisting that Barber simply had to care about Kosovo. "And I had to say," she laughs, "I promise you, I don't." She is "vaguely Labour, I suppose," and gives money to the Salvation Army and Shelter, but adds languidly, "Not to those international things."
Her garden fence, on the other hand, is another matter altogether. "This neighbour," she exclaims indignantly, "is extending his poxy little ground-floor flat by about three inches or something, and he wants to take my fence down! I'm extremely impatient, you see. I can't stand to sit in a waiting room or stand in a queue or anything, I just go berserk, you know. And then sometimes I get in such a state about decisions that I think, 'Oh, I can't think about this anymore I must decide right now!' And then I make some stupid decision that I regret the next day." Such as? "Shall I write a blisteringly rude letter to the neighbours, or not? Then I think, 'I can't go on dithering, I'll write it and post it.' And off I went." What was the response? "Oh, well it was only yesterday."
We go outside and she shows me the fence, which is smothered in a lovely wild tangle of ivy. "He said, 'I'll pay for a new one,'" she tells me so loudly that I worry he'll overhear. "I don't want a new one! Anyway, it's not going to happen," she mutters darkly. "He can build whatever horrible thing he wants, but he can't disturb my fence."
I tell her I don't fancy her neighbour's chances. "No, I don't either," she agrees briskly. "Especially not when I'm on the war path."
06 Jun 2014
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber
What a piece of work is Lynn Barber. On the one hand there are the award-winning interviews in which she waves her red rag at celebrities who, once they have been defeated by her taunts, are ceremonially speared by her pen. And on the other hand there is her own celebrity, sealed by her memoir, An Education, a so-so book that had the good fortune to be made into a film with a screenplay by Nick Hornby. An account of her schoolgirl affair with a confidence trickster called Simon, An Education goes some way to explaining why Barber sees the world as an encounter between two egomaniacs in which only one can survive. She learnt from Simon “not to trust people” and here she explains that “I’m not the pussycat I appear”. In other words, if anyone is doing the conning these days, it is Barber.
A Curious Career is a charmless object. Barber reflects on a career that began at Penthouse and blossomed at The Observer. Much of the space is taken up with previously published interviews with Marianne Faithfull, Martin Clunes, Tracey Emin, Christopher Hitchens, Rafael Nadal and Hilary Mantel, framed with briskly written introductions in which Barber tells us if she hated her interviewee. She hates actors because “there’s no way into [their] inner life”. The real reason she hates them, however, is that “all actors secretly hate journalists. This was confirmed to me when I interviewed Martin Clunes.” Doc Martin must rue the day he complained, during his interview with Barber, about the press treatment meted out to his mother. While Barber might not have got inside Clunes’s inner life, he certainly found his way into hers.
To show her versatility, Barber balances the stitch-ups (Clunes, Faithfull, Nadal) against the interviews in which she bonds with her victim (Emin, Hitchens). Interviewing Marianne Faithfull, she finds that the question “spinning around my head the whole time was: who does she think she is?” Spinning around the reader’s head throughout A Curious Career is a similar question: who does Barber think she is? She hates Nadal, interviewed after playing the Rome Masters, because he has the temerity to be on the defensive after the game. “Everyone kept telling me that Rafa was so tired and had had a bad day. But then I was so tired and had had a bad day too.” Nadal’s bad day consisted of playing top-class tennis, Barber’s in watching him. The best interviewee for me is Mantel, because she punches through the predictability of Barber’s stock responses.
Barber asks: “What have I learned from doing all these hundreds of interviews?” There are a variety of answers. That PRs are annoying; that “other people are unknowable”; that it is important to remember “an interview is not the time to show off”. Holding your tongue while someone digs their own grave is presented as one of the most challenging and important jobs on the market.
Barber persists in being baffled by the distrust shown towards her profession. Lucian Freud refused to be interviewed because, astonishingly, “he had no wish to be 's--- on by strangers’ ” and Janet Malcolm’s nimble summation, in The Journalist and the Murderer, of the “state of moral anarchy” created and inhabited by journalists is dismissed without argument.
The final chapters are reflections on youth, the aftermath of Simon and being on the other side of the interview exchange. Having now tasted what “it is like to be famous”, she has “more sympathy” with her interviewees. Poacher turned gamekeeper, she describes herself as “confused” by the expectation that she might “yak away” about herself. But all Lynn Barber’s interviews are about herself. That is their point. By now, however, she is typing rather than writing; on she rambles, sounding like a tape recorder that she has forgotten to turn off.
