Utterly in Awe
What do you spend your money on? Do you like buying stuff for others, or yourself? Do you resent paying income tax? What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a dress? Who were you closest to as a child? How often do you phone your mum? What would you normally be doing at this moment, if you weren’t doing this? What do you do on your own in a hotel room? Why?
Questions like this are what Lynn Barber uses to open up her celebrity interviews, and I think you can see why. They’re simple, direct, upfront and conversational, but also come at you from an angle. You’d start happily blurting out an answer, only to find yourself in deep and completely buried, metres of steaming-hot intestine looping round you on the floor.
I remember an interview with the late Lord Rees-Mogg where he told me at length ‘what mothers want’ without seemingly at any point wondering whether I might be a mother … Such people are quite fun to interview because you can suddenly prick their balloon with a rude question and watch them deflate. Sometimes I don’t even ask a rude question, I ask a completely random question like: were you breast-fed?
Not – as you can see – that random means innocuous. Come at me at a bad time with that question and I will cry and cry.
Lynn Barber has been interviewing famous people in British newspapers for more than thirty years. Her questions are inquisitive and extrovert, bold and clever. The ensuing write-ups are stylish and often surprising, gossipy on the surface, precise and controlled underneath. Precise, controlled, and of course ‘unsparing’ – her own word: ‘If anyone else tells me what a lovely lad Rafa Nadal is I shall scream.’ ‘Don’t ever make the mistake of underestimating Hilary Mantel.’ ‘I don’t want to give a cool appraisal of Jeremy Irons … I just want to boil him in oil.’ She’s like Christ enthroned in a gilded Quattrocentro painting, attended by apostles, the legions of the damned at her feet: Marianne Faithfull, the ‘Fabulous Beast’ herself, doing a photo-shoot for David Bailey, ‘sprawling with her legs wide apart, her black satin crotch glinting between her scrawny 55-year-old thighs’. Melvyn Bragg, filming his reaction shots for the South Bank Show, ‘smiling, simpering, giggling, looking down at his nails’. Richard Harris at the Savoy in 1990, ‘playing pocket billiards’ through his tracksuit bottoms. Rafael Nadal in Rome in 2011, ‘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, natch.’
‘When I started,’ Barber writes, ‘I was often told off for being “too judgmental”. But surely you have to exercise judgment?’ Her confidence in what she calls her ‘verdicts’ comes partly from experience: she was already in her forties when she became a star writer, with years of journalistic grunt-work – not to mention life – behind her. But also it is just pragmatic. She has no patience with Janet Malcolm and her pronouncement about every journalist knowing that what ‘he’ does is ‘morally indefensible’. If Malcolm really believes this, why is she writing a book about it? Do even the grandest dames sometimes want to have their cake and eat it? Interviewing ‘real people’ is one thing, but not a thing in which Barber has any interest. Interviewing the famous, on the other hand, is a game, a ritualised conflict with rules that are understood: ‘The participants … know that this is a transaction in which we both hope to get something more than we intend to give … Nobody pretends to befriend anyone so there can be no question of betrayal. It is perhaps somewhat hard-headed transaction but not I am sure a morally ambiguous one.’