'Turning 70 taught me that I have no desire to live until I am 92'
Lynn Barber’s memoir of her adolescent affair with a conman was made into a hit film. Her new book details her career as a remorseless and celebrated interviewer. Julia Molony meets her in London.
The first surprising thing about Lynn Barber is her voice. I had expected a strident tone in keeping with her reputation as Fleet Street's foremost public executioner. But it is cosy, breathy and surprisingly girlish, even for a woman her age (she is 70) and absolutely at odds with her guillotine-sharp prose.
The voice would lull you into believing that the Demon Barber, as she is known, is really a pussycat. She has always maintained as much, insisting that she's more inclined to be kind about her subjects than to slag them off. But there are plenty of people who would disagree — she has flayed a veritable who's who of contemporary society, from Melvyn Bragg to Marianne Faithfull.
For four decades, Barber has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of the celebrity interview genre. A Lynn Barber interview creates its own little cultural moment. Long before the Twitter storm was invented, people would argue around the water cooler about her latest article. Which is why plenty of stars still volunteer for the honour of being interviewed by her, despite knowing the risk they take. Her style is unforgiving. If she doesn't like her subject, she will hang them out to dry for the entertainment of her readers. She takes her duty to her readers extremely seriously — I don't believe she's ever knowingly said a dull thing in print.
We meet at her house on a quiet street in north London where she ushers me in rather diffidently. Inside, the style is grandmotherish — everything neat and ordered but ever-so-slightly out of date.
The second surprising thing about Barber is that she claims to be pretty sensitive to criticism herself. She was recently asked to go on Have I Got News For You, she says, but turned it down after seeking the advice of her daughters who said she would be too easily “hurt and puzzled” by the nasty remarks.
You'd imagine that someone who is happy to dish it out so liberally would be tough as old boots. But not so. How, I wonder, does she reconcile a fragile ego with her own habit of cheerfully steam-rolling over the sensitivities of those she interviews? I quote a recent example, an interview with the author Hilary Mantel who she said “looks rather like a gerbil”.
She seems perplexed when I mention it. “Do you think she'd mind that?” I can't think of many people who wouldn't mind being compared to a gerbil. “Well maybe she would,” she says doubtfully. “Actually, because I realise I'm very vulnerable in that area myself, I normally don't make remarks about people's appearance very much. I think I was trying to say the impression might be of a sweet fluffy gerbil, but actually she's a ferret or a tiger or something more scary, so I wasn't particularly trying to describe her appearance. I would have thought with her that actually she wasn't particularly bothered about remarks about her? ...” She trails off before saying, “Well maybe I'm wrong,” but sounding utterly unconvinced.
Barber has just published her sixth book. A Curious Career is a collection of the best of her journalism over the last couple of decades, linked together with insight, advice and autobiography. But she says she doesn't much like writing books and mostly did this one because she was facing into turning 70. She felt that she should mark it but didn't want to have to organise a party for herself, so decided in her “peculiar way of thinking,” that if she wrote a book the publisher would have to have a launch “and I can call it my 70th”.
She had “all sorts of hang-ups” about her 70th birthday. Nothing to do with getting old though, her parents both lived to 92 which she says “definitely taught me that I don't want to live to 92. I'm very clear about that. So I've never yearned to live for an awfully long time”. In order to avoid the same awful fate befalling her, she's remained a dedicated smoker and drinker all of her life. When she did Desert Island Discs a few years ago, she told Kirsty Young that she puts away about a bottle of wine a day. “I am surprised by young people who seem so eager to live to be 80 or 90, and I sort of think, have you seen what it's like being 80 or 90?” She says. “It's not great, and you should be enjoying yourself now.”
The worst part of turning 70 was the burden of what to do. “In my thirties, forties, fifties, I'd more or less shared a birthday with my husband and we'd had joint parties. My husband then died just before our 60th, so I didn't have any 60th birthday at all.”
In the end the birthday was a rather sad event, not because of the age but because “the very next day my cat died, and so it all turned into terrible tragedy”. She went off to the Hay Festival the day after, “where I have to say I was a great success,” but afterwards fell victim to that “showbiz cliche of, come home with the applause of the crowd ringing in your ears – everyone loves you and you are a wonderful person, back to a completely empty house. I was absolutely shattered”.
There's a section on old age, in A Curious Career, where Barber declares that faced with the choice, she'd rather end up a “wicked witch who scares people stiff” than a sweet old dear. But in fact she's more of a pink-cheeked lush than an old crone. There's something rakish and dishevelled about the way her fluffy purple jumper slips down on one shoulder, showing off a lacy black bra-strap. And she's quite jolly, sipping red wine by the window, her cigarette smoke turning the late afternoon sunlight gauzy.
