Listen to this article
The first time I heard Julian Barnes talking about food was in Chicago in 2003. Reading from The Pedant in the Kitchen to a church hall full of sodden Chicagoans, he described being dumbfounded by recipe instructions to “melt the tomatoes”. When that failed to occur, he told the audience, “I seized the potato masher and mashed the shit out of them and hurriedly washed up the guilty instrument.”
This mixture of fastidious linguistic precision, dry British humour and the odd swear word to lend unexpected piquancy, is again on display during our two-hour lunch at Portland, a modern European restaurant in London with a Michelin star, co-founded and run by Will Lander, son of Barnes’s friends Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander, the FT’s wine and restaurant critics.
I arrive 20 minutes early, and am warmly welcomed and shown to a table for four. Portland has a casual ambience: Scandinavian-minimalist decor with copper lights hanging in front of a visible kitchen. We have booked for 2pm, to avoid the hubbub. Barnes is not far behind me, dressed elegantly in a brown mackintosh, Margaret Howell dark checked suit with a blue shirt.
As that book title suggests, he has a notorious reputation for pedantry — especially for correcting misused words — but over lunch his manner is genial, curious, often drily mocking. He has a professorial demeanour, with his long nose, sandy hair, and steady blue eyes. He would make a fitting old-school spy, although he betrays some nerves: straightening his cutlery, reordering my tape recorders and toying with his watch and shirtsleeve during the meal.
Barnes, who turned 70 last week, is the author of more than 20 works of fiction and non-fiction, ranging from Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, the book that launched his reputation as an innovative novelist, to reflections on death and France — a country he has visited often since childhood. Awarded the L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, he has been shortlisted four times for the Booker Prize (winning in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending). His latest novel, The Noise of Time, is based on Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who worked in the shadow of Stalin.
Taking command, he suggests that we order. I am baffled by the salsify starter. “It’s a long, white root which the British used to cook a lot more. Anyway, you ought to have it if you’ve never had it.” I agree and let him order for me: “Caroline will have the salsify, and then monkfish”. For himself, he orders the chicken wing and langoustine starter, and onion tart. “It’s a bit girlie, isn’t it?” he says.
We add a glass each of chardonnay and I launch into a story about the poet Gavin Ewart who had an enjoyable liquid Lunch with the FT in 1995 and had to be poured into a bus home. The next day his wife called the journalist and said he mustn’t feel too guilty, but Ewart was dead. “Right. Well. I’m going to be very restrained,” he says with an anxious nod to the wine. “If I go under a bus after this I’d rather you printed it.”
I ask him about being a life-long supporter of Leicester City. “I can talk sports bollocks as well as anyone else.” (They were “robbed” on a recent penalty.) Barnes is a Labour supporter, too. I say I used to work for Gordon Brown, joining in the week that former Labour leader John Smith died — a confession that makes me feel like an assassin. “You kill a lot of people, don’t you? Gavin Ewart first.”
He says the prime ministers he has affection for are the unexpected ones: “The ones I feel vaguely fond of — I wouldn’t go any further than vaguely fond — are Jim Callaghan, Gordon Brown and John Major. They were all pilloried as being kind of useless. But I think politicians are there to disappoint us. The ones who disappoint everybody, I find I have some feeling for.”
What of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader? “If I had been a member of the Labour party or if I’d paid £3 [to join] I would have voted for him, partly because I was deeply unimpressed by all the others. If he makes it to the next election he’ll lose, but the other three would have lost just as much.”
In his own benign republic, he says, “The royal family would be put on the Isle of Wight”; Britain would join the euro and public utilities would be owned by the state. One British water company was eventually owned by Enron, he reveals. At least its bankruptcy led to a great West End musical, I joke. He wins the skirmish: “That’s not the function of a business, to turn into a great musical.”
Our starters arrive. “Ooh, that looks wonderful. Are those nasturtiums?” he inquires. Barnes tucks in with scrupulous delicacy, as I contemplate my salsify. “What does it remind you of?” he asks. Macaroni, slightly, I say . . . not delicious in a conventional way.
