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#Book Review: An Education by Lynn Barber


Amazon delivered ‘An Education’ on Friday. I took it in my hands yesterday afternoon, and I did not go to sleep until I finished it. The book reads like a short history of British journalism as Lynn Barber worked in journalism since the 1970s, thus experiencing enormous changes in the industry and the British society over so many decades of work.  

The book is a memoir of Barber’s life and comprises chapter on growing up and the teenage years, as well as chapters on her time at Oxford when she was reading English Literature, her husband David, her career in Penthouse and the Fleet Street and chapters on becoming a widow and an orphan.

The biggest value of the book is in reflective writing and confronting the past that Barber does so effectively. The value of the book is also in evidencing how early experiences influence our lives and stay with us even in very senior age. For example, in Barber’s case, she was groomed by a much older Jewish man named Simon who was also married with two children he kept as a secret. He groomed not just her but also her parents who were so charmed with him that they tried to convince Barber not to go to Oxford but to just marry a wannabe bigamist and a conman, which went against everything they were teaching her all her life. Thus, the value of education dominated her early years and teenage years only for her parents to tell her that she does not need to go to Oxford if she has a good man to marry.

After everything got disclosed and after realizing she never really loved Simon, Barber did go to Oxford but only to fall into promiscuity in an attempt to enjoy herself and also find the right guy. She did find him in her last month in Oxford and this is what surprised me the most. When I saw David’s photo in the book I got surprised because he was a prettier version of Simon I imagined when reading one of the first chapters about the conman. David was obviously a better person and they were married until his death. But interestingly, based on the book, two most significant men in Barber’s life were both Jewish, just two Jing Jang’s of the same tribe.

What also made me think is Barber’s reflection on feminism. She writes in details about her work in the Penthouse, a pornographic magazine many saw as one of the leaders in objectifying women and downgrading them to nothing more than sex objects. I also see these magazines in this way, however, due to my extensive research in history and recently organisational culture I’ve always been aware that throughout history many women had to take jobs that were available to them and deal with it whether they liked it or not. I also know we cannot analyse history with today’s knowledge but have to understand it through the context in which something happened. The latter is the reason I like reading memoirs and why I appreciate living history. So that is how I always saw women who worked in pornographic and other women objectifying magazines. What I never thought is that some women could see these magazines as a liberation of women. This is what Barber describes in her book where she explains that when she was growing up, talking about women having pleasure in sex, how to satisfy a woman or anything in regards to women and sex was taboo and thus having articles about women and sex, clitoris and women being allowed to pose naked was seen as liberation and newly gained freedom. I never thought about it this way.

Would I ever work in a magazine such as this one? No, and I declined offers to work in lifestyle magazines when I was a journalist because I always saw them as patriarchal and they did not interest me. But, that is my feminism. My feminism has always been about empowerment, personal choice and a battle against objectification. Recently I’ve been wondering whether one can be a feminist without becoming some sort of a socialist but that is again my reflection on feminism. Barber’s feminism could have been what she described in her well-written book albeit she never did identify as a feminist. However, I read her book as a feminist piece too because Barber makes lots of comments on the position of women at her time, and with that, she contributed towards the history of women’s suffrage. I only wished she wrote more about it so that we can know in more details how was it to be a female journalist in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s because not much has been written about it. I also wish she wrote more about newsroom culture, i.e. instead of expenses and travelling that she wrote more about her editors and male colleagues.

I normally don’t like women who refuse to identify as feminists (I have been able to remain polite in the past five years. Thank you  Leeds Beckett University, for forcing me to engage with public relations research and teaching!), and I most certainly do not like anything celebrity, social media or selfie culture. However, I did find a lot in common with Barber. Like her, I also have a weird memory and I tend to forget stuff. Not to the same extent Barber has described but enough to put me in a situation that my memory is a string of events, which are connected through meaning that matters to me rather than chronologically. Thus, writing a memoir would be as difficult for me as it was for Barber. Like Barber, until recently I did not believe myself enough. In other words, it took two undergraduate degrees, postgraduate degrees and two doctorates for me to say oi to myself and start realizing I am doing good. Similarly, when Barber was at Oxford she saw herself as inferior to some other colleagues who were doing better than her, but what I read is that she managed to complete a course at Oxford whilst heavily partying, which proves to me that she was more intelligent than she thought.

Barber has accused her former editor, a notable feminist, of sacking her partly also because she did not want to identify as a feminist (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/10/getting-the-sack-was-a-shock-but-not-a-surprise/). So, I had to ask myself would I sack her if I had a chance? Probably. After reading this book? I don’t know.  

Thank you for reading.

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