Obituary: Felix Barker
Wednesday 23 July 1997
Felix Barker may have been a London journalist and a historian of London, but his roots were in the Plantagenet Wealden hall-house discovered and restored by his father and it was there that friends of his later years will remember him rather than in the pubs of the old Fleet Street or the theatres and cinemas of the West End.
Looking back over his 80 years, there seems a satisfactory pattern to his life. He was born in 1917, and died two weeks ago with 50 years of marriage and a single year as a grandfather behind him. After a serious illness he rallied, as if to welcome the longed-for child; then died at home in his sleep, after a gentle decline, as if now satisfied that his son's son had arrived.
His ashes were scattered on the lake he had made himself, an idyllic place with its birds and surrounding trees; beyond it, a large plantation of willow trees which were felled every 17 years to make cricket bats, then replanted. Opposite, a crumbling, picturesque watermill.
His father was an architect, also a skilled craftsman, carpenter, lithographer and water-colourist - who brought the house to life in a Morris-like way, solving, with imaginative flair, the problems of how to make a 15th-century building habitable in modern times. His remarkable way with windows from an age before glazing was used as it is now was a lesson in ingenuity. Felix and his wife knew every inch of the house, hospitably pleased to show it even to interested strangers.
Felix's mother, well known under her own name of Patricia Russell, was a photographer, who, while training in London during the First World War, specialised in photographing recruits just off to France. Her pictures must still be cherished in many homes.
As a small child Felix spent long periods with his parents in France and Italy, then went to Felsted School in Essex, one of the first schools to be involved in the English-Speaking Union exchange scholarships.
As one of the first scholars, he was sent for a year to the Choate School at Wallingford in Connecticut, where John F. Kennedy was in the year above him and Alan Jay Lerner an exact contemporary. It was a golden year. He met Gershwin and Thornton Wilder and plenty of others, his extrovert nature and expansive personality making him exactly the kind of boy to profit from such a visit and impress his hosts - not all of them, at that time, pro-British.
Home again, he went straight into the newspaper where he was to spend, except for the war years, his adult life, the London Evening News. An article on school life impressed the editor enough for him to be taken on the staff at 19, where he rose from junior news reporter to chief feature writer, drama critic and film critic.
As president of the Critics' Circle he was one of the few Fleet Street writers who dealt with theatres and cinema at the same time, a combination that would have exhausted anyone less buoyant. Yet at the same time he was writing books.
The Oliviers appeared in 1953, The House That Stoll Built, a history of the Coliseum, in 1956. His major books were: London: 2000 years of a city and its people (1974), written with the architectural historian Peter Jackson, and in print for 25 years, and London As It Might Have Been (1982), written with the librarian of Guildhall, Ralph Hyde.
In Barker's years of busy retirement, London was his central interest, and among the experts his knowledge of its history and his familiarity of its landscapes (particularly the City) were highly respected. His last book, after a number of others on the capital, was Edwardian London (1995).
A thorough professional, he wrote with elegance and charm, at once amusingly and seriously. His writing was like his talk or his letters - jaunty, entertaining, well-tailored, but with its moments of feeling and even of tenderness. And his company was the same. The big frame, the good face, the warm eyes, the exuberant but never exhausting presence: his friends will never forget them, or the charm, the humour, the sheer fun of being with him. But all this was not a superficial quality, a journalist's bonhomie or a theatre man's gush.
Felix Barker was a man of wide culture and insatiable curiosity, with a deep knowledge of history and sense of the past. His company was stimulating. Without parading it, he knew much about many things - hydraulics in lakes and mills, for instance, medieval life and building, the making of cricket bats, characters of all sorts, from Tuffie Marx to London criminals, country life as well as metropolitan.
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