The joy of hanging out with artists

Lynn Barber is known as a distinguished journalist, but what she always wanted to do was hang out with artists. This book feels like a marvellous cocktail party, packed with the painters and sculptors Barber has interviewed over the years: Howard Hodgkin, Phyllida Barlow, Grayson Perry, Maggi Hambling. Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin eye one another warily from opposite sides of the room; Salvador Dali’s ocelot weaves between the guests; everyone, naturally, is smoking. Lucian Freud is a no-show – though having refused Barber’s many interview requests, he did send a scrawled note explaining he had no wish to ‘be shat upon by a stranger’. Feuds and gossip are the

‘There are an awful lot of my paintings I don’t like,’ admitted Francis Bacon

In 1959, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was hanging above the bed where Francis Bacon nursed a fractured skull after falling downstairs drunk at his framer Alfred Hecht’s house on the King’s Road. It was there to be re-framed – a circumstantial detail Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan report neutrally, en passant, in their 2021 biography Francis Bacon: Revelations. An inadvertent cry, nay a scream, for attention? Or a frame-up? It was a decade after Bacon painted his first screaming pope, a palimpsest obviously based on Velázquez but equally in hock to Munch. Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words is an annotated compilation by Michael Peppiatt of statements, letters, studio notes

‘People thought I was insane’: Graham Nash on the birth of Crosby, Stills and Nash

Graham Nash always seemed like the reasonable, peace-making one among his famously fractious compadres, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. But he didn’t get to where he is today by being plagued with doubt or false modesty. Even talking remotely over a Zoom connection, he still radiates a kind of unshakeable certainty. ‘I just trust that the universe loves me enough to support what I’m doing,’ he declares. ‘I don’t seek my life, my life happens to me and I’m perfectly content to let it. Look what I’ve done in my life… Pretty nice!’ ‘Joni was the only witness to that sound and it was created in less than

Joy, fear and regret in contemporary Britain

For two and a half years, as Britain adjusted from normality to the most disorienting collective trauma of our lifetimes, Will Ashon trawled the country for strangers’ stories. He wrote letters to random addresses, went hitchhiking, talked to the drivers and followed chance connections in pursuit of glimpses into other people’s lives. Once they had consented to speak, he asked some to tell him a secret and others to answer a question from a list. The resulting anonymous confessions, reminiscences, philosophical reflections and anecdotes were obtained via interviews, emails or voice recordings. They form a quietly remarkable study of the state of the nation, in which fragments piece together into

We do love to be beside the seaside

In the garden of my house in Cornwall there is a smooth granite stone about the size and shape of a goodly pumpkin. In the middle, where the stalk would be, there is a hole filled with rusting iron. The day I moved in, a neighbour told me that the hole was drilled and filled with molten iron to attach a hook, long since rusted away, to make a ‘sinking stone’. Smuggled cargo could be submerged just off shore if there were any danger of meeting King George’s men, to be harvested when the coast was clear. About a year later, another Cornish neighbour saw it and told me that,

Has Cuba’s revolution finally fizzled out?

In 1968, the US anthropologist Oscar Lewis arrived in Cuba with a tape recorder and a mission to capture the revolutionary zeal of everyday Cubans. Eighteen months later, he was sent packing. ‘We have nothing to hide,’ Fidel Castro, the leader of the country’s 1959 revolution, had supposedly told him. That wasn’t quite true: production targets were being missed, dissidents were being locked up and the US trade embargo was already beginning to bite. The project briefly – and unsuccessfully – passed into the hands of Boom-era author and friend of Fidel, Gabriel García Márquez. After that, the voices of Cubans vanished from the official record. Lots of vituperative denunciations

Is Donald Trump postmodern?