Tuesday 13 May 2014
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber, book review
Lynn Barber, the unflinching interrogator of celebs, winner of glittering journalism prizes, is now something of a celeb herself. There is no one like Ms Barber in our business. Her eyes see everything, her nose can smell fibs and polish, her mind is as sharp as a Sabatier knife. She cuts, sparkles, is sometimes generous, never daunted, always full of verve and vitality. Always was. Her very first assignment was to meet and sum up the mad genius Salvador Dali. The encounter was dramatic, write-up brilliant. And so she has gone on, undimmed. Some now call her ‘venerable’ as if she’s old and wise, and semi-retired. That must make her cross.
All that said, some of her views can be wayward or dubious. She heartily defends our intrusive tabloid hounds: ‘We have the most varied and lively papers in the world.‘ Really? Even though the Leveson inquiry exposed their dirty dealings? Idols and icons don’t ask for it; they are human and have rights to privacy and dignity. Unlike the hacks she defends, Barber uses her intelligence, does intensive research and writes honest copy. Even so, she too must leave some of her subjects scarred or temporarily undone. Not those pumped up with conceit, like, say, Jeffrey Archer and the late Michael Winner, but others, whose vulnerabilities are not banished by fame and fortune.
And yet she has a code of honour and a commendable commitment to her role- that of an objective watcher of pop, TV and film stars living in citadels, cut off even from their own real selves. Furthermore, she generously shares her techniques and tricks. With much of our media sickeningly ingratiating and vacuous, this is true grit. And here’s the thing- even in these times of total PR whitewash, she still gets interviews. Vanity trounces caution every time.
And so the Daily Mail’s weird Liz Jones lays herself bare before Barber, thinking perhaps it would be like cosmetic surgery, painful but worth it. Oh my. Imagine the hysterical scenes when the interview was published, even though there were slips of worry, signs of care. Jones both exasperated and touched her. So too Marianne Faithfull. Well guarded Rafa Nadal opened the door to Barber and was neatly gelded: ‘He was lying on a massage table with his flies undone, affording me a good view of his Armani underpants – Armani being one of his many sponsors ...frankly I am amazed that any underwear company should want to sponsor Nadal seeing as his on-court behaviour always screams ‘My pants are killing me!’ ... they seem to get stuck between his buttocks and then he has to pull them out.’ Trolls went mad. A job, she thought, really well done.
But the ‘demon Barber’ has her weak and soft spots. She is too indulgent with Winner and Boris and other such chaps and overawed by arty types like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. And when she asked Jimmy Savile if he liked little girls, she let herself believe his denials.
Though we know about her eventful life we don’t know her. When she was 16, an older man groomed her and her parents (that story was made into a film); she was wildly promiscuous at Oxford; David Cardiff, her husband was a soulmate; she has two daughters and so on. But the book keeps its deepest secrets still. Of course. Barber knows exactly how to pull buried nuggets from interviewees and how to keep her own buried. She doesn’t emote, maintains steely discipline, is upbeat throughout.
Readers will love this pacy, absorbing book but may be left feeling unsatisfied. What we really want is Lynn Barber interviewing Lynn Barber. What a read that would be.
· Sunday 13th July 2014
Book review: A Curious Career by Lynn Barber
by Peter Ross
Lynn Barber has, since the 1980s, been Britain’s most accomplished interviewer of famous people, and is now, as a result, something of a celebrity herself. To become the subject of one of her articles is a badge of honour, proof that you have arrived on the national stage. That’s the upside. The downside, as some on the receiving end might regard it, is that Barber submits her interviewees to the sort of intimate analysis they would expect from their psychiatrist, but with none of the attendant confidentiality. As a result, her articles are full of insight and revelation. Her nickname, Demon Barber, suggests a hostility and aggression that is in the work only rarely. She prefers the scalpel, or, more accurately, the paring knife – taking
the formless clay of the celebrity’s public image and uncovering, question by question, sentence by sentence, the true shape of their character.
