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Lynn Barber

author and journalist
PHOTO: © HARRY BORDEN

You’ve interviewed movie stars, leaders and rock gods. Why do you like artists best?
I don’t like actors of any sort. Artists are far more fun. They smoke, they drink, they give good parties and never talk about mindfulness or their personal-best marathon runs. Thy just enjoy themselves.

What did you think of your Fleet St nickname: Demon Barber?
I found it quite surprising because I’ve never thought of myself as a hatchet woman or demon. But it served me well.

Your first artist interview was with Salvador Dali in 1969 for Penthouse. What’s your biggest takeaway from that?
He gave me a conical hat covered with flowers and butterflies he’d designed for Gala to wear to a fancy-dress ball, worth £15,000. So that was a literal takeaway. It was so fun and glamorous going to the Hotel Meurice for the interview. He had parties in his suite. It certainly made me think interviewing artists is a good idea.

Lucian Freud refused an interview. What key question would you have asked him?
I probably would have asked about the naked portraits of his daughters, which I did find quite – not offensive – but violating.

Which dead artist would you have liked to interrogate?
Picasso. He had a rich and long life, spanning such an interesting period of history. I don’t know if I’d have got much out of him.

And if you could steal one work of art?
Probably a small Cézanne of apples.

Who’s the Greatest Living Artist?
I reckon Sarah Lucas is pretty good. And Tracey Emin. Then there’s Frank Auerbach.

And who is wildly overrated?
I never have any time for Jeff Koons

You were a Turner Prize Judge in 2006, was it educational?
Yes, it was valuable to see such an enormous amount of art in a year and gave me a certain faith in my eye for originality, because when you see swathes of art like that you find something truly original leaps out at you. You can also recognise how derivative much other stuff is. But I don’t have that much confidence in my artistic opinions.

You’ve just turned 80 – any regrets? And plans for the next decade?
My regrets tend to be things I haven’t done, rather than things I have. I’ve had a lucky life. I’ve promised my daughters I’ll declutter the house. They’ll inherit it and it’s full of stuff.

You’re a 30-cigarette and one-bottle of wine per day person. How’s that working out for you?
I’m still alive and I’m 80 – I’ve been smoking now for far more than half a century. No regrets.

Your first book was How to Improve Your Man in Bed. Top tip?
It seems so antique now. Today you’d just tell him what you liked, whereas in those days you couldn’t say “stroke my clitoris”.

How has being an only child formed you?
I think it’s partly why I became a writer because I was very lonely as a child and spent a lot of time reading and writing. It gives me a confidence – I’ve never had to suffer sibling rivalry. I was always the centre of attention with my parents. And obviously it makes me quite selfish.

How did your family fit into the British class system?
I would describe them as first generation immigrants to the middle class. They both came from working-class backgrounds, both went to grammar schools and had middle-class jobs. He spoke with a slightly exaggerated Lancashire accent and used Lancashire expressions. He came from very very very poor working-class family, where they wondered if they’d have enough food. My mother would have been happier to be totally absorbed into the middle classes.

Your mum taught elocution – has your RP voice benefitted you?
I hate my voice. I suppose actually back in the ’60s it benefited me – nowadays it doesn’t, obviously. I come across as posher than I am.

You describe your tax inspector father as angry and rude. How did that affect you?
I grew up with it, so I was used to it. I told David my dad used to shout and beat me, but by the time they met my father was more of a sweet old man. Then there was one very telling moment. We went down with the children when they were small. Rosie refused to eat breakfast because the milk was off and my father just leant over and swiped her ear. David was so shocked. He said “We’re leaving. We’re not staying with these people.”

Your book An Education recounted your schoolgirl affair with an older rogue. How did that form you?
It gave me a sophistication I hadn’t had at home. He took me to the opera, theatre and foreign films. When he was exposed as married and went to prison for bouncing cheques, it gave me a great inability to trust people, which to some extent I still retain.

Who was angriest after being interviewed?
Both Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, threatened to kill me. Dinos made peace with me ages ago and Jake very recently. There are a few other people I avoid at parties.

You were happily married to your husband David for 30 years. How did you cope with his death in 2003?
Pretty badly, I think. I was effectively mad for about a year. And people keep giving you odd advice, saying, “You’ll want to move, you won’t want to live there with all your memories”, but I love living with those memories. I’m pretty happy now on my own because I am very emotionally labile.

What’s your preferred epitaph?
Wife, mother, writer.

Lynn Barber has won six British Press Awards for her interviews. Her memoir “An Education” was made into an Oscar-nominated film. Her new book “A Little Art Education” is published by Cheerio Books

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June / July 2024, Q&A

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