David Shields is an American author who has decided to collate many of the questions he’s been asked in interviews and reprint them – without any of his answers – under themes of Childhood, Art, Envy, Capitalism etc. The idea is that the questions put to him are just as revealing as his responses. This is a gimmick, but not merely that. To map how others interrogate us is an original idea. It follows that the best way of testing whether this works for the length of a book, even one as short as this, would be for the book to be reviewed by someone who had no prior knowledge

Contains moments of spellbinding banality: Radio 4’s The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed reviewed

The interview podcast is a genre immoderately drawn to gimmicks, as the logical space of possible formats is gradually exhausted. The interviewee, quite often themselves a podcaster, might be, for example, invited to noisily eat lunch while nominating their top-five deceased childhood pets. The theory is that fanciful formats encourage the interviewee to open up. Under such conditions, the interview itself can come to seem incidental to the main event, the atmosphere chummy, comfortable, back-scratching, but fundamentally uninterested: you do my interview, I’ll do yours, no real questions asked. The moderately fanciful premise of The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed sees the poet Simon Armitage solitary and at

The man at the heart of punk: the late Pete Shelley recalls his Buzzcocks years

Manchester, in the words of the artist Linder Sterling, is a ‘tiny little world’. Nearly three million people live in its sprawl, but its centre is compact. Like-minded Mancunians have always found one another easily. Cultural life is febrile, which partly explains how, in the pre-digital late-20th century, England’s third city produced such startling bands: Joy Division, the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and Tony Wilson’s era-defining Factory record label — and Buzzcocks, less celebrated, but without whom Manchester’s creative energy would have failed to detonate. Pete Shelley was Buzzcocks’s charismatic co-founder and chief songwriter, whose sharp lyrics and bratty vocals shaped much of British punk. He

New Yorkers talk the talk

New York in a nutshell? No way. New York in a New York minute? Forget about it. The city contains multitudes: it contradicts itself, wantonly. Any attempt to summarise will fail. Not even Craig Taylor’s delightful cacophony of voices, dozens and dozens of them spilling their New York stories, can compass its vastness and variety. But what a tasty slice Taylor serves up! Until you can fly into JFK and see, hear and smell for yourself, savour the grit, sweat in the choking humidity and shiver in the canyoned midtown winds — until then, his New Yorkers is just the ticket. This is Taylor’s second anthology of urban voices. It

‘We knew there was greatness in these songs’: Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks interviewed

Steve Diggle hasn’t spent this long away from a stage in 40-odd years. For the Buzzcocks guitarist, like everyone else, 2020 was a year of thwarted plans. Instead of touring Britain and America, Diggle spent the year in ‘self-analysis’ and writing a new album. What else for an ageing punk to do? Except, of course, curate your legacy, grapple with the past. When Diggle joined Buzzcocks in 1976, originally as the bass player, he didn’t imagine he would still be flying the flag 45 years later. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Though his band remains a going concern, the songs that shift tickets were written half a lifetime

‘You can’t have opinions any more’: Rick Wakeman interviewed

‘Classic rock’ is a rather fusty old oxymoron, but then the term ‘classic’ is applied these days to chocolate bars and that most in-demand of consumer undurable, lavatory paper, so I suppose one shouldn’t complain. Covid-19 will probably be remembered as a ‘classic virus’ one day not too soon, when there are other more baleful new-wave viruses with spiky hair pogoing around. ‘Classic rock’, meanwhile, is a term applied to the sort of chest-beating rawk that people of my generation admire: the Who, Bad Company, Blue Oyster Cult insisting, in timely fashion, that we should embrace death, and Lynyrd Skynyrd informing us, with unforeseen irony, that they can fly, free

Meet the front man of ‘the most revolting band in the world’

Corey Taylor, the singer of Slipknot, laughs when I observe that he is disappointingly well adjusted. He had just been explaining that he does his own cleaning at home, that he ‘hates seeing privilege and entitlement’, that he can get from place to place without needing his hand held (you might scoff, but many musicians get infantilised by a life of indulging and being indulged). ‘I have a very healthy ego,’ he says. ‘But I also know to keep it in check as much as I can, because I don’t want to be that dude.’ Which is not to say Slipknot’s career has been free of incident. Far from it.

