Everymum in designer wellies
Raffaella Barker is famous for her novels and her family. Josie Barnard tries to get her to talk about both
Sunday 06 June 1999
"Who are you reading at the moment?"
"Georgette Heyer and Tolstoy."
This answer was typical both for its brevity and contrariness. It seemed she was defying me to think I knew her. Certainly, a lot of facts about her background are public. She was born in 1964 to the late George Barker, the poet, and the novelist Elspeth Barker. Eleventh of his 15 children, Raffaella is eldest of the five he had with Elspeth, whom he finally wed in 1989 after what Raffaella has described as "a technical hitch" (another marriage). She, her three brothers, their sister and the odd half-sibling were raised with little formal education and a lot of adults' drinking sessions in a damp, wildly eccentric Norfolk household.
There's no shortage of words already in print about the family. Elizabeth Smart's rhapsodic, stream-of-consciousness novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was inspired by Smart's affair with George Barker, which began in 1940 when she paid his (and his then wife's) air fare from Japan to the States because she had conceived a passion for his poetry. Elspeth Barker - who also fell in love with Barker through his work - went on after his death to write the beautiful, haunting novel O Caledonia (1991), about her upbringing in Scottish boys' boarding school run by her father. George Barker's output was prodigious, and Raffaella has added her share of books to the stack, starting with an acclaimed first novel in 1994, Come and Tell Me Some Lies, which features a volatile, famous father and a mother who teaches her toddlers Greek, between bouts of driving without a licence wearing a blonde wig and purple shades in the hope that this will foil the police (it does).
Raffaella freely admits that Come and Tell Me Some Lies is closely based on her childhood. She obviously enjoys a bit of game-playing around the question of what in her work is and is not autobiographical. But the mischievous Raffaella came later, by which time I'd already faced a couple of others.
The first persona was courteous. As we settled ourselves at a table in an arty central London club, she checked if I was related to Jeffrey: "Ah, Barnard, not Bernard. I do apologise." We discussed the menu, surrounded by wood panelling and prints of fruit and Highland heifers. The contrast between the way she tackled her grilled goat's cheese salad and my questions was to become striking. Oddly, some of her chippiest answers were about the novel she was down from Norfolk to promote, her third, Hens Dancing.
Hens Dancing charts the year following the break-up of Venetia Summers's marriage. Written in diary form, it is a rural Bridget Jones with three kids in place of a job. The diarist is an engagingly chaotic creation who does things like muck out the pigs wearing aubergine designer wellies and play the Reservoir Dogs theme tune to keep the babies quiet. Poignant scenes which show the children affected by the estrangement in ways that leave Venetia powerless to help are counterpointed with humour. "Well," responds the middle son, aged eight, "if you can't be normal, or married, mummy, could you get us a Playstation?"
There are some particularly vivid descriptions of the countryside. "A clutch of cottages clings to three criss-crossing lanes which plunge down to the cliffs between meadows and tiny golden cornfields." Occasionally the weather is unrepentant, but the protagonist finds mainly solace and beauty in the landscape.
I started with what I considered a straight warm-up question. The jacket cover says "Hens Dancing taps into the rich tradition of English pastoral". I asked, "How does Hens Dancing tap into the tradition of English pastoral?"
"I don't know anything about that."
I was taken aback. This reaction seemed, well, rude. There was no physical clue that she meant to be anything else. Her hands were still, as were her eyes, their amazing blue teasing because their transparency revealed nothing.
The blurb suggests that the book is "inspired by E M Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady", the record of a suburban housewife that was a big hit between the wars. Certainly, the voice is similar, and the effect: comedy through understatement.
Barker acknowledged, "I read it about three years ago and liked it."
