Tab Interview: Lynn Barber

HOLLY STEVENSON talks to Sunday Times interviewer Lynn Barber, whose memoirs inspired the Nick Hornby film ‘An Education’.

Alain de Botton An Education Feminism Kerry Katona Lynn Barber oxford university Sex Sunday Express

Lynn Barber, the ‘interviewer of all interviewers’ and Times columnist, makes normally self-assured celebrities quake in their boots.

She has speculated whether Kerry Katona ‘has even read her novel, let alone written it’ and after her meeting with conceptual artists, the Chapman brothers, they threatened to kill her if they ever met again. Subtle she most definitely ain’t.

So, it is perhaps hardly surprising that she agreed to answer our questions only by e-mail.

Her reply to our email began as follows:

‘Thanks for the questions, though I feel a lot of them are answered in my book.’

And in sixteen words, a lot of my admiration for this ferocious woman collapsed.  I was disappointed, slightly offended and dismayed that I had asked ‘the bleeding obvious’.  However, I didn’t feel too guilty.  Lynn must have forgotten to ask me whether I needed a copy of her book – like most of our readership (hands up anyone?) I hadn’t actually read ‘An Education’.

And so, Lynn Barber had forced her own writing technique onto me: start with a scathing overview, then let the person’s words speak for themselves. So, here goes. Lynn Barber: an infuriating, egotistical woman? Or a brilliant journalist who walks the walk as well as talks the talk?

Holly Stevenson and Tabatha Leggett: At the age of 16, you started a two-year relationship with Simon Goldman, who was  11 years your senior. How did this affect your relationship with your parents?

Lynn Barber: It actually improved my relationship with my father because I no longer had rows with him – he respected Simon and therefore respected me more.

HS and TL: You said that the fallout from your relationship with Simon was a good basis for being an interviewer, but not for life. Has having a successful career as an interviewer in some way vindicated this experience?

LB: I wouldn’t say it vindicated the experience, but possibly I would have been a less good interviewer if I had never gone out with Simon. I do regret, though, that I am rather over-suspicious of people in real life.

HS and TL: The story of your formative years was made into a film (An Education). Was this liberating, or intrusive?

LB: I loved the film and am very grateful to Nick Hornby for writing it. But I didn’t find it particularly liberating or intrusive. The book was me – the film was lots of other people.

HS and TL: You studied English at Oxford University. How did you find your university years?

LB: I loved Oxford, but not because of the Eng Lit course which I found dull. Just for the parties and men!

HS and TL: You confessed to having slept with ‘probably 50 men’ in two terms at Oxford. In hindsight, how do you feel about this?

LB: I feel fine about it – I wanted to make the point that a spell of promiscuity does not prevent one forming a happy and faithful marriage. I think it’s important to sow your wild oats – however many! – before marriage not during.

HS and TL: You also said that in a pursuit of a boyfriend you ‘saw how they were in bed straight away and eliminated those who did not perform.’ Did you find this empowering?

LB: I suppose I found it empowering, though we didn’t use that word then. I just wanted to save time.

HS and TL: Has your attitude towards sex changed? If so, how?

LB: I don’t think my attitude to sex has changed, though, at 66, it’s a distant memory! But I still think sex is a very valuable and enjoyable part of life and we should not try to create anxieties around it.

HS and TL: You once suggested that the recession might make having a career and bringing up children easier: ‘if there are no careers for 20-somethings to pursue, they might think it’s quite a good idea to have babies instead’. Don’t you think this will encourage a ‘benefit culture’?

LB: I wasn’t wholly serious in this suggestion, but I do think that if women can’t get jobs perhaps they’ll be quicker to have babies, which is no bad thing. The tendency now for women to leave motherhood till their late 30s is, I think, very dangerous.

HS and TL: When you wrote about feminism, you said ‘I was fine being clever at  school, but being clever outside, when there were boys around, made you a social leper.’ Have you ever felt that your intellectual growth has been stunted by being a woman?

LB: I don’t feel my intellectual growth has been stunted, but I do think my willingness to express opinions was stunted for a long time, though not now.

HS and TL: You have always said that you grew up ‘before feminism’. Are you a feminist now?

LB: I’m a feminist in that I believe women should get equal pay for equal work etc. But I’m not into the ‘all men are rapists’ school. I think it’s important for men and women to LIKE each other and work together as equals.

HS and TL: What was your most difficult interview?

LB: Probably some of the artists I’ve interviewed, e.g. Sarah Lucas or Gary Hume or Paul McCarthy, simply because they are not very articulate. Muriel Spark was very difficult because she was so evasive.

HS and TL: And the most interesting?

LB: Rudolph Nureyev, because he was SO cultured and wide-ranging.

HS and TL: Can you pinpoint the single highest point of your career?

LB: Actually this last year has been quite a high point, with my book and film coming out. Before that probably 1990 when I joined The Independent on Sunday on its launch and won a What the Papers Say award.

HS and TL: And the lowest point?

LB: Low point was probably my last couple of years on Penthouse, or my last year at The Sunday Express because in both cases I was dying to move on.

HS and TL: What’s next for Lynn Barber?

LB: I should be writing another book but I’m quite lazy!