Barber began her career at Penthouse in the late 1960s, once interviewing Salvador Dali over the course of four days in Paris, and, following a break to raise children, going on to write for the Observer and Independent On Sunday among others. She now works for the Sunday Times. She has published two previous collections of interviews – Mostly Men and Demon Barber. These demonstrate her fearlessness (“What people say is that you like little girls,” she put it to Jimmy Savile in a 1990 interview) and the elegance of her writing. Both points are important. The celebrity interview is, in the hands of many practitioners, an unlovely form; bland, sycophantic and written with all the wit and enthusiasm of a Wikipedia entry dictated at knifepoint. Barber, by contrast, has a lovely conversational, confiding, wry, urbane “voice” which those familiar with her work could identify without seeing a byline. She has, above all, courage in her questioning and energy in her writing – nerve and verve in perfect balance.
In 2003, she wrote An Education, an autobiographical essay published in Granta in which she revealed that at the age of 16 she had a relationship with a married conman in his late thirties. It was later made into a film of the same name, starring Carey Mulligan as the young Barber, earning three Oscar nominations. This conman – “Simon,” she calls him – makes a few appearances in A Curious Career, Barber’s memoir of her working life. Theirs was, she writes, “a paedophile relationship”, and he groomed her parents into trusting him with their daughter. The experience, she reflects, has made her sceptical, always alert to the possibility of lies, and keen to ask questions intended to establish the facts of personal lives. These are useful qualities in a professional journalist, but Barber realises she would be a nicer person if she was more trusting.
A Curious Career is a curious hybrid. In addition to the autobiographical material, Barber reproduces eight recentish interviews – Marianne Faithfull, Martin Clunes, Rafael Nadal, Christopher Hitchens, Shane MacGowan, Michael Winner, Hilary Mantel and Tracey Emin – and reflections on each. One might at first regard this as a bit of a cheat, a bulking out of a thin book, but in fact the articles are such a delight that it is hard to feel swindled. More, Barber’s personality and tastes are arguably more apparent when she writes about other people than when she discusses her own life.
The MacGowan interview, by the way, prompts a fabulous and oddly moving anecdote. During the course of a very drunken encounter with the Pogues legend, Barber promises him, with boozy solemnity, that should she ever be widowed then, yes, she would be glad to take him up on his offer that they should rob a bank together. When, two years later, her husband David dies unexpectedly, Barber finds herself “insane” with grief, and throughout this disorientating period one idea keeps her awake at night – that in order not to break her word, she must join MacGowan in a heist. In the end, only the thought that her beloved cats, Samson and Delilah, would have to be put down while she was in prison prevents her from journeying to Dublin and making herself available for crime.
A Curious Career would be enjoyed by anyone who has a sense of humour and an interest in fame, but journalists and journalism students should find this book useful treasure. Most reporters, working under ever-tighter PR and economic constraints, will gasp at the demands Barber makes and has granted by her editors – at least 90 minutes with her interviewees, two days to research, a week to write it up – but there is no point grudging someone with the talent to make the most of such liberty.
Barber turns 70 next week but has no plans to retire, delighted to go on quizzing your Lady Gagas and Pete Dohertys, and feeling only slightly “goatish” when asking such young celebrities about their sex lives. She has become, as she once wrote about Marianne Faithfull, A Fabulous Beast – prowling and growling her way through the media jungle, her silver mane wreathed in fag smoke, while the rest of us look on with awe and envy.
So, long may she continue to be curious, or simply “nosy” as she is happy to say, and long may she continue to prompt this question from readers: I wonder who Lynn Barber’s writing about next?
‘Daunderlust’ by Peter Ross has just been published by Sandstone Press, price £8.99
PUBLISHED 23 MAY, 2014 - 11:52
A Curious Career: learning Lynn Barber's rules for celebrity interviews
Lynn Barber's is a curious concoction, a mixture of retold stories and reprinted interviews from a writer who has always been better at writing about other people rather than herself.
The rules of the celebrity interview can be pretty plainly stated, according to Lynn Barber in her new memoir, . Both participants – interviewer and interviewee – “know that this is a transaction in which we both hope to get something more than we intend to give. The celebrity hopes for maximum publicity for their book or film or whatever they are plugging in return for minimal self-exposure. The journalist delivers the publicity but aims to wrest a few revealing remarks from the celebrity along the way.”
How do you go about that wresting? Chapter three of this book, “On Interviewing”, provides a handy instruction manual – you’d think almost anyone could do it. Do your research. Arrive on time. Make sure your tape recorder is working. Hope your front tooth doesn’t fall out (this happened to Barber when she was interviewing Oliver Stone; apparently he was a gent about the whole business). See if you can persuade your subjects to allow you into their home. Ask open-ended questions: you can’t go wrong with: “Why?” I’ve done a fair bit of interviewing along the way, and I can vouch for the quality and usefulness of this advice: I even allowed myself to be pleased to discover that Barber hates listening to her own voice on her recordings just as much as I hate listening to mine.
