Lynn Barber

 

A Curious Career

Not too long before its demise, I had a summer internship in The Irish Press, during which I spent the best part of the day, when not looking at the Liffey through cigarette smoke, observing idiosyncratic masters of journalism, at a time when it was considered a craft, and young reporters were taught first and foremost how to write.

A news report was, from the outset, a composition of words, not one too many nor one too few, in which facts were held to be sacred, though The Irish Press, lamentably, because of its political affiliations, turned a blind eye to the worst excesses of Fianna Fail in government, even during the GUBU era, when Charles Haughey was the gift which kept giving.

The Press did, however, have fine writers, often as different as chalk and cheese: John O’Shea would dash into the office, dial John McEnroe, get a quote, and a story for the back page of the noon edition was done and dusted within half an hour. It was that quick because O’Shea was that good, and then he disappeared.

On the other hand, his fellow scribe from Kerry, Con Houlinan, laboured over a column called Tributaries, in which the names of Mick O’Connell and Baudelaire might share the same line. Houlihan took his time, unfolding his ideas in barely legible longhand onto a long ream of paper normally tucked into a typewriter, in the quietude at the end of the room, away from the cacophony of phones ringing and typewriters.

In many ways journalism, because of its association with penury and alcoholism -surprising bedfellows – was a curious career to embark upon, hence the title of the great Lynn Barber’s book, for she too, in my memory, was and is synonymous with the frankness of reporting back then, when some of the best stylists in English were journalists, and they were not afraid to live a little.

The cover of A Curious Career is brilliantly apolitical: barely managing a smile in a news room, a sardonic Barber has a deliciously erect cigarette in one hand, sitting at a desk with her typewriter: they clacked but kept time with your thinking, which is why they were so much better than computers.

I can’t be sure if the photograph coincides with when she was known as the demon Barber of Fleet Street, but as an interviewer she was without equal, unfazed by celebrity, eternally curious by the lives of others, forensically incisive, and capable, in a sentence or two of reducing an inflated ego to size. I can wince at her demolition of Richard Harris, or Robert Redford.

A Curious Career is part memoir and part remembrance of things past: I had made the mistake in believing that her great interviews were with the most acerbating (Marianne Faithful, Martin Clunes), but I was wrong: they were certainly incendiary, but Barber is equally compelling with people she admires: Tracey Emin, Shane MacGowan and Christopher Hitchens. Anyone hungry for journalism when it was still a craft will read A Curious Career in one sitting, and be the better for it.

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