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.

Buy A Curious Career (free delivery, in cardboard)

Buy Mostly Men (free delivery, in cardboard)

Buy Demon Barber (free delivery, in cardboard)

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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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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