Utterly in Awe

Jenny Turner

  • A Curious Career by Lynn Barber
    Bloomsbury, 224 pp, £16.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 3719 1

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.’

I remember clearly when Lynn Barber started to become famous, at the Independent on Sunday, in 1990. I was new to London and new to journalism, having come from my teacher-training course in Edinburgh to work on City Limits, the workers’ co-operative magazine, and only starting to understand the sorts of vengeful power that can be wielded by a person good with words. Vengeful power and, equally important, the enormous aesthetic satisfactions you can get from a beautiful magazine – and the IoS one was really beautiful, with its matt paper and Bodoni headlines, and Barber’s pieces in the middle, like the fish and chips. My colleague Deborah Orr had previously worked as a sub on Barber’s pieces at the Sunday Express, and brought with her tales of deadlines hit and pieces done to length, always with perfect spelling, facts and punctuation. We were utterly in awe.

The IoS, though, was not a happy time for Barber. She liked her immediate colleagues, she wrote in An Education, but found the office as a whole extraordinarily sexist: ‘The IoS was run by an entirely male cabal who clearly regarded women as second-class citizens … The trouble with feeling discriminated against, I found, is that it is cumulative and corrosive: you start becoming more and more “sensitive” to perceived slights till you develop a really heavy chip on your shoulder.’ In any case, the IoS’s circulation quickly started to drop, so she moved on in 1993, to Vanity Fair and then to the Observer. She is currently battling wildlings behind the paywall on the Sunday Times.

Over the years, patterns have emerged. Her very best interviews are with men, the puffed-up sort – Bragg, Jimmy Savile, Jeffrey Archer and, more recently, Sir Alan Sugar. She likes artists, especially the erstwhile Young British Artists, and above all, Tracey Emin, who knows how to lay on a juicy spread: the offerings for their first encounter in 2001 included a used condom left on a sofa, Tracey’s 80-year-old dad in a nearby pub, a dream about ‘how she was a sparrow and I was a bumblebee and she was flying with one wing’. She likes quaffers – in the current book, Shane MacGowan – and scenesters of all professions, the quick brown foxes who understand the game and like to play it: Christopher Hitchens, Michael Winner, Emin again and Jarvis Cocker, whom she wanted to impress so much when he came to her house, she hid the pot-pourri. But she’s a little nervous – though she pretends not to be – around the hedgehogs, such as Hilary Mantel, in this book, and Muriel Spark (1990). She leaves them, maybe, feeling – as she wrote in 2004 of Julie Burchill – that ‘she has frittered her talent away.’ ‘But at the end of the day,’ Burchill said when Barber put this to her, ‘when my little spellcheck’s on, the pleasure from the loving of my own language is so intimately bound up with the loving of seeing the cheque and how big it gets that I’d be lying if I said different. Bet you feel that too, don’t you?’ ‘Yes I do totally,’ says Barber. ‘But I also feel it’s a loss.’

Barber published her first autobiographical essay, ‘An Education’, in Granta in 2003. If you haven’t read the book that followed or seen the 2009 movie, the first chapter of the present book will fill you in. She was born in 1944 and grew up in Twickenham, West London, the only child of oddly isolated parents – ‘both from working-class backgrounds but [who] had risen through education into the middle class – Mum a teacher, Dad a civil servant … I think they still felt a bit precarious, like first-generation immigrants.’

She was 16, the brainiest girl at her posh girls’ day school, when she was ‘picked up’ by a much older man in a red sports car who became her boyfriend, and very nearly spoiled her life. Because, she says, she was ‘trying desperately to seem more sophisticated than I was’, she failed to ask the obvious questions. Her parents were also gulled, less understandably (‘Forgive me,’ she reports that her mother said to her, just before she died). Barber had dropped out of education and considered herself engaged when ‘in the nick of time’ she discovered that he was a con man, a thief, a racketeer – in the employ of Peter Rachman, none other – and already married with children.

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.

She went on to read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she famously claimed to have slept with ‘about fifty men’ in her second year. But then, she met a young man called David Cardiff, and ‘knew immediately that he was The One’. She wanted to be a journalist when she graduated, but she was rejected by the BBC and didn’t want to work on a regional newspaper or as a secretary on a magazine. So she got back in touch with Bob Guccione, ‘a gravel-voiced, Sicilian American cartoonist and dry-cleaning manager’, whom she had interviewed for Cherwell about the new cheesecake mag he was setting up in imitation of Playboy. Harry Fieldhouse, the managing editor, submitted her to a spelling test – from ecstasy to pulchritude, via predilection and diarrhoea – then offered her a job for £16 a week. She spent seven happy years at Penthouse, arguing about en-dashes and tightening her prose so Fieldhouse would be unable to remove a single word from it. She married David in 1971 and left to raise her daughters, born in 1975 and 1978.

She went back to work in 1981, briefly at the Telegraph, where she interviewed Konrad Lorenz, then with Fieldhouse at the Sunday Express. It was there, interviewing Guccione in 1983, that she found her voice, and perhaps, her ease with burning bridges.

Sir John Junor, who had been editing the Sunday Express for thirty years when I joined, maintained that you could not be sued for libel if you framed something as a question … Thus I could ask my old boss … if he was connected with the Mafia, and put the question in the article, so long as I followed it with his denial. But it meant I could at least float the idea.

She wasn’t sued, it’s true, but Bob never spoke to her again. She won prizes for her Express work, but then as now, the Express was not a paper much read by the people she wanted to be read by. And so she moved to the newly launched IoS in 1990 and embarked on her big chattering-class classics: ‘I love stars. I love the tension between the public image and the private person; I like the fact that I don’t have to waste time explaining who the subject is; above all, I like and need the competitive edge of going where many journalists have gone before, and trying to do better.’

