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Lynn Barber: Don't Ask, Do Tell 

A legendary interviewer opens up about the new film based on her old May-December romance

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009
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I was expecting a dark-brown telephone voice, perhaps an impatient bark from Lynn Barber, the English journalist whose memoir of a formative seduction by an older man as a schoolgirl in early-1960s London inspired the buzzed-about new film An Education. At 65, Barber’s a widow and a grandmother, but age hasn’t blunted the reputation of one of the fiercest interviewers in a print culture already known for giving no quarter. (She’s called, with varying degrees of affection, “Demon Barber,” which served as the title of her 1998 interview collection.) From her first writing job with Penthouse magazine to her longtime perch as a star writer for The Observer, Barber has always loved a good argument, and she doesn’t suffer fools. Chatting up Christopher Hitchens, she gave proper respect to a fellow drinker, smoker, iconoclast and razor-sharp intellect. But she tore Marianne Faithfull to shreds for keeping her waiting for hours and carrying on like a demented diva when she finally deigned to show up.

In fact, Barber speaks in a light, high trill, oozes politesse and lavishes praise on the movie, which is at once a tale of how her seduction by Simon Goldman, a Jewish property dealer with shady connections, came within a hair of shafting her glittering future at Oxford, and an account of how Barber used the experience to get out from under the dreary south London suburb of Twickenham. “I was looking for a ticket out,” admits Barber, who grew up the sheltered only child of parents anxious to nudge their daughter further up the social ladder than the short distance they had laboriously climbed from working to lower middle class. “There was a big, wide world out there that we were missing,” she adds.

Chafing at the tedious irrelevance of life at her buttoned-up all-girls high school and ready to assume her idea of the sophisticated life — which includes wearing black and tacking “n’est-ce pas?” onto the end of every other sentence — Barber’s 16-year-old self (called Jenny in the film) is played by Carey Mulligan, who’s a ripe old 24. Jenny is a sweet-faced Holly Golightly with an incipient edge of the sardonic wit and bullshit exploder Barber would later become, yet more impressed than she should be by David (Peter Sarsgaard), who whisks her off to fancy restaurants, theaters and art galleries in Central London, along with two groovy friends. Though Mulligan has gotten most of the media attention since An Education premiered at Sundance, Barber commends co-star Rosamund Pike, who’s very funny and ineffably sad as the gorgeous airhead who, says Barber, “was my goddess, but unfortunately she was a bit thick. I’m her, with brains.”

click to enlarge COURTESY PENGUIN BOOKS - Smoking ace
  • Courtesy Penguin Books
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So completely does David charm the petty-bourgeois prejudices off Jenny’s status-conscious parents (played by a slyly understated Cara Seymour and a hilariously apoplectic Alfred Molina) that they turn a blind eye to the fact that their daughter is running off to Paris on her 17th birthday to be relieved of her virginity by a Jew in his 30s. That he’s also a crook — the real Simon was a flack for the notorious slumlord Peter Rachman — is something Jenny sees but chooses to ignore.

No one gets off lightly in An Education — not Barber or her parents, not David or his pals, and certainly not the casually anti-Semitic headmistress (Emma Thompson, magnificently horrid in a Thatcher bouffant), who kicks Jenny out of school for getting engaged, and to one of them. “We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war,” she enunciates crisply. “Did you know that the Jews murdered our Lord?”

For the most part, Barber is untroubled by liberties taken with her memoir by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby. “What’s so brilliant about Nick’s invention is that he’s got my story,” she says. “But he’s made a lot of scenes up.” She is slightly miffed, though, that Hornby put anti-Jewish sentiment into the mouth of her father, who, Barber says, was more xenophobic than racist. The distinction may be lost on those of us who grew up Jewish (but hardly foreign) in that time and place. Hornby isn’t making stuff up by much, as I recall from my own all-girls high school, a slightly downmarket version of Barber’s, whose icy headmistress gathered the substantial proportion of Jewish girls in the auditorium one day and announced that, “We’re very kind to you Kosher girls, but if you continue to misbehave, we’ll cancel your Kosher lunches.”

Imagined or not, An Education has an eerily accurate feel for both the hidebound dullness of suburban life in the early 1960s, with all its petty prejudices, and the first twitches of fearful, excited awareness about the cultural changes to come. Which is pretty remarkable given that the movie was partly put together by foreigners: Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners); American actor Sarsgaard; and New Zealander production designer Andrew McAlpine. Barber was flummoxed at first when McAlpine told her that they’d moved the year in which the action is set from 1960 to 1961. “I thought, gosh, would it make that much difference?” she says. “It does. It’s not yet ‘The Sixties,’ but it’s not totally drab.”

The counterculture passed Oxford by, and Barber didn’t get her shot at cultural rebellion until she landed at Penthouse. But she credits her early romance with giving her the chops and the mistrustful disposition that turned her into Demon Barber. “I was so cross at being conned by him that it made me suspicious and always apt to disbelieve,” she says. “I’m a bit too suspicious. Once, after a dinner party, I said to my husband, David, ‘Why did that woman like me?’ He said, ‘It is conceivable that she just liked you.’

“My suspiciousness is not a nice characteristic,” Barber concedes. “But it’s quite good for an interviewer. If someone says, ‘I’m a wonderful, loving, generous person,’ I always ask what they gave the maid for Christmas.”

Spoken like the true iconoclast and lifelong contrarian who has put so much pep into quizzing the famous and infamous alike. And it’s not over yet. Barber has just announced her departure from The Observer, the money-losing Sunday affiliate of the liberal London daily The Guardian, which has been in danger of folding. “The danger was that it would be a seven-day-a-week Guardian,” she says. “That wouldn’t suit me, because The Guardian is more politically correct, and I’ve never been political.” If she wrote in praise of smoking there, as she has done elsewhere, “it would bring down the roof,” she says. Her first column for the Sunday magazine section of the far more conservative London Times will be about An Education, the movie.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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