Remembering: Lynn Barber’s An Education

Barber, Lynn. An Education. Penguin, 2009.

I thought I had posted about this book when I first read it a few years ago. I was mistaken. Some of you may have seen the film of the same name starring Carey Mulligan, scripted by Nick Hornby, and directed by Lone Scherfig. The source for that film was one section of the book which had its beginnings as a short piece for Granta in 2003. As an aside, I might comment again on how well short pieces as opposed to novels adapt well to full length movies. I still think John Huston’s 1987 movie of The Dead starring his daughter Angelica is one of the most satisfying adaptations I’ve seen. But to return to An Education.

 “An Education” is just one piece in the whole collection of nine essays that together comprise a memoir focussing on highlights of Barber’s life from her childhood to the death of her husband David in 2003. Barber reveals herself as a person able to look at herself in the mirror and be honest about herself, even admitting  at the very beginning that her “memory is not to be trusted” (6). Such candour is refreshing.

Perhaps for most people, the period of her relationship with Simon Goldman (not his real name) may well be the most fascinating because it certainly wasn’t usual for “a conventional Twickenham schoolgirl” to run “around London nightclubs with a conman” (2). I suspect it still isn’t a very common occurrence. Barber’s summation of the effect that relationship had on her is succinct. Simon Goldman taught her “that other people—even when you think you know them well are ultimately unknowable.” While admitting that such knowledge made her a good interviewer, it also made her “too wary, too cautious, too ungiving . . . . and damaged” (55-56).

Barber survived her experience with the married conman, went to Oxford, married David Maurice Cloudesley Cardiff, worked for Penthouse, had two daughters and went on to become an award-winning journalist. She is still working.

What I found most interesting about this book was Barber’s descriptions of her early life, of England in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. How her memories of the copy-typing room at the Prudential Insurance office, High Holborn” (70) resonated with my own memories of a similar place also in Holborn but a few years later. I suppose copy-typists have been replaced by data entry clerks, but I’m sure there are still young people who dread being “swallowed [by mind-numbingly boring jobs]. . . and never seen again” (70).

Barber’s mother taught elocution, and Barber includes many of the tongue twisting exercises she and her mother’s students had to master. Talking well was indeed something highly cherished in fifties Britain. My own school demanded two years of weekly elocution lessons with the result that I can still recite

To sit in solemn silence                                                                                                                                    In a dull dark dock                                                                                                                          Awaiting the sensation                                                                                                                        Of a short sharp shock                                                                                                                            Of a cheap and chippy chopper                                                                                                              On a big black block

with a certain verve; the ragged rascals can still run round the ragged rocks while Peter Piper picks his peck of pickled pepper, and she [who was she?] sells her sea shells on the sea shore. These lessons ended when the speech teacher emigrated to Australia and was replaced by a drama teacher. As Barber points out, for a certain segment of English society when she and I were growing up, the risk of being thought “Common” was one to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, one was expected to avoid drawing attention to oneself and to take every step possible to avoid one’s accent revealing/betraying one’s origins.

Barber’s roots are in that anxiously aspirational background, a milieu that placed “a strong emphasis on caution, isolationism, ‘not interfering,’ thrift, prudery, moral condemnation and deep fear of the unknown which included everything from foreigners to unfamiliar vegetables” (58). Some things have changed. A walk down the aisle of any English supermarket will reveal that the English are becoming familiar with a much larger range of vegetables than the cabbage and potatoes that provided the staple for months on end in the fifties. Some things don’t change, however. Love and loss are still felt as strongly as in the past, and Barber’s essay dealing with her husband’s leukaemia is heart-rending. What also doesn’t change, I suspect, is the effect of our youth on how we view the world. Barber’s background and her relationship with Simon Goldman could have deprived her of the opportunities she actually was able to enjoy. It didn’t,  but as she reiterates at the very end of An Education, it did leave her “a deep unbeliever in the unknowability of other people” (183).

Her tone suggests that she rather regrets that. If so, I’m not sure that she should. Surely, it’s when one realises the unknowability of others that one has to begin the task of knowing oneself, and An Education certainly reveals a woman who knows herself,

 

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