lynn barber: write on

What happens when the tables are turned on one of the most notoriously tough interviewers? Writer and restaurant critic Marina O’Loughin is willing to find out.

While I’m waiting for Lynn Barber in a corner booth at the venerable Rules restaurant, I continue reading up on this undisputed queen of the interviewers. Since she is famous – notorious – for never pulling any punches with her legion of interviewees, everyone from Salvador Dali and Rudolf Nureyev to Simon Cowell and Kim Kardashian, I wonder has anyone has ever turned the tables on her? Been enormously critical of her work? So I’ve googled ‘Lynn Barber terrible review’, hastily snapping closed the phone cover as she arrives.

Rules is her choice, for its grouse. ‘Yes, grouse is a really big thing with me. I can’t really cook at all but that’s one of the few things I can.’  I turn my back briefly to order and when I turn around, she has opened my phone and is looking at the screen. The horror! I’m astonished by the brazenness of this move, half outraged, half in awe. It makes me so paranoid that when I start talking to her and she punctuates her replies by loudly tapping her fingers beside my phone, I suspect it’s a clever ruse to sabotage the recording. Of course, this is absolute nonsense, but I imagine her subjects – victims? – never really know where they are with her, something she uses to absolutely brilliant advantage.  

Contrary to my paranoia and her reputation, she is, immediately very kind and supportive. She’s known to be generous with insights and tips for other interviewers: ‘You were punctual, that’s tip number 1; and you’ve got a working tape recorder, tip no 2. You’ve done some homework, tip no 3. You’re looking good!’ She’s just back from Los Angeles where she was interviewing David Hockney. ‘It was very moving. I felt it was probably the last time I interview him. He’s not that old, 80 next year, but I won’t be flying out to LA anytime in the next decade.’ We talk about Hockney for a bit before she interjects with some asperity, ‘Are you actually going to ask me a question?’

In her career, she takes a backseat during the actual interview – ‘you often only get about an hour’ – fleshing out with her research and impressions over a writing process that can take up to a week. So is she comfortable with being interviewed herself? Does she enjoy it? Requests to interview her became more frequent in the wake of her increased fame post the publication of her memoir, An Education, and the film of the same name starring Carey Mulligan as the young Barber who’d been conned – groomed, we’d probably now call it – by a much older, married man. ‘Yeah I think I’m fine with it now. There was an awkward period when the book was just out and my mother had died.  I couldn’t face talking about it publicly, so I was talking about her in the present tense when she was already dead. That made me very nervous.’

Our first courses arrive, of oysters and dressed crab and we dive in.  She tells me about a recent trip to Applecross in Scotland: ‘more or less opposite Skye. There’s no posh restaurants but every pub you go to has oysters, mussels, all the seafood was brilliant. But of course, being Scotland, no vegetables.’ Chastened, I eat more of the salad with my crab than I’d otherwise have done. ‘All wonderful, but depends on how long you can live without getting scurvy.’ Reading her books, I don’t get much of a sense of food from her background. Were her parents not interested in the culinary arts? ‘Not at all. It was tragic actually. Partly because it was immediately post-war while rationing was still on. The big highlight for my mother was when something called the Birdseye Roast Beef Frozen Dinner for One was invented, and our suppers used to consist of each of us with our individual roasts. But I liked it. I liked the little tray. It had a Yorkshire pudding.’ But she loves restaurants? ’I loved restaurants as soon as I started going to them, thought “oh this is a good wheeze”’ – wheeze is a favourite word. ‘When David and I started living together,’ – her late husband, David Cardiff, a media historian and lecturer, (their wedding picture is one of the most perfect snapshots of the early 70s I’ve ever seen) – ‘Neither of us had cooked at all. We both embarked on learning to cook and then within about a month I’d given up and he’d bought Larousse Gastronomique. I was widowed at 59 and that was the point at which I learned to boil an egg.’

“I want someone who’s a grateful slave, basically”

She lives alone now, in a North London house that’s been the family home for over 30 years. Her two grown-up daughters have long gone, but she shows no signs of wanting to downsize. Does she like living on her own? ‘I do really. I had a Sudanese asylum seeker living with me for five months. He cooked really good Sudanese food –  I got quite hooked on it. But I haven’t got one now and I ought to have someone living in the house. I don’t really want a tenant as I’d have to do things from them. I want someone who’s a grateful slave basically.’ What happened to the Sudanese chap? ‘It all went bad. I said I wanted to write an article about him and he went through the roof. The deal was I wouldn’t publish anything till he got the asylum – and in fact he did in the end. But I think there was some secret. I honestly don’t know.’ It all sounds a little like a dark comedy written by someone like Alan Bennett.