Whom better to take advice from in this regard? Soon to be 70, Barber is the doyenne of celebrity interviewers. She got her start at Oxford, writing for , the student paper, where she had the good fortune to interview Bob Guccione, who was just about to launch to rival . She ended up working for him for £16 a week: “not bad for those days – enough to buy a new outfit every week at Biba”. She wrote a couple of books (the title of the first, , has a perfect ring to it) and eventually joined the Magazine, where (once again interviewing her old pal Guccione) she started writing her pieces in the first person, which wasn’t the custom then. The “Demon Barber” was born.
Now, perhaps all this sounds a little familiar to you. Much of this information – and much of interest that’s in this book – can be found written more carefully, and certainly at greater depth, in . This first memoir was published in 2009 to wide acclaim, and its central story of the teenage Barber’s relationship with Simon, a much older man, was made into a fine film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. If you haven’t read , that’s the place to start – for is a curious concoction, an odd and, finally, not very satisfying mix of retold stories, reprinted interviews and hasty recollection.
By now the tale of Barber lying to Julie Andrews when the actress asked if she had children (Barber denied the existence of her daughters to save precious interviewing time) has been recounted often; but it’s presented here rather as if it were brand new. Interviews that can easily be found online (with Marianne Faithfull, with Martin Clunes) are reproduced in their entirety for no better reason, one feels, than to pad out the book; interviews that are less easily accessible (with James Stewart, with Muriel Spark) are, alas, not included – but then if they were the reader might not purchase the author’s earlier collections of interviews. Clever old Lynn.
There is also a sense that, in the end, Barber isn’t really a natural memoirist. Towards the close of the book she reveals that she discovered, after had been published, what happened in the end to Simon – “my conman”, she calls him. As he was so much older, it is unsurprising to learn that he died. Barber’s reaction is a pretty brisk “Phew!”.
Other people are her game. “To be a good interviewer you have to know yourself pretty well,” she writes: and in the most important sense at least, she does. She is “exceptionally nosy”, she tells us; but this applies best to her subjects. Introspective she is not. Over the long course of her remarkable, and curious, career, that nosiness has been served her – and us – pretty well.
May 9, 2014 6:33 pm
‘A Curious Career’, by Lynn Barber
Review by Lucy Kellaway
A Curious Career, by Lynn Barber, Bloomsbury, 224 pages
When Lucian Freud received a letter from Lynn Barber asking if she could interview him, the famously difficult painter wrote back to the famously dangerous interviewer saying he had no desire to be “shat on by strangers”.
He was a wise man. Wiser than Marianne Faithfull, Richard Branson, Martin Clunes, Rafael Nadal and all the other famous people whom Barber has, if not exactly emptied her bowels on, then at least approached bearing a hatchet.
In reading her interviews over the past 30 years, I have wondered two things. Is it OK to be quite so horrid about people based on a meeting of an hour or so? And how come she is still so much better than all the other interviewers (me included) who have copied the style she invented in the early 1980s, in which the journalist is there in the first person acting as participant, prosecution and judge?
A Curious Career is Barber’s second memoir. Her first, the 2009 An Education (made into a film staring Carey Mulligan), was about how she fell for a conman when she was 16, and how she got into trouble by failing to ask him critical questions such as: are you married? This book is the story of how she has made up for that lapse by spending an entire working life putting awkward questions to celebrities.
It’s a terrific read, though an excessively short one, as most of its 200-odd pages are padded out with interviews that she prepared earlier. Yet even so, the book answers both my questions. Sort of.
On the very first page Barber explains why she is a natural interviewer. It’s because she is nosier than most people. And the reason she is nosy is because she had a weird, lonely childhood. This way of accounting for human foibles is typical of her interviews. It is neat and satisfying – which makes one prepared to overlook the fact that it is trite and almost certainly wrong.
Being a good interviewer is about more than just being nosy. Over the years Barber has collected a bag of tricks, which she generously allows the reader to rifle though. She spends two days doing her homework. She takes two tape recorders. She turns up on time, preferably at the celeb’s home, where she visits the loo and checks the medicine cupboard. She asks very short questions. She softens her subject up with the publicity stuff, saving more invasive questions until later. She maintains eye contact throughout. And she hates interviewing actors. They talk and talk and say nothing.
