Raffaella Barker interview: She was only a poet’s daughter...
...but there’s more to author than her father’s fame
Sunday 11 May 2014
The first thing to say about Raffaella Barker is that she is the daughter of the poet George Barker. That’s not me speaking; it’s the dust-jacket of her latest novel, From a Distance, which proclaims her ancestry before all else. To some writers, especially one with seven novels and a children’s book already published, this could be faintly annoying. It’s that life-jacket of association with which celebrity children are born: useful for cresting a slush pile, but forever whispering the question, would they have stayed afloat without it?
For Barker, the answer is undoubtedly “Yes”. She has a devoted following of readers who probably couldn’t care less who her father was; they simply love her accessible tales of family life, relationships, and jam-making, usually set in the dreamy villages of north Norfolk. When we meet, she has returned from a literary lunch at Norwich City Football Club, where she signed books in the Delia Smith suite “for old women”, as well as autographs on napkins, for those too mean to buy a book.
There is something safe and cosy about the worlds she writes about, and the one that she inhabits. It is a city-dweller’s fantasy of what country life is like: walks on the beach, and home-laid eggs for breakfast. Barker, 49, lives with her partner, James Henderson, in an immaculate house right on the sea in north Norfolk. It was once a sea-captain’s house, and is like a boat, with stairs leading up and down to smart little rooms on various levels, overlooking empty marshland and the sea beyond. James, a classic car dealer, “has OCD”, hence the tidiness, but you sense it suits Raffaella too. She may be a poet’s daughter, but not for her the shambolic existence for which her parents were infamous.
Fellow Norfolk writer D J Taylor once described the Barkers as “a famous local scandal”. Their sprawling family home at Itteringham, given to George Barker by the Royal Literary Fund, had “a popular reputation halfway between the Hellfire Club and an eternal hippie picnic”. Raffaella wrote about her upbringing in her first novel, Come and Tell Me Some Lies, which she feels would have been a straightforward memoir had it been published today. “I’m very proud of the connection,” she says of being sold as George Barker’s daughter. “I suppose I don’t take myself too seriously. I knew my dad as a fun, funny, delightful parent. The world of the poet was behind a very thick curtain of intellect that I would be unable to penetrate, so I never tried emulating him. I just had my own way of doing things.”
Raffaella has never written poetry, and didn’t plan to be a writer until it was suggested, 20 years ago, that her diaries would make the basis of a novel. It was successful enough for her to quit her job on a magazine in London and move back to Norfolk. “In our family, it’s very difficult to find anyone who can turn their hand to anything practical,” she admits. “It’s uncommon for anyone to have a proper job.”
When a visitor to Itteringham once asked what Barker lived off – he fathered 15 children by four women, one being the American poet Elizabeth Smart – a teenager offspring replied: “Dunno. Grants and stuff.” The days of living off literary grants are over, but growing up in an environment where you could be a writer yet money somehow appeared has given Raffaella an enviable confidence.
“In my family, everyone takes it for granted that you would get a book deal,” she says. “I say this not with any arrogance whatsoever, it just never occurred to me that getting published was a big deal. I now know, of course, that it is.” She says she worries a lot more about getting book deals than before, though it’s a sign of confidence in her that her new publisher, Bloomsbury, has reissued all her old novels to coincide with the release of From A Distance.
The new book tells the story of Michael, a disillusioned soldier returning from war in 1946, who impulsively takes a train to Cornwall instead of home to Norfolk. (She chose Cornwall simply because it is geographically at the other end of the country, though she later discovered her father was connected with the St Ives set of which she writes). Michael’s story is intertwined with that of Kit, who lives in present day Norfolk, and inherits a lighthouse. And then there’s Luisa: mother, Norfolk housewife, and artisanal ice cream-maker, through whose eyes much of the story is told. Barker artfully brings the three strands of her narrative together, teasing the reader with suppressed passions, and bringing the story to a clever and reassuring conclusion.
For all that Raffaella has carved her own style, her seventh book is still haunted by themes from her childhood. Well, one in particular: the discovery of various half-siblings. As a schoolgirl, she dreaded the question (as she didn’t know the answer): “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Even today, 23 years after her father’s death, she still wonders if any more siblings might walk into her life. Not that she resents her unusual upbringing. It was, she says, full of freedom and possibilities. “I was brought up watching a lot of people be very reverential about my father’s poetry. But as teenagers, we just wanted to go out and get on with something more fun.”
After leaving Norwich High School, Raffaella moved to London, where she did life-modelling and film-editing. She got married in her early twenties to Hugh St Clair, the interior decorator, with whom she has three children. Despite loving her unconventional upbringing, she is hands-on as a parent. “These days, children tend to be brought up much more at the centre of the story, so I see my life as more child-centric, rather than me sitting there demanding people entertain me.” Her sons, Roman and Lorne, are pursuing careers in journalism, her daughter Esme is still at school.
Her mother, the novelist Elspeth Barker, still lives at Itteringham, which continues to have a rolling cast of gawpers and autograph-hunters turning up at its door. Raffaella teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, which she adores, not least because she finds talking about the writing process helps her own. It occurred to her the other day that she has accidentally ended up doing exactly what her father did: “I earn my rather pathetic living from writing, and a little bit of teaching. I’m rather amazed by that. I always thought I would do something different, more practical.” In her case, more than most, perhaps it does make sense to bill her as her father’s daughter. “I’m quite happy to be billed as anyone’s daughter or sister,” she laughs. “And I think Dad would be proud to have me as his daughter.”
From a Distance by Raffaella Barker (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
‘Kit found himself immersed in nature, not something he usually took much notice of. The scent of wild honeysuckle blew in through the window, enveloping him, catching in his throat, insistent and beguiling as a lover. He snorted. He hadn’t considered so much as the possibility of a lover in a while. There had been no room, no time. Grief consumes all, Kit had discovered. It might have been different, he supposed, if he had siblings with whom to share the loss.’
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