Asylum seekers or no, I get the sense that she’s very much at ease with her own company.  ‘I think it’s to do with having been an only child. I was very alone all through my childhood. In retrospect, I’m slightly surprised that I could live in a family for all those years.’ The talk of years, and the fact that she is now 72 leads me to wonder how she feels about being an older journalist, especially in today’s youth-obsessed media climate. ‘Oh you say it like it’s a new thing. When I worked on the Sunday Express we used to joke about whether the next magazine editor would be a foetus. I adjusted to it a long time ago.’ Are there benefits to it? ‘There was a period I was embarrassed when, if I was asking about their sex lives, people would think I was coming on to them. Being as old as I am now solves all that.  I’ve just done Katie Price, so we’re a bit of a weird match. Before I went away in the summer they wanted me to interview both Katie Price and [author] Margaret Drabble and normally I don’t like having two interviews on the go because I think I’ll get them mixed up. But I really don’t think… I mean if I suddenly asked Margaret Drabble about the size of her breast implants…’

The grouse arrives. How is it? ‘It’s a start of season, young, grouse therefore more tender, less overpowering, than later, November, grouse. But with enough heather fragrance to make it distinctive. And beautifully presented, with all its proper accompaniments - bread sauce, redcurrant jelly, game chips, and bread underneath to soak up the juices. A lovely thing. But actually I prefer a somewhat older grouse, with lumpier bread sauce.’

“Katie Price hasn’t even read her own book so the chances of her having read anything about me are zero”

She’s on record as saying she doesn’t much like interviewing ‘boring’ actors, but does do go for politicians quite a lot. ‘Oh, politicians: they expect you to know the name of the deputy leader of the house – I mean, no way! I feel like banging their heads and saying don’t you ever read those surveys that say that 90% of the country can’t name the prime minister? They’re so self-important. They live so completely in that little bubble. At least Katie Price is aware that there’s another world going on out there.’ She keeps coming back to Katie Price; I’m not sure if it’s simply because it’s her most recent interview or whether there’s a genuine fascination: ‘We have exactly the same birthday, you know. So we kind of bonded over that.’ Did the Pricey do her homework about her? Lynn laughs: ‘Katie Price hasn’t even read her own book so the chances of her having read anything about me are zero.’ ‘Does that bother you?’  ‘No I think it’s fine. In fact she offered me a job in the course of the interview which is a first for me. She’d got her book tour coming up and she needed somebody to present her on stage and ask her questions – a whole new career for me.’ Was she tempted? ‘Well I thought about it for about 2 seconds but no… she reminds me of my friend Tracey Emin, she’s sort of completely … not self-obsessed but self-driven. If I went, I’d just be a sort of courtier in the background and have to drink something called Porn Star Martinis and eat a lot a Trader Vic’s or somewhere.’

“There are few people I respect enough – David Hockney is one”

Barber has a kind of understated grandness, probably something to do with being at the top of her game for decades. I can’t imagine her being part of anyone’s entourage. On the train journey to meet her, I re-read one of my favourite things, her legendary interview with Marianne Faithfull with her terrible flunkeys and gatekeepers.  Does there come a point in a career when she thinks ‘shouldn’t it be about me now?’  ‘Well I can be starry and stamp my feet if I need to.  I was amused by Katie Price over lunch, but would I still be amused by her tomorrow… not really. There are few people I respect enough – David Hockney is one. To be willing to fly to LA economy class on Norwegian Airlines – that says it all really.’ Does Katie Price fit in with her well documented fascination with ‘monsters’? ‘I wouldn’t call her a monster, no. She’s temperamental and I like temperamental people. And monsters tend to be nastier than she is – she’s not nasty.’ Can you have a nice monster? I tell her I was a little horrified reading her first interview with Boris Johnson in which it was pretty clear that the bouffant Brexiter absolutely charmed her. ‘I must admit that I am a bit horrified by my being charmed too. I wrote about him twice – once having been charmed and once not so much. The first time … yeah, I did roll over on my back.’ She looks thoroughly chagrined at the recollection. But it didn’t stop her going on to write about Nigel Farage: ‘You can’t not like him.’  She is utterly relaxed about having an opinion that is completely at odds with the bien pensants.