All this is wise, if not surprising. More telling is the revelation that Barber usually hates doing the interview itself. She loves reading the cuttings. She loves writing it up. But 90 minutes spent with the celebrity usually fill her with anxiety, frustration and disappointment.
What she doesn’t explain is her genius for ending up in ludicrous situations. She interviewed Nadal when he was lying on a massage table, flies undone, showing his Armani underpants. Her meeting with Salvador Dalí lasted four days, during which time he made a work of art out of a dummy and a stringless lute. Tracey Emin started the interview plucking a used condom from her sofa, and later invited Barber to meet her dad. Sometimes the chemistry works so well Barber ends up great friends with her subject. Sometimes it doesn’t. Marianne Faithfull was left so furious that she went around afterwards claiming she had been asked whether she had sex with animals. Barber got a lawyer on to her; Faithfull backed down.
It wasn’t pretty. But was it wrong? According to Barber, celebrity interviewing is a game played advisedly by adults. She has no truck with Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker, who once wrote that every halfway intelligent journalist knows what they do is morally indefensible. Nonsense, says Barber. Her interviews are hard-headed transactions in which a celeb hopes to get publicity for their latest book or film, and she hopes to winkle out a revealing remark or two. It’s morally fine.
Yet there is surely more to it than this. Barber admits that what she dreads are people who are nice and have nothing to hide. She prefers monsters. What troubles me is her way of turning the nice into monsters after 90 minutes of needling. The dodgiest example in the book is Martin Clunes, who was perfectly nice until she goaded him into a rage about journalists.
That piece began: “This is the story of a love affair and its ending.” Barber doesn’t show; she tells. I had thought this was for inferior writers and that good ones craftily led the reader while giving them the illusion that they were drawing their own conclusions. But rereading her splendid interviews, I’m not so sure. Her way is more honest – and much more bracing.
But what if her judgments are wrong? Her reply to this is to state that they usually aren’t.
I don’t see why we should take her word on this, though perhaps it doesn’t matter. If Lynn Barber can take an over-interviewed, not-terribly-interesting celebrity and write 5,000 words about them that are so clever, bold and funny you want to read to the very end, then I’m not sure whether ultimately I care much whether her verdict is right – or not.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist
THE IRISH TIMES
Tue, May 20, 2014, 09:38
Lynn Barber and the art of the interview
Her new book A Curious Career is a great insight into why she is the best celebrity interviewer in the game
If you think about it long enough, interviewing people for a living is a weird way to earn a crust. Every single day of the week, every single of us will have a couple of conversations with other people. We’ll talk and moan and complain and cheer and gossip about what’s going on in our lives, a compendium of events and experiences coated in small chat, guarded comments and occasionally fortright and honest opinions. Then, we’ll head off about our business, remembering some details of what we’ve talked about but forgetting much of it. Think about the times you’ve been asked what you were talking about for the last hour and you’re lucky if you can recall a few sketchy details. “But you were talking for an hour!”
Interviews are a much different kettle of fish. They’re formal set-pieces, one on ones organised for the purpose of the interviewee to plug their wares and put their best face forward. The interviewer, on the other hand, is working to a different agenda. Some might think that they’re there to deliver the message that the subject is A-OK and that their new film/book/event/album/product is worth your time and money. But the best interviewers are not there to act as an advertising billboard. The best interviewers come back with a story which goes much deeper than the surface. The best interviewers drill into that conversation and the surroundings and the room and the ambience and the past and mine gold. They don’t waste a minute or forget a second of what happened.
Great interviewers need other qualities too. Lynn Barber says she was always curious about other people. As a schoolgirl, she was the one who was despatched by her peers to ask the awkward questions. “They thought I had an almost magical ability to get secrets out of people, perhaps by some form of hypnosis”, she notes in her new memoir A Curious Career about why she was the one who asked the question about who was snogging who. The truth of why she got these answers, Barber reckons, was that people were so flattered by her interest that they’d tell her what she wanted to know. That was when she discovered she’d a knack for “asking questions that other people wanted to know the answers to, but were too embarrassed to ask.”
