The Diary

August 8, 2014 5:49 pm

The Diary: Nicola Barker

The novelist on how society regards bald frankness, getting to grips with glasses frame-making and her parish priest’s leaving

Anyone who knows me well (and even those who don’t, especially) will tell you that I am not generally celebrated for mincing my words. I am irritable and impatient and opinionated and often (I openly admit) wrong-headed by nature, and will glower or mutter or even explode if I’m not happy with any given situation.

These are plainly serious faults in my character and I struggle against them, daily, hourly – biting my tongue, feeling guilty, over-analysing, sometimes overcompensating – and that’s just as it should be.

But, increasingly, I see in the culture around me that complete openness and bald frankness (these faults I constantly battle with myself) are held in high esteem by our wider society.

Illustration of eyeglasses & magnifying lens©Luke Waller

It’s become a trope – almost a cliché – on the reality TV show Big Brother over recent years (and 2014’s fabulously combustible Power Trip series is no exception) for contestants to brag that they aren’t two-faced and that they will always tell people up front if they have a problem with them.

Speaking your mind is heralded as the ultimate virtue. If you don’t do this you are considered a “game player”. Of course, Big Brother is a game but to admit to actually playing it is to admit to not being “real”. And this is reality TV, so it needs to be real above everything else, surely? I’m all for being real – if that means having integrity or being sincere – but I’m not for being real if that means you completely ignore those tedious social niceties of (yawn) politeness, sensitivity, kindness and tolerance.

A quote I often apply to myself (very often, too often) is St James’s wonderfully concise “mercy triumphs over judgment”. Just because it does. And in a functioning game show – or society, or life, come to that – it needs to. Watching this fascinating series of Big Brother as it draws to a close I’m increasingly struck by how the show which was once an alienating vision of a terrifying future (a world of full exposure) now seems – in the internet age – like something antiquated, almost anachronistic. It used to be tabloid – and tabloid fodder – but now the tabloids (except the Daily Star, which is owned by the same man who owns Channel 5) aren’t interested in it because we are tabloid; we tweet everything, we photograph everything (we live tabloid lives, in essence), we like to share everything. We are open. We give everything and we feel entitled – fallaciously – to get everything back in return.

It can’t be a coincidence, can it, that the favourites to win this year’s show (at the time of writing at least) are the very people who seem most expert at being polite and yet keeping the important things – the intimate things – tightly under wraps? Maybe it’s a sign of things to come?

Could old-fashioned closed-upness be set to become the new open?

. . .

I got my eyes tested this week. I’ve been slightly short-sighted since my A-levels but have lately taken to casually applying a small magnifying glass to the backs of DVD boxes to find out film running times (this superficially insignificant activity should probably be accepted as a universal indicator of the gradual encroachment of old age).

All these years, I had no idea the glasses I wear are so carefully crafted and so individual

I’ve been going to the same opticians in Covent Garden for the past 20 years, simply because they are located close to where I once worked in Soho and because their frames are slightly more interesting than the ones you’d find elsewhere. As the optometrist leaned in to inspect my eyes on this occasion, however, I suddenly noticed what nice glasses he was wearing and said, “I do like your glasses”.

“Oh,” he said, leaning back, “Thank you. I made them myself.”

He opened a drawer and took out a scruffy oblong of acetate with a glasses-shaped hole hacked into it. We then proceeded to have a fascinating discussion about the catastrophic decline of the British frame manufacturing industry (killed stone dead by Thatcher’s abandonment of the NHS frame range and the subsequent deregulation of the optician’s trade).

It transpired that my polite but generally monosyllabic long-time optometrist is one of the few remaining frame-makers in the UK. He runs his own tiny factory. He designs. He crafts. It’s a passion – an obsession. He makes hardly any money at it. Each pair of frames can take up to 10 weeks to produce. He is a true artisan – an artist. He follows a Victorian ethic. And he eschews publicity. Despises it! He simply does it because he loves it.

But, all these years, I had no idea the glasses I wear are so carefully crafted and so individual. I have now resolved to ask more questions in general. Be more observant. Pay more compliments, even.

Because turning that big, clumsy chunk of acetate over in my hands – while simultaneously getting to grips with the politics, the history, the process of British frame-making – was one of the most unexpected and yet rewarding exchanges I’ve had in a very long time.

. . .

My local priest, Father William, is leaving his London parish of Wapping. The Cardinal has decided to send him to the seminary at Allen Hall (way over in Chelsea – the other side of the world!) to help guide the trainee priests there. It’s a promotion, of sorts (although he doggedly insists it’s no such thing).

We’ve only had him in the parish for two years but during that time he has influenced and enriched hundreds of lives, mine included. There are many bad priests in the world (no point in denying it) but a good priest – a great priest – such as Father William, is something very precious and very special.

 

And it’s hard to know exactly how to respond emotionally to his leaving. Because the relationship you have with a priest is unlike any other – at once formal yet curiously intimate. They are the one person in the world who is interested in the development of your soul. And they often leave. It’s a fact of life. They can’t form too many attachments. They have to move on. It is their duty and their obligation. So we are all full of sadness here in Wapping this week – but it’s essentially unspoken. We don’t want to burden Father W with our emotions. It’s not his fault that he’s leaving us but we’ll miss him dreadfully because he’s such a funny person; droll, mischievous, kind, tolerant but also firm and utterly sincere. And he is modest. And, above all, very human. Perhaps that’s why the Cardinal has decided to move him to the seminary – to serve as an example? I certainly hope those trainee priests will fully appreciate him, and more importantly learn from him, because they truly have hit pay dirt with our beloved Father W. St Patrick’s, and Wapping, won’t be the same without him.

Nicola Barker will be discussing her latest novel ‘In The Approaches’ with Ali Smith at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday

[This article has been amended since original publication]

Illustration by Luke Waller

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