“’I simply couldn’t care what anyone says about me on Twitter”

She’s said that she dislikes it when people call her bitchy. Couldn’t that neck comment be construed as, well, a bit bitchy? And calling Marianne Faithfull a ‘ropey old rock chick’? She corrects me: ‘Ratty old rock chick.  I was rather told off for that. I’ll give you another interviewing tip – it’s always worth throwing in a compliment about looks. Conversely, if you say as I did about Helena Bonham Carter that she has a sweet little moustache she’s going to hold that against you for the rest of her life, the only thing she remembers out of an interview that was about 4000 words of gushing praise.’ I’m not surprised: I now have a brainworm of HBC’s facial hair, and I’ll never be able to cleanse my mind of her description of Faithfull’s ‘scrawny 55 year old thighs’ and the ‘black satin crotch glinting’ between them.

I finally confess that, when she looked at my phone earlier I had been looking for something tricky on her, in a karmic kind of way. How does she feel when someone criticises her work, when – as in the piece that I found – her book is dismissed as ‘not so much writing as typing?’ She glares: ‘Who was it? I’ll put them on my hate list. [Frances Wilson in The Telegraph] Well obviously I hate him or her even though I’ve never heard of them. Craig Brown wrote a parody diary, and that upset me because it’s someone I respect.’ She didn’t enjoy it? She’s astonished at this idea. ‘What, his parody? No! His parody of me? No I did not! Why would I?’ I explain that it’s that’s ‘roast’ idea, that it’s regarded as top fun to be the object of someone like Brown’s attentions. ‘Oh I see, it’s an honour to be stitched up by him? All I’m saying is I don’t care what Frances whatever says because I don’t know who or what they are.’ So she’s not bothered by, for instance, what randoms might say about her on social media? She scoffs: ’I simply couldn’t care what anyone says about me on Twitter. I certainly wouldn’t care about ‘randoms’. What a terrible word. I’d been doing what I do for the Sunday Express for a long time and won two Press Awards while I was there, but it was only when I went to the Independent on Sunday that everyone was talking about me. I did then realise that nobody on Fleet St read the Sunday Express. But then they were all calling me Demon Barber or Bitchy Barber and it seemed just weird to me as I was no more bitchy than I’d ever been.’  

“So many of these columnists seem to be writing to a pre-set agenda”

I tell her about [writer and editor] Rod Liddle having a go at me in print and how much I’d enjoyed it: ‘He’s probably jealous. I had a pop at him on my Artsnight programme.’ Isn’t he a rather strange little man? ‘He is. But I like him. Because of the sort of awkwardness of him. So many of these columnists seem to be writing to a pre-set agenda, writing what will please the middle classes. So to get someone who’s saying something a bit different… I like that.’ Which journalists does she enjoy reading? ‘Well, Rod Liddle. Jeremy Clarkson is quite valuable. Dominic Lawson I take quite seriously. Not many actually.’

With the intensifying of her ‘Demon Barber’ reputation – which she maintains is old news – did she find it harder to get access to the names she wanted? ‘At the beginning when people started saying “she’s such a bitch” and I started panicking about every no. But it cut out a lot of actors I didn’t want to interview anyway – I do think actors are tragically boring. They’d say “I’m far too scared of her” and I’d say poor little you. But of course editors… What is it with editors and actors, why do they think they’re interesting?’ I expect they’re trying to deliver what they think their readers want? “Maybe this isn’t the place to say it, but editors are so wet. All they think about is can we get it the week before The Mail. Do they ever think do we actually want it?'

“Did she notice Jimmy Savile’s light whiff of formaldehyde?”