She’s been asking those questions for a long time. When it comes to interviewing famous people, she’s the very best in the business, the fierce, frank and funny writer who has delivered one career-defining interview after another. Read her pieces on Marianne Faithfull, Rafa Nadal, Christopher Hitchens, Shane MacGowan and Tracey Emin, all contained in the new book, and you’re reading timeless pieces of premier league journalism. While Barber admits that the actual interview is the least favourite part of her job – she loves the research and the writing, but doesn’t think she’s great at putting people at their ease to tap them for stories – she has this fantastic talent for knowing the right question to ask to get that story.
As instruction manuals go, A Curious Career is a superb study for anyone who wants to know about the spadework which goes into doing interviews. Barber knows that she was lucky to work for most of her career at a time when newspapers had cash to spend and pages to fill with long-form interviews like hers. She also could insist on having enough time to do an interview – not for her a 10 minute phone interview with someone on a hour’s notice – and can pick and choose who she wanted to talk to.
Leaving aside the fact that the framework around the process has changed and that it’s obviously a lot different for the bulk of repoters and writers working today, the actual mechanics of interviewing have not changed an iota since Barber first struck out on the road with her tape-recorder for Penthouse magazine. You still have to do your research and you still have to ask those questions. The diligent research which she does means she’s not repeating any questions which have already been asked and knows when she’s getting the same anecdote as a previous interviewer (something you’ll notice if you read a bunch of interviews with the same person, as they naturally tend to tell the same story again and again and again). She talks about asking the questions which no-one has asked before – she mentions Piers Morgan and his name-change, for example – and leaving an X on the map for future interviewers to follow up on.
For all the advice, though, A Curious Career is a reminder that there is only one Barber. For instance, she lists a series of questions which she says helps to probe the subject – what they spend their money on, if they prefer to be a guest or a host etc – yet you know that these are the kind of questions which any of us could ask and not come away with the same insights as Barber. It’s that unquenchable curiosity which she had as an only child growing up in Twickenham all over again.
Exclamation marks, no; aertex shirts, yes!
A review of A Curious Career, by Lynn Barber, and An Encyclopaedia of Myself, by Jonathan Meades. Two biographies to delight a dandy
Bloomsbury, pp.211, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408837191
Fourth Estate, pp.341, £18.99, ISBN: 9781857028492
Jonathan Meades, the architectural, food and cultural commentator, appears on television in a pair of retro shades and a trademark Blues Brother suit. He looks like a , and indeed studied drama at Rada. Lynn Barber, the ‘celebrity interviewer’, is the self-acknowledged scourge of pomposity and pretension. (Melvyn Bragg, among others, has felt the lash of her schoolmarm tongue.) Like Meades, Barber grew up in early 1950s middle-class England. An only child, she found a way out of the bridge/ canasta tea parties and sherry-tippling of Twickenham, her childhood home, to become a staff writer on girlie magazine; her first book, published in 1975, was a sex manual entitled (which, incidentally, my wife has still not read).
At 69, Barber claims to be the oldest ‘still-practising’ interviewer in Britain, a hard-drinking mumsy figure who likes a smoke and a laugh. Her memoir, , takes us through her student years at Oxford when she slept with a grand total of 50 men ( ?), and on to marriage, children and her current post at the . Her ‘first big celebrity interview’ was with the tiresome Salvador Dalí in 1969. It went well, but Barber has had run-ins with the actor Martin Clunes, Sir David Attenborough and J.G. Ballard (who complained of her ‘usual puzzled ramble through my dusty carpets’ on being interviewed in 1991). has much to say about the ‘celebrity interviewing game’, but, annoyingly, it’s littered with exclamation marks and lengthy extracts from Barber’s own published interviews. What a swizz!!
Barber really should interview Jonathan Meades, who is roughly her age, and also an only child. In the early Sixties, Meades abandoned his native Salisbury for London, where he hurried to shed all trace of bumpkin gaucheness (as he perceived it). Meades can be opinionated to the point of silly, but I think he has earned that right. Over the 30-odd years of his literary and broadcasting career, he has emerged as a bleakly funny excoriator of so-called good taste in all its variants. Cute neo-Georgian architecture, Linda McCartney’s vegetarian food products, Tony Blair and his ghastly grinning wife Cherie (‘the Ceaucescus of Connaught Square’), dietary pretensions and political correctness have all come in for a drubbing. Meades is also, and triumphantly, a novelist. His fiction may not be for the squeamish (his agent, the late Pat Kavanagh, suggested that readers of his first novel wear a special ‘GRUE’ badge); but it is pleasingly scabrous and gamey.