Not long ago, she buried both of her parents within a few months of each other. She had written about them in utterly unsparing terms in her 2009 memoir An Education, which gave an account of how, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, she ended up in relationship with a middle aged conman. In the book she calls him Simon, but his real name was Alan Green, an acolyte of the notorious slum-landlord Peter Rachman. After two years, Simon proposed marriage, but then turned out to already have a wife and a family living a few roads away. The teenaged Barber was bruised and disillusioned by the experience, which left a scar in the form of an enduring distrust and wariness of people,
though she admits the lesson was a boon to her career as an interviewer.
To some degree she blames her parents for how things turned out, writing in An Education that they were dazzled by Simon's wealth and intelligence and describing her shock when, having always treated academic achievement as a religion, they suddenly abandoned their aspirations that she go to Oxford and encouraged her to marry him instead. She also claims that they “threw me into bed with him”.
Barber's father grew up grindingly poor in Lancashire and grafted his way to financial security as a civil servant. Her firmly lower-middle-class mother had fantasised about being an actress but became an elocution teacher. “My mother,” Barber wrote with undisguised scorn, had “a beta or even beta-minus brain”.
“I was relying on the fact that she wouldn't read it,” she says now. “And I'm pretty sure she did read it actually and was quite upset ...” But she waves this away as part of the collateral damage that a career as a writer will cause. “It was a common family joke, but she didn't like seeing it in print, obviously.”
For his part, Alan Green made a statement after An Education came out declaring that she was the “love of his life,” but she dismisses it as nothing more than another example of his almost pathological crap-talk. If she has any vestigial feelings about the whole thing they are mostly distaste, the anger has simmered down to embers now, over half a century later. “I think he was a bit feeble,” she says.
She never particularly fancied him, and slept with him mainly to get the whole business of losing her virginity out of the way. But it was “a bad introduction” to sex.
Having discovered the truth about Simon she achieved straight ‘A’s as expected and took up the hard won place at Oxford she'd come close to forfeiting because of him and resolved to put the whole weird, sorry “Simon” business behind her. She threw herself headlong into the busy social life there, where girls were outnumbered by boys seven to one. At one point, after her first boyfriend dumped her, she went through a promiscuous phase, sleeping with about 50 men in two terms. The account she gives of this in An Education is strangely detached. It sounds more like pragmatic exercise than an hedonistic adventure, I tell her.
“I find it quite puzzling myself,” she agrees. “I thought, I need to get another boyfriend, and I can't waste too much time about it. I've got a lot of work to do ... It's a terrible waste if someone takes you out for dinner ten times and then you go to bed and it's ghastly. So why not do the bed first?”
Ever the straight-A student, she put her information gathering to good use. One of her lovers at Oxford was Howard Marks aka the drug dealer Mr Nice, who she once boasted declared her a “Great Shag” at the time.
Anyway after the two terms of bed-hopping were up she “just sort of dropped it, as well. I suppose I dropped it because I came to the end of my second year and then I needed to be working hard for my finals in my third year,” so, ever practical, she “just stopped being promiscuous”.
At the tail end of her time in Oxford, Barber met her future husband David, and knew immediately that he was the person she'd marry, because he was an essentially good and decent man — much more so than her, she jokes. They were married a few years later and had two daughters together.
What sort of mother is she, I ask, and she smiles wryly. “I get on well with my daughters. And nowadays increasingly rely on them for advice. They tease me and say I was terrible and I couldn't ever remember the names of any of their teachers and I was rude to their friends. They love telling stories about what a nightmare mother I was, but no, I think I was quite a good mother actually.”
She's glad that when her memoir was published, they were already grown up. “I could see the tension there, they go into school and their school-friends have read some article or other in which their mother is exposed as a slag or whatever.”
Though she's the first to admit having got things wrong, Barber is, by most standards, a stranger to self-doubt. She has an unshakable faith in her own authority, but is troubled by guilt. The big guilt of her life relates to the period when, in his late fifties, David was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. He spent a long period in hospital before eventually dying from complications related to a bone marrow transplant. But Lynn couldn't bear playing the role of faithful wife perennially at his bedside. Though she visited him every day, she found reasons to be elsewhere much of the time. After he died, the guilt became so intense that she eventually convinced herself that she'd found evidence that he'd had an affair. It was, she now sees, a convenient delusion which she thought would acquit her from the burden of having failed in her duty to him. Her “odd logic” was “oh well if he was unfaithful then it doesn't matter — die away ... I don't actually think he was unfaithful, but it was a useful thing to happen at that time ... I could stop fretting about what I did wrong when he was in hospital or before, and it sort of liberated me to move on, to stop obsessing with his death.”
She eventually snapped out of it, so the memory of her marriage is untainted. Though she maintains, “you don't ever really know someone”. She's had no relationships since David and seems content with that, despite getting a bit lonely sometimes. She's still debating whether or not to get another cat. Her lifestyle now is a familiar reversion to “being the solitary only child. It felt quite familiar to me living by myself and becoming very selfish. And quite nice not to have to fit in with anyone else.”
- Lynn Barber is appearing at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival in Co Dublin on Saturday, September 12. Booking from mountainstosea.ie