Total Recall

“This became my career: asking questions that other people wanted to know the answers to but were too embarrassed to ask”

Digging deep A winner of six British press awards, Barber entertains everything but a charade
Digging deep – A winner of six British press awards, Barber entertains everything but a charade

My first encounter with Lynn Barber was an unconscious one, while watching An Education, starring Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike. A student of Class 11, I was swayed by the distinct similarity between myself and Jenny Mellor’s character (played by Mulligan) of a bright schoolgirl who gets pursued by a man much older than her. It was only later I realised how the film was based on Barber’s article, which first appeared in Granta but was later expanded in a memoir titled, An Education. My second encounter with her was also during school while watching Mr Nice, a film based on the notorious Welsh cannabis smuggler Dennis Howard Marks, popularly known to the international media as “the most sophisticated drug baron of all times”. While researching about Lynn’s other books, I stumbled upon the juicy bit of her having dated Marks (though briefly) during her stint at Oxford.
Now it feels like I’ve known her for a while but nothing, not even a neurotic bout with Google, will help you piece together the career of Britain’s award-winning celebrity interviewer. That is, until you decide to read her second memoir, A Curious Career, and allow yourself a real window to the lives of celebrities (at a time when interviewing the known was yet to be classified as a craft) and the fast changing world of journalism.
Barber quite clearly suffers from a compelling sense of nosiness, a trait which proved useful to the other girls at Lady Eleanor Holles, where she went on scholarship while most of the pupils were fee-paying and from affluent families. As she explains, “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. My friends wouldn’t ask because they considered it uncool to seem interested, but it was ok to send me because everyone knew that I was nosy.” Probably the only time Barber forgot to use this ‘magical’ ability of getting secrets out of people, resulted in her being charmed by a con man at 16. Just after she quit school and got engaged to him, she discovered he was married with children. A formative lesson in mistrust and a damaging education, as she calls it, taught her the value of nosiness and introduced her for the first time to the dangers of not asking questions.
Having started her career as an editorial assistant at Penthouse, Lynn’s initial interactions were with people who were definitely not celebs — foot fetishists, voyeurs, transvestites, dominatrices, men who liked wearing nappies. By her own admission, as an interviewer, she started at the bottom but received a good training of basics. Those who seem startled by an Englishwoman posing embarrassing questions, she quips, are unaware of her seven-year apprenticeship at Penthouse!
Her accounts seem quite unlike the celebrity interview style that we are familiar with today. More than her questions, it’s the ease with which the subject rolls out intimate details and is willing to have someone as exceptionally inquisitive as Barber around, which one finds striking. Her interviews sometimes lasted for four days (like that with Salvador Dali, which ended only when Dali’s wife Gala gave Lynn the ‘evil eye’) while today one has to sell one’s soul to catch hold of these demi-gods for 15 minutes.
But, there seem to be a million ways of screwing up an interview and she’s done them all! “Sir David Attenborough was not sympathetic when my recorder broke down.’’ “Once with Oliver Stone, my front tooth fell out.’’ “Another time with Robert Redford, I had a coughing so bad it sounded like retching.” “I remember sweating hideously in a conservatory with actor William Hurt and him passing me ice cubes to cool my bright red face.”
Her idea of a hellishly boring interviewee is one who is obviously nice, sane, polite, who chats pleasantly, is happy to answer questions and has got nothing to hide. Winner of innumerable press awards, as she reminds us frequently, what she yearns for every single time is a monster — “someone who throws tantrums, hurls insults, storms out and generally creates mayhem.” And Marianne Faithfull successfully stood apart in every category to deliver a ‘great interview’ for Barber. Elegant profiles of Faithfull and many others like Martin Clunes, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Winner, Hilary Mantel, Tracey Emin and Rafael Nadal have been reprinted in the book.
Pop stars remain her favourite category of celebrities throughout and she wishes she had done more of them. One with The Pogues’ hell-raiser Shane MacGowan remains close to her. MacGowan extracted a promise out of Barber wherein the two were to commit a bank robbery if she becomes a widow (she was afraid her husband wouldn’t approve of it).
A Curious Career Lynn Barber Bloomsbury 224 pp; Rs 399
A Curious Career
Lynn Barber
224 pp; Rs 399

Ever since a panic attack at New York immigration hall, Barber made it a condition never to fly to the States, but an exception was made in 2011 when Christopher Hitchens requested her for an interview in Washington 11 months before he died. Having received an early copy of Hitch-22, she recalls reading through the prologue with premonition as a “spooky experience”, more so because Hitchens wrote it way back in 2008 while his diagnosis of inoperable cancer came only in 2010. On being asked as to why the book fails to mention his wives, Hitchens says upfront, “You don’t know these women! No, not to go near it, just to stay completely clear of it. I don’t want to read it from other people, and I don’t want to do it myself.’’
After reading each interview in the book, a feeling of amusement lingers on for a while. This is especially the case with Michael Winner. Lynn, who was asked to dig into Winner’s sex life and attitude towards women for Observer Women magazine, most certainly admires him for a thing she believes should be done by every interviewee — “he always tapes his interviews (as does Tony Benn).” If practised by both parties, celebs whining about being “misquoted” by journalists will not be a frequent occasion. Back on the subject, so how many ex-girlfriends did Winner have altogether? “Well we did count and funnily enough, it was very low, about a hundred and thirty. That’s not a lot! How can it be a lot for fifty years? Any self-respecting rock star gets through that in a day. And they are bloody nice people.’’ But why was he so reluctant to commit? “It’s a dreadfully mean thing to say, but I used to see flashing above girlfriends’ heads ‘Alimony. Alimony. Alimony’.” Who else but she could extract all of this out of the Death Wish director, who finally married at 75 but left his wife with a debt of £12 million.
Working for the Sunday Times currently, which considers itself to be a “family newspaper”, asterisks are another acute problem in Barber’s life who makes good sense in pointing out, “This is of course insane because if children ever scan the paper, it’s the word with asterisks that first catch their eye!”
Probably the most frank and funny memoir to have recently landed on my desk, Lynn’s tone throughout is very unsentimental, even as she pours her anxiety, impatience, frustration and, often, disappointment of having to interview celebrities, into the book. From growing up in Twickenham to being the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’ Lynn Barber has most certainly had a curious career.