Barrow, Andrew 1945-
BARROW, Andrew 1945-
PERSONAL: Born May 11, 1945, in Lancaster, England; son of George Erskine (a solicitor) and Margaret (a painter; maiden name, MacInnes) Barrow. Education: Attended private secondary school in Harrow, England.
ADDRESSES: Home—18 Eldon Rd., Kensington, London W8 and Brook Farmhouse, Brokenborough, Wiltshire. Agent—Gillon Aitken, 18-21 Cavaye Place, London SW10, England.
CAREER: Author of nonfiction works and novels. Professional comedian, 1963-66; advertising copywriter in London, England, 1967-68; freelance writer, 1968—.
AWARDS, HONORS: The Tap Dancer won the Hawthornden and McKitterick prizes.
Gossip: A History of High Society, 1920 to 1970, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1978, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan (New York, NY), 1979.
The Flesh Is Weak: An Intimate History of the Church of England, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1980.
International Gossip: A History of High Society, 1970-1980, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1983.
The Gossip Family Handbook, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1983.
The Great Book of Small Talk, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1987.
The Tap Dancer (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1992.
The Man in the Moon (novel), Macmillan (London, England), 1996.
Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait, Macmillan (London, England), 2002.
Contributor to newspapers and magazines, including Harper's, Queen, Transatlantic Review, Vogue, Punch, Independent, Daily Telegraph, World of Interiors and Observer.
SIDELIGHTS: Andrew Barrow once told CA that he had an "obsession with trivia, such as details of food, drink, dress, transport, and homes. I have no interest in politics, but am very interested in what politicians have for breakfast." This fascination with trivia is evident in Barrow's early writings, including Gossip: A History of High Society, 1920 to 1970 and The Flesh Is Weak: An Intimate History of the Church of England. These works look at history from an unusual angle.
In Gossip, Barrow invents the structure he would return to in other nonfiction works and in his novels, juxtaposing sequences of apparently unrelated paragraphs with little or no authorial commentary or narration. According to Anthony Quinton, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, this style emphasizes the triviality of Barrow's subjects, whether they be members of high society, as in Gossip, or church officials, as in The Flesh Is Weak. This arrangement is perhaps fitting for Barrow's subject in the first book, "but it is distinctly saucy to set about the dear old C of E in this way," Quinton contended. In The Flesh Is Weak, Barrow offers a history of the misbehavior of Church of England officials from the sixteenth century to the present. In the Spectator, Benny Green noted that The Flesh Is Weak features a "succession of drunkards, lustpots, lechers, gourmands and drug addicts who parade through the pages of Mr. Barrow's book without so much as a reprimand." The author "is wisely content to let the facts speak for themselves." Quinton noted that only a small part of the narrative centers on the scandalous side of the church and more intriguing are glimpses of the church in the Empire. Both Quinton and Green concluded that although Barrow has not written an intellectual account, his work is entertaining. "For believers and infidels alike, Mr. Barrow has compiled a work of such surpassing triviality as to be quite irresistible," noted Green.
Barrow also infuses his novels with his fascination for human trivia. The Tap Dancer is a portrait of a middle-class English family of five sons dominated by an eccentric father. Cressida Connolly observed in the Spectator that "[Barrow's] insight into the minutiae of English family life is absolutely brilliant." The author, she stated, captures the gossip, wordless communication between married people, and banal chat of acquaintances with remarkable precision. "The people in this book seldom say anything important, much less profound, but the accumulation of their, mostly trivial, remarks provides the reader with a deep and satisfying knowledge of each personality," wrote Connolly. Barrow also adapted the narrative structure of his nonfiction to his fiction, slicing each chapter into brief vignettes separated by asterisks. "Had I the good fortune to be Andrew Barrow's editor," commented Connolly, "I should have tried to let the narrative flow with rather less resistance from the punctuation." Similarly, Tim Gooderham, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, noted the lack of plot in The Tap Dancer, and attributed Barrow's success in the novel to "the credibility and interest of its characters," each of whom is "perfectly realized, thanks largely to Barrow's remarkable skill at pinpointing the social and psychological undercurrents of casual conversation."
