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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 2nd September 2006

My interview from hell with Lynn Barber


"So," said Lynn Barber, sitting down opposite me and switching on her tape recorder. "Is it true you Google yourself every day?"

My heart sank. Whatever happened to lulling your victim into a false sense of security? I laughed a little too heartily as I uncorked a bottle of wine.

"Doesn't everyone in our business?" I said, filling her glass to the brim.

"I don't," she replied.

Oh God, I thought. This could easily turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.

The question of why anyone agrees to be profiled by Lynn Barber is a curious one. After all, her last collection of interviews was called Demon Barber so it's not as if she makes any secret of her intentions. The hatchet job is her stock-in-trade, yet for some reason there is never any shortage of willing subjects. Recent casualties include Boy George, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Winston, Jerry Hall, Gyles Brandreth, Alan Sugar, Terence Conran, Julian Fellowes and Clare Short, to name but a few. Some of her most celebrated victims--Marco Pierre White, for instance--have even gone back for second helpings. What on earth possesses them to do it?

In my own case, the answer was vanity, pure and simple. Not only was I flattered that the great Lynn Barber wanted to interview me--it's the equivalent of Desert Island Discs--but I naively thought I could charm the pants off her. She may have succeeded in goading men like Ben Elton into outburst of self-righteous anger, I told myself, but I am made of sterner stuff. In any event, I know the tricks of the trade. I'm not some wet-behind-the-ears author with a book to plug (even though I do, in fact, have a book to plug and that was the reason for the interview). I've been a professional journalist for over 20 years. She'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to win a battle of wits with me.

My first inkling that she wouldn't be quite as easy to handle as I imagined was when my wife called me at the office to tell me that the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had turned up half-an-hour early. The interview was originally scheduled for 4pm, but she'd telephoned my publisher the previous day to ask if she could push it back by half-an-hour. I readily agreed, not realizing that this was a ploy designed to catch me off my guard.

"Oh Christ," I said, struggling to get in to my jacket. "Give her a glass of wine and tell her I'll be there in 10 minutes."

"No can do," said Caroline. "I invited her in, but when she heard you weren't here she insisted on waiting outside in her car."

I leapt on my bicycle and peddled home as fast as I could--but by the time I got there she'd vanished. I bicycled up and down my street, peering through the windscreen of every parked car, but there was no sign of her. By now I was in a muck sweat and when she still hadn't materialized at 4.25pm I decided to jump in the shower. Needless to say, the doorbell rang at 4.30pm precisely, at which point I was completely naked.

Game and first set to Mrs Barber.

Julie Burchill, a mutual friend, had advised me to break the ice by telling her what a huge fan I am of her writing--not difficult since it happens to be true--but I was too discombobulated to stick to the plan. Thanks to her brilliant bit of gamesmanship, I was already on the back foot.

In retrospect, I should have thrown her first question right back at her. Okay, so I'm a self-obsessed egomaniac. So what? She's not exactly a shrinking violet herself. You don't get to be a Fleet Street legend by hiding your light under a bushel.

Instead, I muttered something about wanting to make sure other newspapers didn't reprint any of my articles without seeking permission--something that's happened, maybe, twice--and then drained my glass.

Before long, a pattern began to emerge in her line of questioning: she clearly thought I was borderline autistic. The book I was attempting to plug is a humorous memoir about my largely unsuccessful efforts to be a responsible husband and father and she zeroed in on a particular passage in which I describe a skiing accident that my then pregnant wife had in 2002. I took Caroline to see the local doctor and he was sufficiently concerned to call an air-ambulance. However, I was so worried about the expense--a friend who'd been airlifted off the mountain the previous year had ended up with a bill for £30,000--I overruled him and insisted on driving to the nearest hospital myself.

"Didn't that strike you as rather odd behaviour?" she asked. "I mean, weren't you at all concerned about the health of your unborn child?"

I tried to persuade her that the chances of the air-ambulance making the difference between life and death were so remote it just didn't seem worth shelling out £30,000, but it didn't cut any ice.

"I think it's monstrous," she said. "Perfectly monstrous."

By now, I was beginning to feel more than a little defensive, but I was determined not to lose my rag. As a fan of Lynn Barber's work, I know that the deadliest weapon in her arsenal is the killer question that pushes people over the edge. When she profiled Richard Branson, for instance, she asked him what he thought of Tom Bower, the author of a recent unauthorised biography, and then sat back and watched the fireworks. Once her interview subject has lost his temper, the game is lost.

"Tell me," she said, fixing me with her most inquisitorial stare. "If your wife was kidnapped would you pay the ransom?"

I did my best to keep my cool. I counted to ten. I tried to picture her naked. But it was no good. Words came tumbling out of my mouth in a torrent of rage. At one point, I even noticed a fleck of spit landing on her taperecorder. I was fucked.

I haven't seen the piece--it's due to come out in The Observer on Sunday--but I have no doubt she'll make complete mincemeat out of me.

The Spectator

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