The education of Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber’s An Education, which inspired the film of the same name, appears in the States this week and is an utter delight so far.

Barber famously withdrew last fall from a literary festival whose organizers objected to her author photo. “If a pic of me smoking is such a threat to the good burghers of Richmond,” she said, “imagine what my presence would do.”

In her writing as in life, Barber excels at this sort of piercing, slightly absurd wisecrack. From An Education:

[M]y father could never shake off his desperate childhood fear of poverty, and was eternally saving for ‘a rainy day’. (In the exceptionally wet winter of 2000, when their house was flooded to a depth of six inches, I cheerily remarked to my father, ‘Well it looks like your rainy day has finally come.’ Despite his being blind by this stage, in his mid-eighties, and handicapped by water lapping round his ankles, he still tried to wade across the room to hit me.) His great fear was ‘fecklessness,’ which seemed to mean fun in any form.

For more examples of her wit, turn to The Guardian, where you can read the excellent section that focuses on her teenage affair with a much older man.

Simon was adept at not answering questions, but actually he rarely needed to, because I never asked them. The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect — I blame Albert Camus. My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions, to ask about every detail of their lives, even to intrude into the silences with ‘What are you thinking?’ But just around the time I met Simon I became an Existentialist, and one of the rules of Existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naïve and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French.


I particularly like Barber’s notion, introduced in the first chapter of An Education, that her writing is one of the enduring effects of childhood elocution lessons. Her teacher was her mother, who also instructed shopgirls and other people’s children how to speak in a manner she believed was posh. The poems Barber had to recite (with gestures) are the ones “that flash into my mind unbidden — unwanted! — at odd moments of the day. ‘Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smokestack,’ I mutter, crashing my trolley along the Waitrose aisles. ‘Is there anybody there, said the Traveller’ as I wait for the call centre to answer.”

Beyond that, though:

I am left with this terrible legacy — my accent. It is the classic elocution accent, homeless and inauthentic, suggestive neither of grouse moor nor shop floor, an accent that screams ‘phoney!’ the moment it opens its mouth. It is by far the most repulsive thing about me, and I notice that people meeting me for the first time are often taken aback. I have no idea what my natural accent should be — my father still speaks in broad Lancaster [earlier she mentions that he says “side the pots” for “clear the table”], my mother elocution. But perhaps it was because I so hated my voice that I chose to become a writer…

Barber is best known as a journalist; her sharp, sometimes combative interviews are legendary in the U.K. While I’m reading the rest of her book, and participating in ShThFuUpAnWoOnYrNo Month, you can, if you wish, judge her manner of speaking for yourself.


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