Given that Delafield's Diary began as a serial in the feminist magazine Time and Tide, and that Barker's Venetia Summers character is, albeit haphazardly, a self-sufficient single mother, I thought sexual politics might have been something Barker had intended to explore. She looked perplexed. "I'm the next generation. I can do what I want without having to worry. Anyway, feminists seem to love it when the mention of a high-heeled shoe comes up." Delafield's character is middle-class and has servants; Barker's character is Every-mum in terms of having to deal with nits and nappies, yet comes across as landed gentry. What about class? Barker looked disbelieving. "Do you really think that's an issue?"
Then, to my immense relief, with my next question, about the extent to which Hens Dancing is autobiographical, the mood changed.
We did a bit of quick bargaining - the divorce isn't fact, the house is, the children are, as is their grandma ("she does love the Teletubbies") - and with that out of the way, suddenly I was in the company of a besotted mother who has a house so beautiful that it is photographed for style features in colour magazines. She loves the sense of peace that comes with living in the country, as well as the support network of school runs and WI coffee mornings that spread between scattered homes. I asked about her working methods. She chatted about how any time in her study was snatched between one or other of her sons' fetes or during her infant daughter's morning nap, so that working was "like being on a taxi meter".
I quoted her father to her: "for the best poems leave (the poet) so much more short of blood." "Am I torn between squeezing out the blood and squeezing out the toothpaste? I think mothers are always torn, even if they go to Budgens to do the shopping and they're not with their children then either. At least this way I'm there if they get the measles. Anyway, I think the best a mother can do for her children is be happy and able to enjoy them."
She admitted that she's quite easily diverted into jam-making or watching The Simpsons and therefore depends on editors who will give her "good whippings and tight deadlines". Two thirds of Hens Dancing was written in two and a half months, much of it while the family was on holiday in Cornwall. She said firmly, but with a laugh, that she sent every chapter as it was produced to her agent but absolutely not to anybody else until proof stage, when it can't be changed.
"Not to your mother?"
She looked astonished. "My agent's a professional. My mother's my mother." (Elspeth Barker won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the David Higham Prize, the Angel Literary Award and the Scottish Book Prize for O Caledonia, and her novel was shortlisted for the Whitbread.) "I mean, otherwise all we'd talk about would be writing and that would be ghastly. Anyway, we don't get earnest about writing. We're much more keen on work avoidance."
As long as she initiated any talk about her parents she was relaxed and funny, describing, for example, how her father used to read his poems into a tape recorder, "one of those giant reel to reels, to check the flow". But otherwise, she was at best wary.
Was it daunting having such gifted parents?
"I don't know any different."
"Having a book of poems dedicated to you aged five is quite good."
Had she ever felt sacrificed to the muse?
"That he was a poet simply meant he was around more."
Did she get fed up of being quizzed about her family?
The question that irritates her most apparently - and I got a gold star for not asking - is, "Do you feel rivalrous with your mother?"
"It's private! And I'm not going to tell a journalist anyway."
On the one hand, her family is a great source of yarns and curiosity. On the other, Barker is now an established novelist in her own right. While the Barker clan are known mainly for entertaining bohemianism, their dysfunctionality has been marked by some violence. In Raffaella's first novel, one of the father's alcohol-induced outbursts puts the mother in hospital. The possibility that others might judge George Barker as anything other than endearing clearly upsets her. She hates "self-examination", which she considers "purple and mawkish". What she loves most about writing fiction is that she has control. Perhaps, then, she was practising on me.
Hens Dancing has been launched with a lavish party featuring, as the invitation puts it, "high-minded jinks" and "jugs of Pimms". Raffaella is to appear at literary festivals, including Dartington. By then she will almost certainly have polished her act for this book, everything she says a dry or comic one-liner, giving little of herself away. From a difficult, unconventional upbringing she has worked hard to make a traditionally happy family life for herself, and she is fiercely protective of it.
'Hens Dancing' is published by Review at pounds 10. Raffaella Barker appears at the Ways With Words Literary Festival in Dartington, with Adam Nicolson, on Sunday 18 July.
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