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Journalist Lynn Barber talks to Daneet Steffens about actors, mentors, interviews – and a most unsentimental education.
Lynn Barber lives on one of those idyllically leafy London streets that belies its wider ’hood: an early mooch about – a mere high street away – reveals a very incongruous row of tatty caffs, grocers and newsagents rubbing walls with, of all things, a gun shop. But her home of 25 years, imposingly Victorian on the outside, is homey and colourful on the inside: the front room features lemon-yellow walls, and her British Press Awards are snugly ensconced in her downstairs loo. Stacked, that is, against the wall on the floor of her downstairs loo.
‘I’m quite sure I’ve just seen Juliet Stevenson,’ I say, as Barber ushers me in. ‘Oh yes,’ comes the reply. ‘She lives just down the road and so do Bill Paterson and Alan Howard and Patsy Kensit – lots of actors live around here.’ She laughs. She’s got a warm, rolling laugh. ‘It’s a bit ironic because I’m always having a go at actors.’
Barber, supposedly, is always having a go at somebody. Monikered Demon Barber from her early interviewing days, the journalist – who’s been putting slebs in the hot seat since the 80s – has the reputation of directing her verbal daggers at everyone from politicos (Harriet Harman, Tony Benn), to pop culture royalty (Marianne Faithfull, Kerry Katona) to highest-brow arties (Jeremy Irons, Melvyn Bragg). Well, her reputation may be formidable, but the woman I spend time with this morning is nothing short of a lady – down-to-earth, cheerful and polite, sipping tea from a Bonjour Tristesse Penguin mug; offering me tabs from her pack when she taps one out for a smoke; and generous with kudos to her colleagues (‘There’s a whole raft of younger interviewers like Rachel Cooke, Tim Adams, Gaby Wood – they’re very, very good. The Observer
gang’s the best.’). She’s got bright eyes, a terrific smile and a mellifluous voice – punctuated occasionally by a discreet smoker’s cough. Okay, so she’s a far cry from touchy-feely – the term ‘no bullshit’ comes to mind – but I sort of suspect she’s a canny, realistic optimist.
Perhaps it’s because, in reading a great swathe of her interviews alongside her recent memoir, An Education, I’ve noticed a distinct enjoyment of life and people in her outlook. She’s got a most un-cynical capacity for enjoyment, whether she’s delighting in a one-to-one impromptu
performance from poet Benjamin Zephaniah, or gleefully relishing the fact that she’s the recipient of more British Press Awards than AA Gill. Revelling in her newly-landed gig at the Independent on Sunday back in 1990, she’s as equally chuffed about a flock of starlings roosting near her new offices as she is by her new job ( ‘I could hang around the back stairs every sunset,’ she writes, ‘watching the birds fly in.’)
Perhaps it’s because of the impression I got from her sharp, funny, whiz-of-a-read memoir – a brave book that is pleasurably unsentimental but not without sentiment – that, long after her formal schooling was over, Barber continued gleaning an education from every aspect of her life – from an early affair with a married gangster to her challenging relationship with her parents, from a lonely only-childhood to her observations of men honed at Oxford, to her marriage and work-family balance – and forged
ahead with it. Or, perhaps, it’s because she’s a fellow cat-person: on arrival, I was welcomed by Samson, a seriously big, black ball of purr – one stroke, and he’s yours. ‘There’s another one,’ says Barber. ‘Delilah. But you won’t see her.’ Apparently she’s not as social as Samson, who shamelessly pads across my notes; yet, no sooner have we settled down, when in creeps a cat a quarter of Samson’s size. ‘Oh,’ says Barber softly, ‘you’re very honoured to get a sighting of her.’
But back to that rep, which Barber reckons was partly a matter of timing: ‘I joined the Indy
on Sunday at its launch and we had something like three months to work on dummies before the first issue came out. So the editor had a big backlog of interviews by me and he chose the ones he considered the best to run week after week – which gave the very misleading impression that I could write an interview in a week!’ He had a nose for certain Barberisms. ‘There was a fairly heavy attack on Melvyn Bragg,’ recalls Barber, ‘and a sort of disrespectful one about Richard Harris…I suppose because they followed one after the other, it gave the impression that I was…I don’t like the word “bitchy,”’ she says pointedly, ‘but sort of aggressive. Actually, I’d say that the nice interviews outnumber the nasty ones, but it’s always interesting when readers love the nasty ones.’ She enjoys this thought. ‘They seem to relish those and remember them better than they remember the nice ones, which might be schadenfraude or’
‘[I] might interrupt to ask a rude question, make them realise they’ve got to try a bit.’
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