It’s at this point that Barber wants to ‘whizz out for a fag’. I follow her and for some reason fancy my first cigarette in over ten years. Even though she’s an unapologetic smoker and drinker, she seems a little horrified. ‘Don’t take it! Don’t smoke it!’: a softer, solicitous Lynn. I ignore her and spark up; I’m then so comprehensively off my tits on tobacco that I bungle the slightly abstract question I’ve been meaning to ask, to understand if other senses come into play while interviewing at all? Like, did she notice Jimmy Savile’s light whiff of formaldehyde? She’s kind enough to actually give this some serious thought whilst looking at me a little as though I’ve lost my own senses. ‘No, not really,’ she concludes. The cigarettes are a regular punctuation: I’ve watched an interview with her at the Hay Literary Festival where someone is rather dramatically taken ill in the middle of it. Barber’s response as the talk grinds to a shocked halt: ‘Better have a cigarette.’

With a catalogue of the world’s great and good – and not so good – is there anyone who remains on her hitlist? Would she, for instance, be interested in nabbing Madonna? She’s not enthused: ‘She doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. I’d like another shot at [former London Mayor] Boris Johnson. And I interviewed Rupert Everett twice and never felt I really got to the bottom of him for one reason or another.’ It must be difficult surely to ‘do’ someone who has so much already in the public domain? I’ve certainly felt this about talking to Lynn herself, when so much of her life and ethos are on record. ‘Well, that’s true of Katie Price isn’t it? I suppose one thing about old and established is I don’t have to make my name by getting a world exclusive out of it, but my take on someone is of some value even if they’re not saying anything very new. But I don’t want to rely on that - it would be quite bad if all I did was give my opinion on people. I do genuinely try to get something new out of them. If it’s a Rafael Nadal or Boris Becker where the quotes are crap… ‘ She can mention the pants fumbling? ‘Yes, I’ll go to town. I think that whole world of sports PR is unbelievable nasty or tacky. It’s rather like parliament and lobbyists where journalists only get access if they behave themselves.’  I speculate that politicians must be even harder to unpick in these days of ‘post-truth politics’, a phrase she’s very taken with. ‘Is that a thing? That’s really depressing. Telling the audience what they want to hear? Trump? Oh yes Trump. I’d love to interview Trump.’ How would she go about that? How to get the most out of somebody you’re potentially biased against? ‘I never have an agenda. And I think that’s why I should do politicians more – I’m absolutely not doing it for any party benefit. But I think that The Sunday Times won’t let me loose on anybody that might be their villain or hero. I might not come up with the party line. I suspect they regard me as a kind of dangerous loose cannon. I’d like to do [current London Mayor] Sadiq Khan. But I’d also like to do the flakey ones…’ She’s said that she enjoys the gossip, the scandals, the red top traps. The Vaz sting was a doozy.  ‘Yes! The purest sort of tabloid story! Actually, the one I really enjoyed, that didn’t get as much hoo-ha as I would have liked was [MP] Vince Cable getting stitched up by two young girl journalists. He showed a kind of underlying vanity, ‘I can show you tours of the House of Commons…’ The vanity is enormous – I do believe that quote, you know “politics is showbiz for ugly people”. You wouldn’t get on Strictly Come Dancing by any other means.’

Isn’t the sting a little like the people who agree to be interviewed by Barber? Who know her reputation and still happily sign up for the experience, turkeys trotting happily off towards Christmas? She’s not having it: ‘They get a good deal. I’m honest, I don’t make up quotes which I think some journalists do.’

“Anyone can do that thing on the telly”

