A Curious Career by Lynn Barber, book review

Lynn Barber, the unflinching interrogator of celebs, winner of glittering journalism prizes, is now something of a celeb herself. There is no one like Ms Barber in our business. Her eyes see everything, her nose can smell fibs and polish, her mind is as sharp as a Sabatier knife. She cuts,  sparkles, is sometimes generous, never daunted, always full of verve and vitality. Always was. Her very first  assignment was to meet and sum up the mad genius Salvador Dali. The encounter was dramatic, write-up brilliant. And so she has gone on, undimmed. Some now call her ‘venerable’ as if she’s old and wise, and semi-retired. That must make her cross.

All that said, some of  her views can be wayward or dubious. She heartily defends our intrusive tabloid hounds: ‘We have the most varied and lively papers in the world.‘ Really? Even though the Leveson inquiry exposed their dirty dealings? Idols and icons don’t ask for it; they are human and have rights to privacy and dignity. Unlike the hacks she defends, Barber uses her intelligence, does intensive research and writes honest copy.  Even so, she too must leave some of her subjects scarred or temporarily undone. Not those pumped up with conceit, like, say, Jeffrey Archer  and the late Michael Winner,  but others, whose vulnerabilities are not banished by fame and fortune.

And yet she has a code of honour and a commendable commitment to her role- that of an objective watcher of pop, TV and film stars living in citadels, cut off even from their own real selves. Furthermore, she generously shares her techniques and tricks. With much of our media sickeningly ingratiating and vacuous, this is true grit. And here’s the thing- even in these times of total PR whitewash, she still gets interviews. Vanity trounces caution every time.

And so the Daily Mail’s weird Liz Jones lays herself bare before Barber, thinking perhaps it would be like cosmetic surgery, painful but worth it. Oh my. Imagine the hysterical scenes when the interview was published, even though there were slips of worry, signs of care. Jones both exasperated and touched her. So too Marianne Faithfull. Well guarded Rafa Nadal opened the door to Barber and was neatly gelded: ‘He was lying on a massage table with his flies undone, affording me a good view of his Armani underpants – Armani being one of his many sponsors ...frankly I am amazed that any underwear company should want to sponsor Nadal seeing as his on-court behaviour always screams ‘My pants are killing me!’ ... they seem to get stuck between his buttocks and then he has to pull them out.’ Trolls went mad. A job, she thought, really well done.

But the ‘demon Barber’ has her weak and soft spots. She is too indulgent with Winner and Boris and other such chaps and overawed by arty types like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. And when she asked Jimmy Savile if he liked little girls, she let herself believe his denials.  

Though we know about her eventful life we don’t know her. When she was 16, an older man groomed her and her parents (that story was made into a film); she was wildly promiscuous at Oxford; David Cardiff, her husband was a soulmate; she has two daughters and so on. But the book keeps its deepest secrets still. Of course. Barber knows exactly how to pull buried nuggets from interviewees and how to keep her own buried. She doesn’t emote, maintains steely discipline, is upbeat throughout.

Readers will love this pacy, absorbing book but may be left feeling unsatisfied. What we really want is Lynn Barber interviewing Lynn Barber. What a read that would be. 

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