Like The Tap Dancer, Barrow's second novel, The Man in the Moon, is divided into vignettes, and, as in his earlier works, critics highlighted the author's facility for capturing personality through dialogue and his penchant for offering reams of it without commentary. Unlike The Tap Dancer, however, "the story [of The Man in the Moon] seems almost to tell itself," remarked Hal Jensen in the Times Literary Supplement. The novel is narrated by William, a young man who thinks he is very funny until he encounters abject failure at his first gig as a comedian, telling jokes at a pub called the Man in the Moon. The story proceeds through a series of interwoven remembrances of incidents covering the ensuing four years as William gets a job at an advertising agency, seeks out a psychiatrist, finds a new apartment, and so forth. Alan Coren, a contributor to the Spectator, saw the overarching theme of The Man in the Moon as the hilarity and tragedy of the failure to communicate, the thread that connects the disparate memories that populate this book. "That this highly comical book should also be a deeply sad one, is both deeply sad and highly comical," observed Coren, who described the novel as a "brilliant, hilarious and highly disturbing testament to what careless talk reveals."
In his biography Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait, Barrow examines the intertwined lives of Quentin Crisp, an icon of the gay world, and Philip O'Connor, a writer who, like Crisp, was friends with Barrow. In alternating chapters, Barrow tells the story of the two men, both of them alienated from mainstream society. Crisp was born Dennis Pratt in 1908. Even as a teen he considered himself very different from those around him, and at a young age he left his home in Sutton to go to London. There he made a good living as a model, and he further made a name for himself by his generosity toward his friends. O'Connor was born some eight years after Crisp, and spent part of his boyhood in France. The two met in London's Soho district. O'Connor was a poet of some talent, but eventually, his sponsorship by a wealthy patron "sapped his will to write, and fuelled his will to drink," commented Philip Hoare in the Guardian. In August, 1963, O'Connor conducted a radio interview with Crisp which brought him to the attention of a wider audience. In addition to his modeling, Crisp also wrote, being best known for his memoir The Naked Civil Servant, which when adapted for television became "a piece of television history which coincided with a burgeoning gay liberation to reinvent the way 'we' thought about homosexuality." Hoare praised Barrow's depiction of the two men's lives, stating that in the author's "deft and cleverly constructed text, the two dance in and out of each other's lives and his own imagination." Reviewing the book for the Daily Telegraph, Will Cohu noted that the author's personal connection to the two men was perhaps a weakness as well as a strength, because "as a biographer, Barrow cannot bear to part with any of the material he's gleaned over the years. His own beautifully tuned writing undervalues itself in homage to the words of his subjects, and there are pages of non-essential gossip and marginal observations. . . . If Quentin and Philip were less of a work of love, it might be a better book." Roger Lewis, a reviewer for the London Times, was of a different opinion. Though he found little to admire about Crisp or O'Connor, he described Barrow's biography as "an eerie prose-poem—an evocation of a pair of creepy waxworks whom, in the end, I found it impossible to laugh off. This is a spellbinding, twisted book—a horrible masterpiece."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Daily Telegraph, December 7, 2002, Will Cohu, review of Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait, p. 10.
Guardian, December 21, 2002, Philip Hoare, review of Quentin and Philip, p. 16.
Mankind, February, 1982, Douglas Hilt, review of TheFlesh Is Weak: An Intimate History of the Church of England, p. 48.
Observer, December 1, 2002, Peter Conrad, review of Quentin and Philip, p. 16.
Spectator, February 28, 1981, pp. 23-24; June 13, 1992, p. 29; March 30, 1996, pp. 32-33.
Times (London, England), February 12, 2003, Roger Lewis, review of Quentin and Philip, p. 20.
Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1980, p. 1278; December 18, 1987, pp. 1399-1400; June 19, 1992, p. 21; March 22, 1996, p. 24.*