I’m off to interview the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a nickname which Lynn Barber gained through her so-called ‘hatchet jobs’ on figures like Harriet Harman and Rafael Nadal: invoke her wrath at your peril. So I arrive at her house in Highgate, clutching my voice recorder and notebook, and feeling pretty apprehensive. How do you interview a professional interviewer?
In fact, she’s lovely and reassuring, promising not to throw any tantrums like some of her past interviewees. She claims to have mellowed, calling her nickname “completely unjustified nowadays, because I’m an absolute pussycat. I mean I’m nice about people more often, much more often than I am nasty about them.”
These days, Barber is perhaps as famous for her own life as for her interviews. The film ‘An Education’ was very closely based on her memoirs, where she opened up about her relationship as a schoolgirl with a much older man, who turned out to be a conman. Simon came into her life when she was 16 and stayed for two years, winning her parents’ favour and whisking her off for exciting weekends – giving her a “breadth of cultural knowledge” which was his positive legacy. But though on her parents’ advice she agreed to marry him and give up her Oxford dreams, she found out he was married – and had to admit to herself that he was a conman, living a double life and taking part in shady property extortion.
This harsh introduction to the adult world left her damaged: “it made me quite suspicious of people, always suspicious of their intentions, always doubting whether they’re telling the truth… I wish I wasn’t like that, really.” However, her new-found scepticism was good for her later interviewing career, “because people always put the best possible gloss on themselves. And I’m constantly in my head thinking ‘huh, well is that right?’” With Simon, she didn’t ask questions; now, she asks questions for a living.
Telling the world about her unusual schoolgirl experiences seems to have been a good move. Barber says that “it did me a lot of good in all sorts of ways,” continuing, “I suppose up till then people had only known me as a journalist, so it probably made me more human.” Surprisingly enough, she also found that her experiences were far from unique. “An amazing number of women said that something similar with a dodgy conman, an older man had happened in their own lives. I got the impression after a bit that it had happened to more people than it had not happened to! And so that was interesting.”
Despite the diversion, Barber did indeed end up at Oxford, where she studied English at St Anne’s college – or rather, where she set about enjoying herself and not doing very much work: “actually I didn’t really take any advantage of the sort of academic life of Oxford, just parties and meeting boys and having fun.”
“Meeting boys and having fun” is quite a good way of putting it. During Desert Island Discs in 2010, Barber repeated something she’d revealed in her memoirs: she’d slept with 50 or so men during the course of two terms at Oxford, just “jamming them in.” 50 men! The press had a field day. Barber herself found the reaction “hilarious,” not thinking that it was particularly sensational news.
So why did she do it? “I’m still kind of quite surprised remembering and quite puzzled about why I did that. To be so promiscuous, in such a short space of time….” Before and afterwards, she was a ‘one man girl’, but then there was “this sort of huge slab of promiscuity.” It seems she was in search of something in particular: “at that point I hadn’t yet had an orgasm. And I thought the only reason I hadn’t was because I hadn’t found the man that would give it me. I thought that there would be Mr Orgasm walking around somewhere. And I mean I’ve subsequently learnt that that’s not how it works. That you can build up to an orgasm with somebody you’re with for some time. But I just sort of thought, ‘oh let’s see if this man does it,’ and it was extraordinary really. It was a weird thing to do.
“But anyway – I don’t regret it at all. I don’t regret either doing it, or talking about it.” In fact, she says, “I don’t think it did me any harm at all, actually, and I think it may have done me a bit of good.” It wasn’t that it was particularly fun (“l I wouldn’t even say that I enjoyed myself”), but it got it out of her system and taught her that “sex is something that you work on and develop with one person.” She has little time for those who judge her or try to make her repent: My generation was told ‘if you sleep around no nice man will ever marry you’. And I wanted to say, ‘well look at me, a nice man did marry me, and I did sleep around, so rubbish to that.’”
The odds were more in her favour when Barber was at Oxford: there were seven men for every woman. Not that this was a good thing in general, “I mean that shows how very unfair it was. And actually quite often if I’d met a rather thick boy, I’d think, ‘how extraordinary that you got into Oxford and there are at least two of my friends from school who didn’t get in.’ And I’d think they were 10 times brighter than you, and how comes some absolute dimbo like you is here.” Places for women were limited (most colleges were all-male) and with rowing and rugby scholarships, “you met men of astonishing stupidity. And obviously as well as some very clever ones.” But things have changed for the better, and as she says, “I doubt you get as many stupid men at Oxford anymore.”
