Books - Lynn Barber: The real Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Edel Coffey reads the latest memoir by the most feared celebrity interviewer in print – Lynn Barber non-fiction
Everyone knows the Demon Barber of Fleet Street but outside of the musical Sweeney Todd, there is another Demon Barber, almost as terrifying as the one who cut people's throats and made them into meat pies – Lynn Barber, the celebrity interviewer.
Barber became famous for her hatchet jobs on actors, musicians, artists and singers. She shirked the silent code of paying lip service to dull celebrities and instead charged at them like a medieval jouster, battering them off their high horses and exposing their flaws for all to see.
This book is a collection of some of her finest interviews over the years. Barber writes: "My idea of a hellishly boring interviewee is one who is obviously nice, sane, polite, who chats pleasantly, is happy to answer your questions and clearly has nothing to hide. Where's the fun in that? Give me a monster every time – someone who throws tantrums, hurls insults, storms out, and generally creates mayhem."
Indeed, my own most memorable interviewees were always the hostile ones, the rude ones, the drunk ones or the downright bizarre ones. I once interviewed a man in his pyjamas in his hotel bedroom, who kept going to the bathroom at five-minute intervals and was using a cushion to try to quell some activity in his crotch region (which, I hasten to add, was there before I arrived). Another interview was conducted in a bathroom with a monosyllabic singer. While these interviews can be cringeworthy at the time, they're always preferable to the ones in which the 'stars' talk endlessly about their book/film/album.
Barber recounts her most famous interviews in this book, from an epic day in Dublin with Shane McGowan to a bad-humoured dinner with Marianne Faithfull.
Barber describes the latter as possibly her favourite interview. A sample paragraph goes thus: "No sooner have we been ushered into a private room downstairs than Marianne is muttering, 'What do you have to do to get a drink around here?' Order it, seems the obvious answer, but that's too simple – François [her assistant] has to order it for her ... suddenly, Marianne is shouting at François, 'Get it together!' and he is shouting back, 'What do you want, Marianne?' 'I don't know. What have they got?' she counters, drumming her feet under the table and moaning, 'I. Can. Hardly. Bear. It.' François keeps asking whether she wants wine or a cocktail. I'm thinking rat poison. Eventually she tells François a bottle of rosé. The waiter brings it with commendable speed and starts pouring two glasses. She snatches mine away – 'We don't need that. Where's the ice bucket?'
"The waiter goes away and comes back with an ice bucket. 'I'll have the veal escalope,' she tells him. He waits politely for my order. 'Veal! Vitello!' she snaps – she can't understand why he is still hanging around when he should be off escaloping veal. 'I'll have the same,' I say wearily."
Likewise, her interview with Salvador Dali is highly entertaining. She spent five days with the eccentric artist and when she asked him about his everyday life he answered: "My day the most regular possible. Wake at nine, in bed working till 11. Lunch. Go for leetel swim, making no movement [he demonstrated floating on his back]. After a siesta of 25 minutes, then working, then nude girls come for me to watch – no touch – then some drawing. At six o'clock make peepee and at eight many pederasts arrive, because Dali like zee adrogyne people."
The interview ended with Dali making Barber a hat (which she had valued at £15,000) and his partner Gala kicking Barber out.
She started her career as a writer for the 'men's magazine' Penthouse, having failed to get work in more conventional publications. She went on to write for the biggest UK newspapers and developed her name as the most formidable interviewer of her time.
She still writes for the Sunday Times and says she will not retire (there's an enjoyable chapter on age at the end of this book).
Barber's early life is fascinating, although it's only alluded to here as it was already the subject of another memoir, An Education, (subsequently a film in which she was played by Carey Mulligan), which went into her love affair with an older conman when she was a schoolgirl. That was so successful her publisher asked her for a sequel, but she did not want to do that and the focus here is entirely on her career
While the interviews make up the core of this book, there are very interesting insights into how journalism has changed over the last 40 years, as well as essential interviewing tips for anyone starting out.
There's never been anything fancy about Barber's writing and that remains the case here. Her skill has always been in sharp observations and the sly digs, which are fully present and, more importantly, very entertaining.