I tell her that today’s press environment, where it’s the clicks that count, depresses me. Does she worry about that? ‘No. My editors might – they do worry and do things like the tragic Sunday Times twittering. I do worry about them sacking me!’ Argh, I say, at what juncture in a journalistic career can you stop worrying about being sacked?  ‘I sort of think I am all right now and if they sack me they sack me. Of course, I will fight it every inch of the way. The worry about that is that then I’ll think I have to write another book. I have this very minor secondary career on Artsnight. And that combines fun with forcing me to be interested in things. The Sunday Times is more impressed by my being on the television than that I’m a bloody good writer. Because I’m on television I must be young and trendy!’ I think her TV stuff is very different from her written persona, more benign – she’s just sitting there asking interesting questions with less of her famously trenchant wit. ‘And getting my makeup done! Yes, it’s totally different – it doesn’t seem serious to me. Anyone can do that thing on the telly, I don’t think there’s any skill involved.’ Oh, I say, I don’t think that’s true. ‘Don’t you do telly?’ she asks me. ‘It’s easy! You get your makeup done! I’d be gibberingly shit, but she’s a natural, just turning up and being Lynn Barber. ‘I know! It seems weird – I’m being praised for something I do all the time. But there is a difference. Having real makeup is lovely, I just love it.’ I’m a huge fan of her Artsnight programmes and am violently jealous of her having met heroes of mine, notably John Waters. I like the way she gets to choose who she has on. ‘Not as much as I would like. I did the Mumford and Sons which was slightly squirm-making, they wouldn’t have been my choice. But yes it’s quite nice, a day out with young people. Young people who can do things with my mobile phone. It’s a doddle, so much easier than writing. Writing is sitting at my computer alone, and this is a nice gang of young people who whisk me off, make me up, say do you want a coffee do you want a fruit juice? And I say no I want a glass of wine. That’s a problem – they’re not allowed to give you wine! First I had to train them that lunchtime didn’t mean 2 o’clock in the afternoon and it keeps over-running so at that point you throw a tantrum and say ‘where’s my lunch?’ and they produce a halloumi wrap. Then I’ll say to some poor runner who’s powerless, “Go to the off licence on the corner and get me some wine”. And they worry. BBC hospitality, halloumi-wrapville –  it’s not allowed. But I say if you want me to remain in a good temper as opposed to getting very snappy you have to fuel me red wine. It’s quite the clash of cultures.’

We’ve had another cigarette and talked about regrets. ‘I do have regrets. I wish I’d gone to Glastonbury. Wished I’d stayed in a grotty tent when the kids were still young. Now I’d have to go in a glamorous Winnebago and what’s the point?’ I’m tickled by the idea of her acting like a bit of a hippy, and remember that she’s admitted a fondness for star signs.  I’m the classic luxury-loving Taurean – I can’t do that muddy, Glastonbury roughing it lark. ‘Who else do I know who’s a Taurean? One of my daughters is. Quite alien to me as a Gemini. You carry a grudge, don’t you?’ Oh lord yes. We’re the worst. How is she at grudge carrying?  ‘The great thing about being a Gemini is you feel a terrible grudge at the time and you hate the person. But then you literally forget why. I’ll see someone at a party and think ‘oh I hate that woman,’ then a) who is she? and b) why do I hate her? But I trust my instincts, I stick with hating her even if I can’t remember who she is.’

What is it that motivates her these days? Is money important? ‘No, not at all.’ Not even with her habit for buying art? ‘In so far as I have money, I do spend it on art. But it’s never been a big deal. David was the same. When we got together we were really hard up, so we did so much better than we expected to do. I feel quite smug to have a nice big house in North London and lots of art. But it’s never been a driving thing and I have taken an enormous salary cut to go from The Telegraph to The Observer just because I was so bored at The Telegraph.’ Increasingly I think it’s about ‘what do I want to get up in the morning and do??’ She must pretty much be able to do whatever she likes? ‘Absolutely. But I still think I ought to be working as long as I can.’

“People think I’m more wacky than I am”

We’ve come to the end of the meal and I’m trying to persuade her to share the cheese with me. ‘I try to avoid cheese. I just think of it as eating fat.’ I wonder if there’s anything she wishes she’d done more of? ‘If I had my life again I’d take more risks. People think I’m more wacky than I am. I’m actually a really sensible rounded, cautious, dull person. I look back on my life and think oh you’ve played it safe the whole way.’ This isn’t particularly convincing: from working at Penthouse Magazine and interviewing every manner of fetishist to getting hogwhimperingly drunk with Shane McGowan – it’s not what you’d call tame.  ‘Yes, other people have had more cautious lives but I do admire people who take massive risks.  I think I’ve always played it a bit safe. I don’t stray far from my comfort zone’

This extraordinary, adventurous, fearless life – Barber clearly has a different idea to mine as to what constitutes a comfort zone. She doesn’t seem to worry whether she’s popular, or liked; unlike the crop of touchy-feely interviewers, she hasn’t the slightest interest in becoming new best pals with her starry subjects. All of which makes for a series of wildly interesting reads; her dispassionate appraisals of the likes of Morrissey and Ben Elton are to be studied by anyone who fancies giving this interviewing wheeze a red hot go. What question should nobody ever ask her? The one that’s like fingernails down the blackboard? ‘Whatever it is, I’d just say no,’ she answers firmly. ‘No, I’m not answering it.’

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