First published in Trespass 15/2/2010
You might be surprised to learn that the section of Lynn Barber’s memoirs that inspired the Lone Scherfig film (with the screenplay by Nick Hornby) is twenty-six pages long. It’s a mere chapter in a slim, but wonderfully written volume in which Barber recounts the most significant moments in her personal and professional life with candour, humour and frank self awareness.
As far as inspiration goes, the chapter titled ‘An Education’, from which the book takes its name, is ripe with potential – and beautifully expanded upon by Hornby. A school girl becomes involved with a mysterious older gentleman, their relationship encouraged by her parents, until it’s revealed he’s nothing but a con man with a family on the side. But to go in thinking, as I did, that it was that period in her life that solely comprises Barber’s memoirs, is to be mistaken. Twenty-six pages is all it is – and the other one hundred and fifty? Brilliant.
It might be difficult to imagine how one’s life can get more interesting than that borderline unbelievable situation at sixteen, but it was simply laying a foundation. A precocious only child, she went from ‘that relationship’ to read English at Oxford, where she slept with ‘probably about fifty men in her second year.’ She stumbled across a job at Penthouse in its early days and was with it as it took off into a worldwide enterprise. There were sex books (and this at a time of sexual revolution and liberation, when women writing sex books were breaking new ground, not dashing off books on sex texting as a segue into a Carrie Bradshaw life) then stints at Sunday Express, The Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair (she turned down Graydon Carter’s offer to move her to New York) and then The Observer. There were also five British Press Awards across three decades, as Barber carved out a reputation as one of the best in her game.
But it’s when things start to fall apart that the true steel comes out. Hitherto, she’s delightfully frank and to borrow a word from the front cover, unsentimental, as she deftly leads us from the revelatory to the comic. This deft touch doesn’t disappear when we enter the final chapter, ‘Disaster’, nor does the sentimentality kick in. What does show itself, however, is a goodness to Barber, lurking behind the sharp tongue and (self professed) selfishness – as a person, she begins to round out a little more, towards the end of the novel. There is no room for pity, and there are only mere moments where guilt is entertained. Barber writes of this time in her life in the same, signature, style as she does the years that preceded it. Which makes it all the more authentic and all the more painful.
Barber is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. That she can recount this life with subtlety, wit and a terrific amount of self awareness, is what makes An Education such a bloody good read.
Published by Atlas and Co www.atlasandco.com