‘I was tossed out of the tribe’: climate scientist Judith Curry interviewed

It is safe to predict that when 20,000 world leaders, officials, green activists and hangers-on convene in Paris next week for the 21st United Nations climate conference, one person you will not see much quotedis Professor Judith Curry. This is a pity. Her record of peer-reviewed publication in the best climate-science journals is second to none, and in America she has become a public intellectual. But on this side of the Atlantic, apparently, she is too ‘challenging’. What is troubling about her pariah status is that her trenchant critique of the supposed consensus on global warming is not derived from warped ideology, let alone funding by fossil-fuel firms, but from

There’s no single trick to making money — just resist a noble calling

‘Beauty is pain,’ the model Gigi Hadid asserts. She’s one of the successful, rich people quizzed by William Leith in The Trick: Why Some People Can Make Money and Other People Can’t. We all know a few of the tricks of getting rich. You start by avoiding noble, important professions that benefit everyone but pay poorly: primary school teacher, nurse, book reviewer. Those of my friends and family who’ve made money (although none has made it to rich) went into banking and business. Those who haven’t went into teaching, academic research and museum curating. That much is obvious. Has Leith unearthed a magic formula? His book is part Hunter S.

The director that everyone loved to hate: David Thomson interviews Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich’s new documentary about Buster Keaton, The Great Buster, is a match made in movie heaven. I can’t think of two men more devoted to making motion pictures — huge successes in their day — more acquainted with the merciless climate of Hollywood, or more aware that they were as instrumental in their own downfall as in their glory. ‘Buster said he made the great mistake of his life in 1928,’ says Bogdanovich. ‘He had done these masterpieces in the 1920s — Steamboat Bill Jr, Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, The General — and done them the way he wanted with his own production unit… It couldn’t get any better.

Voices from the recent past

Interviews, like watercolours, are very hard to get right, and yet look how steadily their art has become degraded and under-appreciated. Each and every Shumble, Whelper and Pigge in our media fancies that an interview can be tossed off: you need only switch on the microphone and let the person speak. Radio is the worst culprit. John Fowles was on a US book tour when the announcer muddled his notes and introduced him as ‘the singing nun of Milwaukee’. Inevitably hitting the wrong note, too many interviewers rely on the rickety scaffolding of the unpublished novelist, seizing on, say, their subject’s white socks, and then truffling up some unpalatable morsel

Art’s hard graft

Once, when a number of Royal Academicians were invited to Buckingham Palace, the celebrated abstract painter John Hoyland (1934–2011) found himself enjoying a conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh about art. ‘The real problem with painting,’ said the Duke, in Hoyland’s delighted re-telling of this encounter, ‘is not so much the doing of it, as to know what to paint.’ Hoyland immediately concurred, adding that his friend Patrick Caulfield had been saying the same thing only the day before. This definition of painting’s central challenge appears again in Studio Voices, recollected by Tess Jaray as one of the first things her tutor at the Slade, Andrew Forge, told her. In

Close of play | 15 February 2018

‘Mad, wearying and inconsequential gabble,’ sighed the Financial Times in 1958. ‘One quails in slack-jawed dismay.’ Here’s the FT at the same play last month: ‘The best I have seen on-stage.’ How about the Evening Standard? Then: ‘Like trying to solve a crossword puzzle where every vertical clue is designed to put you off the horizontal.’ Now: ‘Pinter’s cruel dialogue has rarely sounded sharper.’ ‘What all this means only Mr Pinter knows,’ mused the Manchester Guardian. On its return to the West End, the playwright’s biographer Michael Billington, writing in the Guardian, judged that ‘The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue’. Sixty years ago at the

Dear Mary | 25 May 2017

Q. Re getting away from bores at drinks parties (Dear Mary, 20 May). I take issue with the idea that you even need to give an excuse. I usually just say: ‘Great to see you but I suppose you and I had better circulate now.’ — E.G., Wiltshire A. You are quite right. After all, your host would be furious if you got ‘stuck’ and monopolised the most interesting person in the room, for example Elon Musk. It is a guest’s duty to circulate and I will U-turn on last week’s edict. Q. My son’s godfather rang him in winter after forgetting his 21st. He asked for his postcode in