Meades is dependably rude about Salisbury, a ‘church city, an army city’ populated in the 1950s by Porton Down boffins, shady remittance men, unfrocked priests, future Ukip voters and and boozed-up servicemen. A solitary, questioning boy, Meades was interested in pretty well anything of human concern and puzzlement in Salisbury, from the cut of an uncle’s hairy tweed jacket to the etymology of the fruit juice brand Kia-Ora (‘good health’ in Maori). Curiosity led him to snoop round squalid rural places outside his class and culture: South Wiltshire edgelands, pubs awash with Double Diamond ale. (‘I took a shameful pleasure in whatever disgusted me.’)
, his childhood memoir, vividly conjures a vanished world of Cracker Barrel cheese adverts, Aertex shirts and ‘Johnny Remember Me’ on the airwaves. Emblematic of this pre-Beatles Britain is the author’s father, a biscuit company rep and fanatical fly fisherman who (as I remember my own father did) referred to Cheddar as ‘mousetrap’ and Gorgonzola as ‘gorgon’. Having returned from Iraq with the British army in 1946, Meades senior finds Salisbury prey to Cold War anxieties about the ‘ruddy’ Soviet bloc and Kremlin machinations in general. In the military science park of Porton Down the men in white coats ponder Moscow’s atomic capabilities and (when not dosing human volunteers with LSD) remain on standby to help guard British shores.
Meades’s memoir is, among other things, a work of filial devotion that recollects a lonely child’s attachment to his parents. For most of her adult life the author’s mother was a Church of England school teacher, and impatient of social pretension. Her husband’s chalk stream fishing trips provided an endless supply of brown trout for the supper table. Meades must have trout coming out of his ears. He disdains processed foodstuffs (‘Grape Nuts, a cereal as dentally unforgiving as pebbledash’), but for some reason has no stomach for venison.
At King’s College, Taunton, he was miserably unhappy and out of place among the yeoman and army offspring; the bright lights of London beckoned irresistibly. His memoir shows an autodidact’s fondness for big, polysyllabic words (‘gingivitic’, ‘leucous’, ‘dizygotic’); and there are too many portraits of retired army majors and tweedy types in regimental ties. Still I loved this book. Meades is a very great prose stylist, with a dandy’s delight in the sound and feel of words, and we are lucky to have him.
PUBLISHED: 21:09 GMT, 8 May 2014 | UPDATED: 10:40 GMT, 9 May 2014
Nice? Friendly? Then you'll be scalped by the demon Barber: Interviewer Lynn Barber has certainly had a curious career
By ROGER LEWIS
Even were I famous, Lynn Barber wouldn’t want to bang on my door demanding an interview. I am too nice. Anyone who is ‘nice, sane, polite, who chats pleasantly, is happy to answer your questions’ is a big bore, in her estimation.
Meatloaf, for instance, was ‘a rather timid soul, full of worries and grumbles’ and Rafa Nadal earned Barber’s derision for not being the sort of tennis player who ‘threw racquets and shouted at umpires and had sex in broom cupboards’. She much preferred Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee, who had the massive cheek and gall to demand an envelope containing £500 in cash before he said a word — and who then barely said a word.
‘Give me a monster every time!’ says Barber. One such was Marianne Faithfull. ‘I came out of the encounter thinking I can’t wait to write this up . . . It was great!’
But Barber’s enthusiasm was excluded from the resultant article (which is reprinted in full in this book, along with classic profiles of Martin Clunes, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Winner, Shane MacGowan, Hilary Mantel and Tracey Emin).
What replaced it is prim outrage at Marianne’s perceived lack of good manners. ‘I pay the bill and flounce out,’ reports Barber, who creates quite a hoity-toity persona for herself.
She calls her subject ‘a ratty old rock chick’ with ‘angry-red mottled arms’ and ‘scrawny 55-year-old thighs’.
Describing herself, without fear of successful contradiction, as ‘a real grouchy cow’ and ‘a wicked witch who scares people stiff’, Barber is seldom impressed by anyone she meets. Referring back to An Education (her life story as filmed with Carey Mulligan), she says that this is all because of a formative ‘lesson in mistrust’ when, as a teenager, she was seduced by ‘a much older man in a red sports car’, a ‘lying slimeball’ who happened to be already married with children. ‘I have never felt the slightest desire to forgive him,’ she asserts.
Ever since, i.e. for the past half-century, Barber has refused to take anyone at face value. She believes we are all living a lie, and it is her job to rip the masks off.
