It takes Barbara Trapidido a while to open the front door of her Oxford home. She’s looking after a friend’s Romanian rescue dog who is desperately trying to escape, and her own dog, who resembles Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, eyes me with a resigned air.
Her house, a charming cottage leading onto the canal in Jericho, is temporarily housing her son and granddaughter, so there are dolls houses and colouring pens scattered throughout. There are also books everywhere – an entire wall of them, the surplus spilling out of endless bookcases.
Ushering me in, Barbara makes fresh coffee. She’s very agile for an 82 year-old, and apologises for her mismatched furniture which was recently acquired from Emmaus, after an unscrupulous floor cleaner took all her furniture away, never to be seen again.
“They found his van in Portsmouth” she shrugs, “but I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again. It makes you realise how fond you become of things. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because I can’t take it with me can I?”
Barbara is everything I’d hoped for: eccentric, academic, bohemian, friendly, interesting, and more importantly sharp as a razor – her encyclopaedic mind still able to pluck names, facts and quotes from the air without batting an eyelid, her rabid and unquenchable capacity for knowledge, people and literature as thirsty as ever.
‘writing is like theatre really? It’s just a different way of taking in people’s lives’
And for this I am enormously grateful, because while Barbara swears her books aren’t autobiographical, she is there on every page – her observations, humour, casual literary proficiency and endless fascination for the human race visible to all.
We are here to discuss her first novel Brother Of The More Famous Jack, recently republished to mark its 40th anniversary, (although never out of print), and Barbara’s upcoming talk at Blackwell’s with the wonderful author Lucy Atkins READ OUR RECENT INTERVIEW WITH LUCY HERE on Thursday (November 30). BOOK NOW
If you are still none-the-wiser Barbara Trapido is the author of seven novels, three nominated for the Whitbread Prize, her semi-autobiographical Frankie & Stankie longlisted for the Booker prize.
She started writing when a fellow mum begged her to start putting her observations down on paper, and when she did, it was secretly at night when everyone was asleep.
“I wrote Brother Of The More Famous Jack for her, chapter by chapter on a little Olivetti typewriter. It made more sense than finishing my thesis on Pre-Rapahelite poetry,” she laughs.
It is still a gift of a book, the wonderfully bohemian, left-wing, intellectual Goldman family, sucking you in, as they do the protagonist Katherine, their story playing out through her eyes.
Barbara knows Brother Of The More Famous Jack almost word for word, (she would read passages out to test their rhythm in order to make the conversations jump off the page), and talks about the characters and as if they have minds of their own, she a mere scribe.
“Writing was just a way of setting down the characters I conjured in my head to keep myself amused. I never thought anyone would want to read about about them. And that’s the wonderful thing about your first book – you can write what you want because you never expect it to be published.”
‘Writing was just a way of setting down the characters I conjured in my head to keep myself amused’
“So I’ve never really planned anything in terms of my writing because the characters talk to me, and then I have revelations which present themselves along the way.
“It was so much fun to be writing and rather addictive. I considered Brother Of The More Famous Jack like a rather highbrow soap opera and had no idea where the Goldmans came from but it was such fun playing with them.”
How she found the time with two small children was down to ingenuity, but even that took its toll.
“I would write (her second novel was Noah’s Ark) when everyone else had gone to bed. But my husband’s pupils would come for dinner and leave really late, so I had to wait until they’d all left before I could get started. Which meant I got really tired and would fall asleep at dinner parties.
“But then one night I awoke at 4am on one of the kids bunk beds having fallen asleep, and it seemed as good a time as any to write. And it was a revelation. You had the world to yourself.
“So the the trio of connecting novels I wrote next in the small hours were Temples of Delight, her personal favourite Juggling, and The Travelling Hornplayer, in less of a dream state, more disciplined.”
Then came the follow-up to Brother Of The More Famous Jack – The Travelling Hornplayer, then Frankie & Stankie and lastly Sex & Stravinsky (2010).
Barbara only stopped writing in fact when her husband Stanley had a stroke, caring for him until his death in 2008. “It was a shame to stop really because I had lots of ideas. Once I’d realised that it was OK to explore my characters further in other books, there were so many possibilities,” she says.
‘Once I’d realised that it was OK to explore my characters further in other books, there were so many possibilities’
And yet Barbara’s own story is as fascinating: her parents leaving Germany in the 1930s when the fascists came to power and escaping to South Africa.
It was an idyllic suburban childhood, although Barbara was a ‘sickly, weedy, non-eating child who kept fainting in lessons.”
But when the apartheid movement gathered momentum and the brutality of the white regime became routine, she left. Having already met her future husband Stanley, a keen activist, the pair decided to emigrate to England.
They settled in Primrose Hill in 1963: “Alan Bennett moved in just as we were leaving, and Jonathan Miller was round the corner in Camden Town etc. I used to take the train from Chalk Farm to Dalston Junction, and then a bus to my culture shock teaching job in Hackney. I so adored living in London, even though we had no money.
“It was quite a culture shock to start with,” Barbara acceded “and we never looked back, but I think it meant I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, even though I’ve been very happy living in England,” she says, a trace of her South African accent still visible.
They then moved to Durham because Stanley got a job there: “I used to take the bus with the miners from Durham to Sunderland every morning where I taught in the Sunderland Docks. I love the north east and still have a big nostalgia for it,” Barbara adds.
That her work is still relevant today is another towering achievement, her editors deciding to republish it word-for-word, despite its lively racial and sexual discussions. “Anyone who reads Brother Of The More Famous Jack will know it’s anti-racist, even if the some of the characters run the risk of being bigoted, so I’m comfortable with that,” Barbara says.
“And besides, in this book the characters talk about sex a lot but don’t actually do it much!”
‘they talk about sex a lot but don’t actually do it much’
And then our time is up, Barbara off to discuss the works of Kazuo Ishiguro over lunch with a friend, as you do.
But considering her friends number Maggie O Farrell and Meg Mason READ OUT INTERVIEW WITH MEG HERE, or that Oxford’s very own Mick Herron READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH MICK HERE and Lucy Atkins were responsible for chivying Blackwells into hosting an event for Barbara, her legacy stretches right down the literary line and is still bringing joy to countless new readers all these years later.
But before she heads off I ask Barbara Trapido one more question. What did happen to her thesis then? “I left it out in the rain one night and it turned to papier mache. It was such a relief,” she says mischievously before turning and adding: “because it’s much nicer connecting with people through my books instead. And writing is like theatre really isn’t it? It’s just a different way of taking in people’s lives.”
Barbara Trapido is discussing ‘Brother of the More Famous Jack’ with Lucy Atkins at Blackwell’s, Broad Street Oxford on Thursday Nov 30. BOOK HERE