A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (2014)

Wish I’d been intimate with Lynn Barber. Got in the offie queue by mistake.

Perhaps some of the how-to-interview magic might’ve rubbed off.

While we’re at it, let’s get that stunning run rate out of the way. From Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.

[Barber] “…I did sleep with an awful lot of people in about two terms…”

[Young] “… How many?”

“Oh, probably fifty.”

“Right.”

“It was quite good going.”

“And they’re quite short, those Oxford terms, aren’t they?”

“Absolutely. I was jamming them in.

Nicely done, Young, asking about the term lengths. So let’s have some tips from Barber. About interviewing.

I wish I’d read A Curious Career before the eyebrow-raising encounters in Mostly Men (1991) and Demon Barber (1998). [List of interviewees below.] I would’ve loved savouring how she does it before reading them.

If you don’t get to read A Curious Career first either – do read a copy when you can, it’s good fun – here’s why her interviews are so yummy.

Funnily enough, they’re mostly don’ts. So, six top tips to interviewing…

Don’t write in anything but the first person.

Don’t wing your prep (I used to do that all the time at school). Research to know what hasn’t yet been talked about before.

Don’t interview boring people, wives, husbands, lovers or victims. (Might be some tautology in there, somewhere.)

Don’t express your own opinion – in fact, try not to talk much.

Don’t always believe everything people say. If they say they’re not snobbish, not racist, not sexist, and that they love their children they’re probably fibbing.

Don’t forget that best interview question is always, ‘Why?’.

Don’t look at me, guv’nor.

Thanks for being here.

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Mostly Men: Barber grills Richard Adams, Margaret (Duchess of Argyll), Jeffrey Archer, John Aspinall, Tony Benn, The Beverly Sisters, Ronald Biggs, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Bolt, Melvyn Bragg, Roald Dahl, Kirk Douglas, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Zsa Zsa Gabour, J Paul Getty II. Bob Guccione, Richard Harris, David Hart, Barry Humphries, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Sir John Junor, Barry Manilow, Howard Marks, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolph Nureyev, Ken Russell, Sir James Savile, Muriel Spark, Lord and Lady Spencer, Freddie Starr, Jackie Stewart, and Auberon Waugh.

Demon Barber : Barber barbecues Eddie Izzard, Alan Clark, Damien Hirst, Julie Burchill, Jarvis Cocker, Lord Rees-Mogg, David Hockney, Julian Clary, Kelvin MacKenzie, Neil Tennant, Major Ronald Ferguson, Gilbert and George, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Calvin Klein, Rachel Whiteread, Joseph Heller, Rupert Everett, Gerry Adams, Lord Rothermere, Alexander McQueen, Boy George, Micheal Winner, Jonathan Ross, Felicity Kendal, Redmond O’Hanlon, Stephen Fry, Lord Deedes, Dale Winton, Harriet Harman, and Richard E Grant. [This is the order of the book’s Contents.]

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I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

We’re off to see the oracle, for Claudius to question Rome’s fate and his.

Before being permitted to visit… I had to sacrifice a bullock and ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively.

The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from solid rock: the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-black and full of bats.

Sounds like my bedroom.

I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs and saw… more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me.

Got it yet? No?

Okay, guess this seer’s name.

Sibyl.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Thanks for being here.

(Well-spotted: yes, Sybil and Sibyl – different spelling.)

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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

It’s the hokey-cokey. (Behave, hokey-pokey is an ice cream.) And before you go there, Looking for Nookie lacks gravitas.

How apt that it should start with a chase.

“Child hunt tomorrow, Fanny.”

What a boring life I lead. Walked through the market in the rain today.

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. [aged about eight, I think] My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

Neat nest of nesses. And here’s another, more insidious.

“It is unfair” was a perpetual cry of the Radletts when young. The great advantage of living in a large family is the early lesson of life’s unfairness.

Linda Radlett wants so badly to love and be loved.

It starts with animals. When protagonist Fanny’s mouse Brenda dies, the family tiptoe around Linda.

… enormous tears were pouring… Nobody cried so much or so often as she; anything, but especially anything sad about animals, would set her off, and, once begun, it was a job to stop her.

“Where’s she buried? Linda muttered furiously, looking at her plate. Her mother, who lived in a perpetual state of surprise at having filled so many cradles, tries to change the subject, “Now, Linda darling, if Fanny has finished her tea why don’t you show her your toad?”

“He’s upstairs asleep,” said Linda. But she stopped crying.

Oh boy, only page ten and the charm’s kicking in.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plain, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in an world of superlatives.

I fiercely concur. I mean, here’s a later Linda on her wailing newborn.

“Poor thing'” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

The wails now entered a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must’ve caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

Which segues sweetly to the lordly lingo of the upper classes (known, don’t you know, to Nancy acolytes as the ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’). Makes it a fun and funny read (as well as a charming, sad, and lovely one).

