Raffaella Barker interview: She was only a poet’s daughter...

...but there’s more to author than her father’s fame

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.’

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living