As might be expected for any aspiring writer at Oxford, Barber dabbled in writing for Cherwell in her time at university, writing the occasional feature – “but I was never interested in news reporting. I preferred bits of frivolity.” Journalism was an obvious career for Barber – “it became apparent that writing was something I could do, and get paid for.” But it is interviewing which Barber loves above all else: “I think I’m incredibly lucky to have found something as satisfying as interviewing… it’s always been the form of journalism I’ve wanted to do.”
Barber is famed for her approach to interviewing; if she doesn’t like her interviewee, she (quite gleefully) pummels them with words, though admittedly more often than not she does get along with the person and writes a perfectly positive article. The ‘Demon Barber’ label may have scared off some of the people she would like to interview (“the one I pursued for years was Lucien Freud, I really really wanted to do him, and he always said no…. loads of people say no, and you just have to accept that”).
But others have relished the challenge, like Toby Young, who said he accepted the invitation out of “vanity, pure and simple,” and that he “naively thought I could charm the pants off her” (the subsequent article does not show him in a flattering light). Barber thinks this might be a common motivation, “I think in a way my reputation as Demon Barber might help that in a way, because people sort of think ‘oh I’m tough enough to take her on’, it’s a challenge, you know. So it’s not been a wholly bad thing, having that reputation.”
Does she feel sorry for them? Hardly. “I don’t feel guilty… well if you are the sort of person who might be destroyed by words, then maybe you shouldn’t give interviews.” Art Garfunkel once phoned her up after an interview to rant at her and say she’d destroyed his career; he’d never give another concert – “you know, I was so cruel, he’s just going to crawl away into a burrow and die. And I said well if your attachment to your career is so slender that it can just be demolished by one article perhaps you should be thinking about retiring. And that’s what set him off again.
Generally, Barber trusts her judgement of character, but this is not to say that she never reads someone wrong: “The one where I think I might have misjudged somebody is very early on, I wrote quite a hostile piece on Ben Elton. And quite a few people – I mean, enough people for me to believe them, said ‘oh but Ben Elton is just the kindest man in the world’…. and I thought oh, I did misjudge him, yes.”
Barber has worked for various different newspapers in her time, making her a true veteran of the British press (which she claims is the best in the world). So any qualms about working for the Sunday Times, a Murdoch publication? “Well I mean, post-Leveson obviously everyone has qualms about whatever paper they work for.” But Barber is quite reluctant to lay the blame with journalists themselves. “Where I did get shocked was the police’s very close relationship with the press.” in her time at the Sunday Express in the eighties she “spent a certain amount of time with the royal ratpack,” and was aware of a certain level of collusion with the police, but the revelation that the police had become far more involved with the press was a nasty surprise. However, defender of the press as she is, she readily admits that phone hacking has quite a history, though people were encouraged to believe that it was “a sort of rogue MI5.” Was it endemic? “Possibly, yes, all that time ago. Certainly I’m sure it started long before Leveson’s gone back to, as it were.”
Actually, she says, “I’ve always been a fan of Murdoch.” She admires him for breaking the power of the print unions (“they weren’t good unions, they were unions that were fighting for the rights of printers to sign their son in as Mickey Mouse”), which meant that “newspapers had freedom.” “And so I thought it was bold of him to do it, and then he made the Sun into a sort of exciting newspaper – so I think he’s been good generally.”
Rupert Murdoch is, incidentally, one of the people who has never agreed to be interviewed by the Demon Barber. So what is the future of journalism? “Yes well I don’t know, I mean it’s bad, definitely.” The move towards reading the news online may kill print media, but it’s more than that. Newspapers are cutting staff and paying journalists less, and “they’ve all wickedly I think used interns or work experience people to do what should be jobs” (a pain many aspiring young journalists will know well). “So I don’t quite see how it can come back from the brink.” On the other hand, she says, “I think there’ll always be jobs for journalists.” All is not lost: “as long as people read – and in a way I think the internet has been valuable from that point of view- they will want to have some idea of news, I hope. But it might not be newspapers.”
It is clear that Barber absolutely adores journalism – “it’s my profession, I’m very proud to be a journalist” – and has no plans to stop any time soon: “I want to keep going, as long as possible.” And so she should. She’s an intriguing woman – frank, quick-witted, honest – and yet the fact that she’s figured out the ‘narrative’ to her life, repeated so frequently to interviewers and in print, makes me wonder: have I got to the bottom of her at all? She of all people knows how to give a ‘good’ interview and send the interviewer away with a tape-recorder-full of exciting quotations.