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A brand new chapter
Damian Barr is one of those enviable sorts who seemingly never experience a dull day in the office.
For a start, he works in a shed, tucked away in the garden of his Seven Dials flat. He also has the kind of job title that requires the use of commas.
A journalist taken on by The Times direct from university, Barr has gone on to add author, playwright and literary salon host to his credits. He has set up silent cinemas, drive-in movies and reading weekends, had a manicure with Paris Hilton’s mother, read Jackie Collins novels to strangers in hotel rooms and won over a grumpy Bret Easton Ellis.
Next month, the Fringe trustee will preside over The Hendrick’s Horseless Carriage Of Curiosities, a runaway Victorian train carriage that will be parked in Jubilee Square, offering personalised reading prescriptions, gin tastings and literary cabaret. Oh, and he’s just started work on a novel.
If it doesn’t sound like the 32-year-old gets much time for daytime TV, that’s because he doesn’t. “My life is incredibly structured,” he says. “My diary is hour-by-hour, day- by-day – read this on Monday, buy that on Tuesday, see so-and-so on Wednesday… it’s dreary, but it’s the only way I can do everything.”
The “exiled Scot” moved to Brighton in 1999, when he started working at The Times writing a column about graduate life. Interviewing dozens of 20-somethings, he noticed a theme emerging – as diverse as they were, many were reporting the same anxiety and dissatisfaction with their lives. They were worried about the career they had chosen, the partner they were with, the friends they thought they’d outgrown. In short, they were having what had been dubbed in the US, a “Quarter-Life Crisis”. Barr may not have coined the phrase but in 2004, he published the first book to offer practical advice on this unsettling period – Get It Together: Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis – featuring case studies and personal anecdotes.
“Writing it was actually quite therapeutic for me,” he explains. “It enabled me to think honestly about what I wanted to do. I’d been made redundant from the paper three times and while that shook my confidence, it stiffened my resolve not to be in that situation again. When you become self-employed, you can’t be made redundant.”
He wrote two plays which were broadcast on Radio 4 – one, Gite a La Mer, recorded from a beach hut on Brighton seafront during the 2006 Fringe – and began experimenting with writing the novel he’s now five chapters into. “It’s a kind of memoir,” he says, coyly, “But about a very specific period in my life.
I don’t mean to be cagey, it’s just that it feels like talking about your dreams when it’s not the finished article yet.”
Barr has benefited from contact with some high-profile tutors. As host of the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, which he launched three years ago, he’s reminisced with celebrated 92-year-old novelist Diana Athill, talked Jesus with controversy-courting American James Frey and turned a tricky interview with satirist Bret Easton Ellis into a friendship.
The salon taps into a growing trend Barr describes as the “experience economy”. Rather than doing an activity alone, people now want to take part in something they can talk about, Tweet or post on Facebook afterwards. The salon, which encourages rowdy debate and forbids pretentious questions, is intended as an antidote to the stereotypical “middle-brow, middle-England, middle-aged” live lit event.
It attracts up to 300 cocktail-slugging young creatives every month – the sort of people, Barr is told time and again, publishers don’t think read books.
A similar drive underpins The Reading Weekend, a weekend literary retreat Barr hosts at Tilton House near Charleston, which was once the home of economist John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova. “I think people can be too high-minded and snooty about books,” says Barr, who enjoys “chick-lit and bad historical fiction” as much as high-brow fare. “Authors are just people, after all, and you realise that when you spend a weekend with them and see them in their pants trying to get into the bathroom. You can be respectful without being reverential.”
In 2008, Barr took his love of reading into unchartered waters when he became the world’s first “reader-in-residence” at London’s Andaz hotel. The scheme saw him offering his literary services day and night. Guests could book him to read them bedtime stories in their rooms (he drew up a Book Menu), discuss novels over lunch or consult him for “bibliotherapy”, where he would prescribe appropriate reading material based on individual tastes.
“Some people did compare it to being a prostitute,” he smiles wryly. “And I suppose in the sense I was being paid to give pleasure to people, there’s a definite parallel. But you let people massage you, wax your legs… much more intimate things than read a story to you.”
He admits Jackie Collins novels were a little awkward, however: “All those heaving bosoms and thrusting buttocks!”
Barr has since rolled the scheme out at hotels across the world. Last year he enjoyed a stay in Brighton’s Myhotel, where, as part of the City Reads programme, he read guests Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love over – what else? – Martinis. “I realised then that it’s very important not to have too many Martinis if you’re reading James Bond…you shtart to shlur like Sean Connery.”
It is on all these experiences Barr will draw when he curates the Hendrick’s Horseless Carriage Of Curiosities at next month’s Brighton Fringe.
The gin makers have provided a five-figure sponsorship fee to this year’s event – their biggest to date. Although this will be its first visit to the city, Barr has toured with the 18th-century train carriage everywhere from Cambridgeshire’s Secret Garden Party festival to the Buxton Fringe, introducing visitors to curios and stories, plus the edifying sight of a bath tub that dispenses gin from its taps.
Those who climb aboard in Brighton will discover literature salons with leading authors including Polly Samson and Stella Duffy, an “authors’ den” for budding novelists to pitch their ideas and literary-inspired dining experiences from Bompas & Parr, who do Willy Wonka-esque things with jelly.
Barr, who invited local literary groups and organisations to pitch for slots in the programme, is delighted to be so involved in the festival, after joining the board of trustees last year. “We have a lot of very talented people in the city who want to do bold, creative work here and I wanted to bring my experience in running other successful events to the city I love.”
Barr’s hectic professional life couldn’t be more different from that of Mike Moran, his boyfriend of nearly 15 years, who is a ceramicist with a studio on the seafront (Arch 229, he rather sweetly points out). The pair met at Lancaster University, where Barr was studying English literature and sociology after dropping out of a journalism degree he “absolutely hated” at Edinburgh Napier.
“I feel like we’re in third or fourth version of our relationship now – it’s like Doctor Who. He’s from Yorkshire and he’s very practical and pragmatic and keeps my feet on the ground. He just wants me to be happy on my own terms and he’s incredibly together.”
Despite this show of affection, one suspects Moran may be facing competition. Barr cannot stop talking about his “girls” – who turn out to be four chickens called Gertie, Betty, Dixie and Mabel. “They’re amazing,” he coos, a big soppy grin spreading across his face.
“I could honestly go on for hours about them. One of them came from Middle Farm as an egg which was hatched out by another hen. IVF, surrogacy… it’s all very Brighton isn’t it?”
*Hendrick’s Horseless Carriage Of Curiosities will be in Jubilee Square from May 20-30, as part of the Brighton Fringe. For more information, visit www.brightonfestivalfringe.org.uk.
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