“Challenging,” he agrees.
Barnes once told the Paris Review his aim in fiction was to “reflect the fullest complications of the world”. “I’m a moralist but not a moraliser,” he tells me. “I’m very interested in how and why people act as they do, but I don’t as a novelist ever try to tell people how to behave.”
Those dilemmas are central to The Noise of Time. It starts with a Cluedo-esque scene: Shostakovich, standing by a lift, with a packed suitcase. Following the denunciation, in Pravda, of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he waits each night for the police to take him away. With a few deft touches Barnes creates a mood of passive foreboding. He tells me he has been a Shostakovich fan for 50 years. “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.”
As our main courses arrive, his jacket comes off. Our host inquires about the starter. Barnes dobs me in cheerfully. “She wasn’t sure about the salsify.”
Barnes is intrigued by what an artist such as Shostakovich should do when confronted with power. “There’s not enough imagination in trying to put yourself in his position. What’s the alternative to being cowardly? To be a hero meant to stand up to the state. If you stood up to Stalin you got killed or sometimes your family,” he says.
“Being a hero was in some ways a stupid thing to do and also morally wrong because you thereby killed your family. And there was no answer; there was no way to live in a country without being contaminated.”
I ask if he would have been a coward. “Oh yes,” he concedes. “What would I do if guys came through the door with Kalashnikovs? I would say, run like fuck.” He admits he has never been physically brave, but once told an SAS soldier about his “abscessed tooth and two very bad blisters. He said: ‘Oh, those are terrible, they’re worse than getting shot’ . . . So maybe I’ve been very brave.”
He shares a separate trait with Shostakovich: brooding on death. In Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008) Barnes quotes Shostakovich approvingly, describing his fear as: “the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling.”
Barnes has been afraid of death since 15. “It was a sudden ability to conceptualise the notion of eternal annihilation and non-existence, which I found terrifying, and I’m surprised that everyone doesn’t think about it a lot more . . . Now we scatter the dead, so we can’t visit them. We forget them. I want the dead to be remembered.”
Chief among those is his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Her name prompts an emotional flinch. He is on guard — still. In Levels of Life (2013) he wrote with precision about his grief and revealed that he conjured her often. Usually expansive in his answers, he responds economically: “Well, I continue with that.” Does he still see her in his dreams? His hesitation feels raw. “Less than I used to. Less than I used to, yes. That’s diminished.”
I wonder if he regrets their decision to remain childless. His first response is glib. “If children only took five years to grow from infants to voting age, then that would be clearly more attractive.”
It was a conscious decision, he adds. “Pat and I had one discussion, in which she said, ‘I think if you really, really wanted it, I could have children with you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I think if I really . . . if you really, really wanted it, I could have children with you.’ That was a double negative.”
He adds: “It also goes back to your own relations with your own parents.” He was “irritatedly fond” of his mother, he wrote in Nothing to Be Frightened Of; her certainties about the world, useful in childhood, became “grindingly repetitive in adulthood”.
Has he softened? “I admired her in her last illness and death. She was brave and un-self-pitying. But, no, I was very fond of my father. He was a very nice man, but I felt that he was swamped by my mother and I never had a relationship with him separately because she would always be there talking.” So it got in the way? “It did get in the way, yes.”
In “I remember”, a 2013 article for Areté magazine, one buried line about his family stands out: “I remember my father in a heavy wooden casket and my mother in a plastic screw-top jar.”
“I once said to my brother, ‘I would like to know what it was like to be loved by them,’ and he said, ‘They took very good care of us and they fed us’ — which is true. I suppose when you’re an infant, and your mother loves you, you don’t really understand what that is. It’s the old thing of the English not being able to express an emotion, being able to boast to the neighbours about the issue of your son, while not letting the son get too big for his boots.”