She herself says she thinks her most ‘worthwhile’ pieces are the ones with writers and artists, but the one that posterity will really value is her interview with ‘Sir James Savile’ for the IoS, on the occasion of his belated knighthood, 22 July 1990. ‘People were terribly shocked when I asked [him] if it was true that he liked little girls … Of course he denied it. But at least by posing the question I’d alerted readers to the possibility.’ One reviewer has suggested that Barber should somehow have managed to catch Savile out, but that’s not reasonable – that was the job of the police, the courts, the structures of governance at the BBC. And anyway, what’s interesting about the piece she did write is how it bristles with unease. She accepts what she considers is ‘a perfectly credible explanation of why rumour links him to young girls’, but notes that ‘it still doesn’t explain the great mystery of his non-existent love life’, which only ever seemed to feature one woman, ‘his mother, whom he called the Duchess’:

He once told Joan Bakewell: ‘We were together all her life and there was nothing we couldn’t do. I got an audience with the pope. Everything. But then, I was sharing her. When she died she was all mine. The best five days of my life were spent with the Duchess when she was dead. She looked marvellous. She belonged to me. It’s wonderful, is death.’

The piece goes on for a few more pages, then Barber accompanies Savile on a tour of the Stoke Mandeville wards. ‘He coos over a young paraplegic woman: “A-ha, now I can have my way with you, my dear!”’ And then, a memory seems to emanate, fully formed, from the whole of Barber’s body:

The most frightening thing anyone ever said to me was when I was being wheeled in for a back operation and the junior doctor remarked cheerily, ‘We’ll have you walking again in two weeks – and if we don’t we’ll send Jimmy Savile to visit you.’ Much as I admire Sir James Savile, he is someone I never ever want to be visited by.

She knew and she didn’t know, like everybody else. She couldn’t know, she was equipped with neither facts nor categories. And yet she sort of did.

*

‘What have I learned from doing all these hundreds of interviews?’ Barber asks towards the end of this book. ‘I retain my core belief, that other people are essentially unknowable – that however well you think you know them there are always undercurrents you will never understand.’ But surely, it’s not just other people who are ‘essentially unknowable’, but also oneself, the things one knows and doesn’t know, and how that changes, with experience and time.

In An Education, the book, this is how Barber introduces the story of ‘Simon’, her creepy boyfriend:

I hadn’t exactly repressed the memory, but I had effectively banished it to the very back of the cupboard. It was something I didn’t like thinking about, didn’t like talking about, saw no point in remembering. It was as if, say, I’d had a nasty car accident as a teenager which entailed many horrible operations but luckily I’d made a full recovery so why go back over the gory details?

‘Was Simon a con man?’ the essay itself concludes. ‘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.’

In 2009, the essay was made into a film, scripted by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan. It became a hit, largely by playing down the creep-factor and upping the Swinging Sixties signifiers – the Twist and Paris and beehive hairdos, and that fantastic Floyd Cramer tune. Barber, for a change, was now the personality being interviewed ‘down the line’ and on stage at book festivals. She seems to have loved the attention, like the cat with all the cream.

Only then, in the current book, she rather spoils it.

When paedophilia became a hot topic in the early Noughties, I heard the term ‘grooming’ for the first time and recognised immediately that that was what Simon did to my parents. Technically he was not a paedophile because I was sixteen when I met him, but sixteen-year-olds were more innocent then, and it was essentially a paedophile relationship. My whole appeal to him was that I was a schoolgirl, and his to me that he was a grown-up, and he relied on the fact that schoolgirls didn’t question what grown-ups did.

She hadn’t really defined this thought when one day the producers invited her along to see the film being made; they were shooting a classroom scene between Mulligan and Olivia Williams, who was playing her English teacher. ‘Do you think he was a paedophile?’ Williams asked.

And without a second’s thought I answered yes. Amanda Posey, the co-producer of the film, almost fainted. Apparently this had been a huge problem all the time her husband Nick Hornby was writing the script – on no account must Simon be seen as a paedophile, because then no good actor would agree to play him and audiences would stay away in droves … Amanda presumably swore Olivia Williams to secrecy and tactfully suggested to me that if ever asked the question again, I should perhaps rethink my answer. But anyway yes, I believe he was a paedophile and that he groomed my parents to deliver me to him, and that is why I have never felt the slightest desire to forgive him.

Visually, the film’s appeal relies largely on scenes of a) the coltish Mulligan in her school uniform speaking Miss Jean Brodie-ish French to her schoolmates and b) the coltish Mulligan, who we know ought to be wearing her school uniform and swotting for A-levels, but who has instead caked herself in hairspray and eyeliner to run off to Paris with an older man. Who else, then, might be considered to be in need of forgiveness? Who else is revealed as having fallen into a trap?

Barber is now seventy and ends her book with a chapter called ‘What I’ve Learned’. ‘Thinking that other people are unknowable might seem like a handicap in an interviewer but I believe it’s an advantage. It means I always feel there’s more to discover, more to understand, more to be curious about.’ She hates, she says, the ‘media tendency to lump people into types or classes or stereotypes’, in particular ‘these days’ anything to do with ‘the over-sixties’ (‘Mick Jagger, Charlotte Rampling, Janet Street-Porter, me – do you see any obvious similarity?’) and thinks interviews are ‘valuable’ as a way of getting the lumps broken up.

She discovered at school, she says, the best way of getting good answers to your questions: ‘I found then and still find now that if you bounce up to someone and say, “Everyone is dying to know whether you went out with so-and-so and what he was like,” they’re usually so flattered by your interest, they’ll tell you … The more interested you are, or seem to be, the more willing they are to divulge.’