It might be rather flattering to be found in deep conversation with Julian Barnes at a party, since he is clearly so smart you hope some of it might rub off on you; the Barnes Intelligence Halo Effect. The bad news is this is unlikely to happen, as Barnes isn’t a particularly clubbable person.
Indeed, he says it’s what made him a writer. “When I was young, I found it very difficult to speak to more than one person,” he says. “The more people there were in a room, I just would clam up. In my late 20s I got a job on the New Statesman and I was terrified by editorial meetings. The editor would nod at you and you were meant to say something. I could barely speak! So writing was a way of speaking to more than one person.
“That’s why I like radio. When I’m on radio, I feel I’m just talking to one person. When in fact there are many thousands out there.” He pauses. “You hope. Who won’t be falling asleep at 10.45pm, ha-ha!”
Barnes and I are talking at Broadcasting House after the final recording of his new series – five essays for Radio 3 titled Changing My Mind. This year, the venerable radio station has turned 70, and so has Barnes. He took the opportunity to look back and assess beliefs about which he has changed his mind.
Being Julian Barnes, these things are rather nuanced: the way we use the word “disinterested”, and whether EM Forster is a bore or not (he used to think yes and now heartily believes no).
He says, “I’m at that age where you start to look back and think, ‘Was I right about this, was I right about that?’ The way you change your mind can sometimes be a logical process – or sometimes there is a whole backwash which comes to a head and there you are! You’ve swivelled 180 degrees.”
He cites programmes such as Question Time or Any Questions? as signal offenders. “Everyone prepares their point of view to such an extent that they only half listen to the other argument, because they are only looking for the point of weakness in the other person.
“And it would look so feeble if you suddenly said on air, ‘Oh I see, I’m completely wrong’, because it would seem that you haven’t thought out your position. But as the great JM Keynes said, when the facts change, you change your mind.”
He certainly doesn’t look 70. Floppy-haired, slim, surprisingly tall, Barnes was born in Leicester but moved to suburban London at the age of six weeks, although that was enough for him to form a lifelong sporting allegiance, of which more later.
He has ridden the literary fiction wave since the 1980 publication of Metroland, his wonderful coming-of-age novel with its hilarious descriptions of its hero riding the fusty, musty Metro Tube line and being a “flâneur” in central London.
His breakthrough novel was Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), while A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), with its bravura chapter solely on Géricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was a must-read for anyone in their 20s who wanted to seem clever (yep).
He achieved the Man Booker pinnacle in 2011 with his brilliant bestseller The Sense of an Ending. Barnes was originally so nervous about being published that he actually wrote a rubbish review of Metroland, as if to get in first.
He’s a bit more confident now, although he still only allows his agent to send him the “three best” reviews of the latest novel.
Barnes in 2004
Does he ever read online reviews? “I never go there. I think a lot of mad people operate there.” He thinks the world of literary fiction is still quite lively, despite what everyone says. “Writers and publishers are like farmers. It’s always a bad year! And the internationalisation of literary fiction, the boom in translations, is all to the good.”
I sense there is a ‘but’ on its way. “But I don’t agree with opening up the Booker for the Americans. I think that’s straightforwardly daft. The Americans have got enough prizes of their own. The idea of [the Booker] being Britain, Ireland, the old Commonwealth countries and new voices in English from around the world gave it a particular character and meant it could bring on writers.
“If you also include Americans – and get a couple of heavy hitters – then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.”
To Barnes, the whole thing is now unfair. Particularly now an American has just won [Paul Beatty for The Sellout]. “Which American prizes are open to Brits? In theory I think only the National Book Award is. I don’t think any Brit has won a major American award for years.”
His Radio 3 essays include one on politics. Ah, you think. Julian Barnes, who used to write for lefty New Statesman, has done the soft shoe shuffle to the right? “On the contrary. I wasn’t interested in politics much, and now I’m a Corbynista!”
Indeed, he says this is an area in which his views are steady. “The politicians have changed whereas I have pretty much held to the liberal principles I had in my 20s.
“I suppose it was Mrs Thatcher who rehung the clock so that the pendulum swung much more to the right and then the Labour Party followed. Back when I was young, Jeremy Corbyn’s views would have seemed mainstream Labour.”
Did he vote for Corbyn? “I would have, had I paid my £3 [membership fee] as many people did.”
And now? “The job of politicians is to disappoint, and I’m disappointed by his position over Europe. Yet I can’t think of a policy of his that I disagree with.”
Will he vote for Corbyn in a general election? “Yes I will.”
Julian Barnes poses with his book ‘Arthur and George’ for his Man Booker Prize nomination in 2005
Other things, however, aren’t so solid. He fell out spectacularly with fellow writer Martin Amis when Amis sacked Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh, the agent who had served him since the start of his career, in favour of Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie.
“I used to bear grudges a great deal, and rather enjoy it. I am less interested in them now. They take up too much energy.”
Any examples? “People who have given you a bad review. At the time it feels quite healthy to rage whenever you see their name in a paper. I met someone the other day who gave me a bad review about 20 years ago. But I realised I couldn’t remember what book it was or what her point of objection was.”
What about him and Amis? “When we meet, we talk,” smiles Barnes. “It’s not a problem. He lives in Brooklyn and I live in Tufnell Park.”
There are two things about which he will not change. “The literary novel does things no other art form can. To speak heart to heart, and mind to mind. One to one. To have that voice, whispering in your ear. In the quietness of your room. Telling you things about the heart, mind and soul. That can’t be done half as well elsewhere.”
The other immutable? “Supporting Leicester City. There are some things a man must hold with, and not changing your football team is one. You should have it stamped on your arm from an early age. Fox For Ever!”
The Essay: Changing My Mind is on Monday—Friday 10.45pm Radio 3