He idly inserts a card into the table-gap. “People have certain expectations of their children — that they are going to carry them on in some way. I used to think that my parents can’t possibly think I’m carrying them on, because they disapprove of most of the things I do or the way I’ve conducted my life, or who I’ve been with . . . how would I react to anyone doing that to me?”
Both parents were French teachers and the family home was in Northwood, a London suburb. “We didn’t really have any friends locally. We were quite enclosed and we didn’t go to stay with people . . . We stayed at home and did our school work and they both marked the homework of other schoolchildren.”
After studying at Oxford, he landed at the New Statesman in 1977, a self-conscious member of the literary set that included Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and James Fenton. Last October in a speech he praised Fenton, citing his article, “Mrs Thatcher’s Bum”, as an example of a period that accepted “offence could and should be given”.
He frets about rising self-censorship. “It’s right that we are much more racially sensitive, gender-sensitive and so on, but I suppose also your generation kicks in at a certain time, then things like Germaine Greer isn’t allowed to say just because a man has his bits chopped off, it doesn’t turn him into a woman. That is a perfectly legitimate point of view, seems to me.”
He famously fell out with Amis after he ditched Pat as his literary agent. “If someone offends you or damages you or does something to your career, let alone any of those things to someone you like, then I think you should bear a grudge. I’m not a Christian.” He veers into a related anecdote that concludes: “Christian notions of charity and forgiveness don’t always arise in my soul.”
Barnes orders the bergamot tart for dessert. I ask about the “hay” in another description and discover it is used to flavour the milk for caramel ice-cream. “You’re not eating hay,” confirms Barnes. I order the dish, which includes chocolate ganache and grilled pear.
Although he was once a restaurant critic for Tatler (under the pseudonym “Basil Seal”), he seems squeamish when I ask about his meal. “It’s the horror of TV chefs talking about food and the way they’re so excited: ‘And then I just whisk in a little bit of balsamic at the last minute’, and stuff like that.” (He declares his food excellent.)
At home, he is a pedantic recipe-follower. “I’m sure my cooking is about 30 years behind the time. I never play around. I can’t play around.”
Doesn’t he wish he was lighter? “No, I think I’m quite light, actually. I think I’m socially quite light. Some of my books are funny. I think it’s too late to worry about things like that.”
One of his very funny short stories depicts a man going berserk at a classical concert, amid sweet wrapper-crinkling. It reads as if copied from life. Was it? “The poking of the man, that was me and Pat!” The incident was too implausible for fiction, he says. “We both poked him in the back at the same moment. It was hilarious . . . fantastically satisfying.” How many fingers? “One. But he got one in each shoulder blade,” he recalls, enthusiastically re-enacting the moment by gleefully jabbing the air.
Our immaculate confections arrive. “It looks like something made by the Chapman Brothers,” he observes of the meringue cigarette pieces stubbed into the yellow tart. Last year a book of his essays on art came out. One reviewer accused him of being a cultural conservative for thinking the “art of the past infinitely more noble than that of the present”.
“That’s probably because I didn’t like Jeff Koons. I don’t have a lot of time for a great deal of conceptual art and not much time for video art either.”
As for his own art, does he want his books to move people? “Yes, indeed. I want people to cry. They don’t have to.” So what makes him cry? He does not cry at books. “The thing that most reliably makes me cry is English women athletes, especially rowers, winning gold medals. I’m sorry, it just gets me!”
Barnes asks if he can try my terrific leftover dessert. He savours a spoonful. Will he have a 70th birthday party? “I’m having a party for the book. I don’t think you should have noisy celebrations as you hit the later bus pass era.”
Relieved of duty, he is in playful mood, calling over Lander to answer my question to him — whether he is “pompous”. To avoid the answer, Barnes puts his head on the table and covers his ears.
The next day I get a courteous email thanking me for lunch. It adds a final confession: “And I did weep at the DVD of Paddington Bear, especially when he puts his duffel coat on.”
Caroline Daniel is the editor of FT Weekend
Illustration by James Ferguson
Letter in response to this column:
Be alerted on Julian Barnes