Did you spot ‘glass’ above? If you’re U, you don’t say mirror. And notepaper‘s a no-no, perfume prohibited, mantlepiece damned. Lunch? No fear. Envelope is frowned upon.

Always wondered why I’m sent round the back.

Oh, and don’t, dulling, ever put your milk in first.

And, and, okay, okay, back to The Chase. If you’re still awake.

Two key passages for you. (Don’t panic: one can’t really egg a spoiler on a book entitled The Pursuit of Love.)

But first a funny. Linda again.

And they say we are an uncontrolled family – even when Fa [dad, to us plebs] has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that beater?’

So. Key passage number one on Linda’s quest for love.

… Linda had once more been deceived in her emotions… this explorer in the sandy waste had only seen another mirage. The lake was there, the trees were there, the thirsty camels had gone down to have their evening drink; alas, a few steps forward would reveal nothing but dust and desert as before.

Bummer.

Blow your nose over to key passage number two.

Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman.

Double bummer.

Look out, is that rock bottom looming?

Ha. You’ll just have to read it.

I’m off to luncheon.

Thanks for being here.

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Have you read the sequel, Love in a Cold Climate? If so, is it as good?

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Don Quixote by Cervantes (1605 – what!?)

There’s a line in this that absolutely kills me. Gets me every time. Perfectly pitched.

Well, they’re lotsa funnies, but this one takes the galleta.

It ain’t much good in isolation, so let’s get the giggle glands going with some also-rans.

But first a run-up. For those of you who think you’ve got better things to do than loll around reading an 800-pager written four hundred years ago, I say, oh yeah, what’s that?

If you aren’t going to tell me and you’re still not going to read it, here it is in a sentence.

Old dotty duffer decides to turn knight errant (a medieval knight wandering in search of chivalrous deeds).

redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to chances and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown.

To do this he needs a horse, a henchman and a helmet.

A bit of scrabbling and compromise and he has Rocinante, a be-donkeyed serf Sancho Panza and, eventually, something to put on his head.

Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to do this by the thought the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct and the debts to discharge.

What a classic set-up. The higher the highfalutin aspirations, the harder the fall down to earth with a bump.

From this height there’s nowhere to go but frustration, humiliation, embarrassment and ignominy.

And his first deed? To rescue a local farm wench he decides is a princess. Seriously, listen up. This stuff populates funny farms.

“…she is my queen and mistress; her beauty superhuman, for in her are are realised all the impossible and chimerical attributes of beauty which poets give to ladies; that her hair is gold; her forehead the Elysian fields; her eyebrows rainbows; her eyes suns; her cheeks roses; her lips coral; her teeth pearls; her neck alabaster; her breast marble; her hands ivory; she is white as snow; and those parts which modesty has veiled from human sight as such, I think and believe, that discreet reflection can extol them, but make no comparison.”

Lovely. Earth calling Don Quixote, will you come in, please.

Spanish readers all those centuries ago must’ve collapsed against walls clutching their sides, aching with laughter. They needed it. It was only a few decades after the Spanish Inquisition’s immolation, immurement and comfy chairs.

What do you mean get a move on? Okay, okay, five quick-fire ones.

“It is indeed clear to me that your visits to the wineskin require payment in sleep rather than music.”

“I say nothing about another blanket tossing, for such misfortunes are difficult to prevent, and if they come there’s nothing for it but to hunch your shoulders, hold your breath, close your eyes and let yourself go where fate and the blanket send you.”

“…either your worship is joking, or the gentleman must have rooms in his brain vacant.”

“Pray God, Sancho, I may see you dumb before I die.”

Ready? Nappy on?

Sancho says, on being bade to pick up Quixote’s famous head-piece

“It’s like nothing so much as a barber’s basin.”

Bump.

What a line. I always think of it when face-to-face with pride and pomposity, with or without a looking-glass.

Good book.

Also handy on hills if your handbrake isn’t working.

Thanks for being here.

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Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962)

Why’d he go? He’s upfront upfront about it.

When you start getting old and perhaps not so well (he’s 58 at the time of writing) you begin to realise the head of the house becomes the youngest child.

I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why should she should inherit a baby.

Steinbeck had been ill. He’d had a couple of scares. He could see the scythe’s shadow under the door.

So he decided to get off his ass and move. To go on a journey. To see the America he had written so much about. To feel it again after twenty-five years. To see if it was the same.

(The road trip ends up a ten-thousand-mile chicken thigh ‘n’ drumstick round the States. What Steinbeck finds out about his country is surprising.)

If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theatre as well as bad living. I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies. Although this last foundation for the journey was never discussed, I am sure she understood it.

Hey, let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of the above is him talking not to us but to his third wife, Elaine.

A wise bit of prepping to make sure a rolling-pin doesn’t come whizzing after him when he buggers off.

What else to prep? Well, wheels would help.