‘I want to understand other people, I want to know what they think, what they do when I’m not there.’
Nosiness is all very well, but Barber is more than ‘exceptionally nosy’. She seems to be taking revenge on people who have never done her harm.
Can Hilary Mantel, of whose historical fiction Barber ‘is not a fan’, have been happy to see herself called ‘a gerbil, soft and plump and fluffy’? Later on in the article she becomes ‘a ferret’.
Quite a big ferret, too, as ‘she ballooned from a size 10 to a size 20 in a matter of months’.
When Martin Clunes gets fed up with her, Barber seems (or affects to seem) genuinely shocked: ‘His anger is all the more chilling for being expressed with a smile . . . So there’s an awkward 15 minutes when I am stuck in the kitchen with him, longing for my taxi.’
Robert Redford gets it in the neck for failing to offer her water when she had a cough: ‘His stony face indicated that he was furious I might be giving him germs.’
He showed about as much sympathy, therefore, as Barber does to the elderly Jimmy Stewart, who didn’t want to be photographed without his wig. She sneers at his belief in ‘the need to maintain film-star standards’.
But Barber herself wasn’t exactly happy when Joseph Heller left her at a bus stop in the rain. ‘It was a truly horrible experience and means that now, when I see Catch-22 on my bookshelves, I shudder.’ Flog it then. Give it to Oxfam.
Barber proudly tells us that Salvador Dali, whom she saw autographing blank sheets of paper (‘I am manufacturing money’), gave her a bonnet, later valued at £15,000.
But when Lord Sugar asks her what her engagement ring is worth (‘about five grand’), she makes it clear she thinks him impertinent and common. She never hesitates to ask intrusive questions herself, if it will bring a subject ‘down to earth’.
‘What happened to your face?’ was one opening gambit. ‘Were you breastfed?’ was another. ‘How much do you pay your cleaner?’ The latter to ascertain whether or not you are mean.
Throughout A Curious Career, vitriol is the author’s inspiration. Barber likes badly behaved pop stars (‘I wish I’d done more of them’), and once went on a bender with Shane MacGowan, whose trousers were covered with ‘a thick patina of stains’.
She is also fond of those contemporary artists who set out to shock. ‘Anyone who thinks Tracey Emin is thick is thick themselves,’ we are warned — but what about those of us who simply think that she can’t actually draw, unless the infant-school scribbles are deliberate?
You can’t win with the woman. People who are ‘a bit too flattered, a bit too thrilled’ to be interviewed by the great lady, with her innumerable Press Awards (mentioned frequently), get short shrift.
She much prefers trying to needle an implacable star until they get cross. ‘There is something out of control about a star who cannot be nice’ — and Barber loathes niceness. ‘I am not the pussycat I appear,’ she warns. ‘I’m quite tough, as my interviewees sometimes find out.’ Cue thunder and lightning special effects.
She didn’t like the way Gore Vidal paused in mid-anecdote as she changed the cassette tape over (‘no point in wasting a good anecdote on a silly girl when it was intended for the world’), yet nor was Barber pleased when David Attenborough ‘was not sympathetic’ when he had to hang on a mo while she attended to the recording equipment. ‘I can only remember the cold glint in his eye, the drumming fingers, while I fiddled cack-handedly with my batteries.’
So what does she want? Amenable waiting or crotchety tut-tutting? You can’t disapprove of both. Why mention any of it anyway? Are these little moments meant to add up to amazing psychological insights?
I feel we are finding out more about Lynn Barber than we are about Gore Vidal or David Attenborough. The other problem with celebrity interviews as a genre is that the journalist spends an hour with the subject and then arrogantly assumes they have them pegged.
It is even worse today, when interviews have to be pre-negotiated with PRs who also demand copy approval. (I am told that Peter Kay’s ‘people’ also demand headline approval and picture approval.)
At least Lynn Barber sticks up for freedom of speech — freedom to be rude and spiky. There are not many characters left in journalism who have texture or any vestige of an individual voice.
But she’s complicated. Unlike the greatest interviewer ever, Mavis Nicholson, she doesn’t appear to have a woman’s instincts to be kind. ‘I hate to see people crying (I very rarely cry myself) and am apt to say “Brace up!”, which never goes down well.’
No, I can see that. Fortunately, she writes, ‘I have the advantage, as a woman, that no one is likely to punch me’.