A three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a large shed dumped on the back. Steinbeck, with due tongue-in-cheek deference to Cervantes, named it after the nutty knight Don Quixote’s bone-tired horse.

… he finally decided to call him Rocinante, a name which seemed to him grand and sonorous, and to express the common horse he had been before arriving at his present state: the first and foremost of all hacks in the world. [From Don Quixote]

Great. That’s the wife and wheels sorted.

What about a travelling companion? A latter-day Sancho Panza?

Woof.

Charley is Steinbeck’s Panza-in-a-poodle. Like Quixote and Panza, Steinbeck and Charley josh and jostle each other along the way.

Think distain, dignity, superior posturing and posing, putting on airs, cool disregard, and resigned contempt.

But love shines through. Naw.

Here’s Steinbeck pretending to be asleep when Charley is staring at him to wake him (lordy, dogs are so patient when they do that, aren’t they).

… often the war of wills goes on for a long time, I squinching my eyes shut and he forgiving me, but he nearly always wins.

Here’s Charley sulking after being shorn, He sat straight and nobly in the seat of Rocinante and he gave me to understand that while forgiveness was not impossible, I would have to work for it.

Some things were just beneath the proud pooch. Charley has no interest in cats whatever, even for chasing purposes.

Then there’s the one-upmanship. Charley could with his delicate exploring nose read his own particular literature on bushes and tree trunks and leave his message there, perhaps as important in endless time as these pen scratches I put on perishable paper.

And of course he’s far more sophisticated than Steinbeck. On coming across manure, Charley moved about smiling and sniffing ecstatically like an American woman in a French perfume shop.

Life at such close quarters for so long can have a profound effect on one’s outlook on life.

I’ve seen a look in dog’s eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

Who says dogs are dumb.

Thanks for being here.

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The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

Back to Chandler again, and his two favourite subjects: booze and broads.

Let’s dodge some bullets and savour some more Chandler style. Been a while. The Little Sister’s in the heading, so let’s let it lead.

By and along the way, one can’t help wondering if the author speaks from personal experience. If so, what a life.

The Little Sister (1949)

I went in. A gun in the kidneys wouldn’t have surprised me a bit. She stood so that I had to practically push her mammaries out of the way to get through the door. She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked at moonlight. She closed the door and danced over to a small portable bar.

Dig the mixing of the senses. Probably just as well. If she smelled like the Taj Mahal at moonlight he might not’ve gone in. And then again, later on…

I… closed the door with my elbow and slid past her. It was like the first time. “You ought to carry insurance on those,” I said, touching one. The nipple was as hard as a ruby.

What a boring life I lead. So a welcome spicy sprinkle into the soup of nonsense bubbling in my egg. Along with Little Egypt, the Kaiser Chiefs, curries, and Tuesdays.

Meanwhile, thirsty work for the protagonist.

I got the bottle of Old Forester out. There was nothing slow about the way I poured myself a drink and dropped it down my throat.

He’s doing that what-it-isn’t thing again. I think we called that The Chandler Ain’t in The Lady in the Lake.

Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

I poured her a slug that would have made me float over a wall.

“I knew a guy once who smoked jujus,” she said. “Three highballs and three sticks of tea and it took a pipe wrench to get him off the chandelier.”

Yeah, I can see that. I can’t do both neither. Hic.

“I’m not of those promiscuous bitches. I can be had – but not just by reaching. Yes, I’ll take a drink.”

Nice control there.

The High Window (1943)

Breeze looked at me very steadily. Then he sighed. Then he picked the glass up and tasted it and sighed again and shook his head sideways with a half smile; the way a man does when you give him a drink and he needs it very badly and it is just right and the first swallow is like a peek into a cleaner, sunnier, brighter world.

Just get off on that pace in that 57-word sentence. And it’s a nod to Papa’s style. I mean Hemingway, not my dad. You know, he walked down the hill and across the road and then over the bridge and up the hill opposite. Or whatever it was.

Just remembered another lovely paced para.

He laid the letter-opener down and swung open a door in the desk and got a cut-glass decanter out. He poured liquid out of it in a glass and drank it and put the stopper back in the decanter and put the decanter back in the desk.

Two desks, two glasses and three decanters in two sentences. Ratchets up the suspense too.

Back to the dames.

She wore an egret plume in her hair, and enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.

Poodle Springs (Chandler started it in 1958, pegged out, and Robert B Parker finished it in 1988)

She got some wine in. She was drinking it as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been sighted in Encino… She was wearing enough perfume to stop a charging rhino…

Killer in the Rain (1964)

Her evening gown was cut so low at the back that she was wearing a black beauty patch on her lumbar muscle, about an inch below where her panties would have been, if she had been wearing any panties.

And here’s one just to reconfirm that Chandler did indeed seem to have a thing about scantily clad women wearing feathers.

She wore feathers in her hair, enough clothes to hide behind a three-cent stamp.

Me, too. Damn. Born at the wrong time.

Thanks for being here.

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