Damian Barr: On My Culture Radar
The Literary Salon host and author on the genius of Keith Haring, Natalie Haynes’s comedy classics and why Schitt’s Creek is a sitcom with a difference.
Damian Barr: ‘I’ve just read two collections of essays that really speak to each other and by which I was dazzled.’ File photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Current favourite book?
Back to back, I’ve just read two collections of essays that really speak to each other and by which I was dazzled: Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. She’s writing about the body and illness, but also wellness and joy, and work. And he’s writing about how to use your lived experience to create fiction. The two books back to back were an interesting combination, and it made me realise how little writing there was by men about bodies. For obvious and unpleasant reasons, there has been more of a call for women to do that.
The Flint House is in a new jazzy, Disney-esque street by The Lanes in Brighton. You can’t book and it’s small, which I find annoying, but every single one of the plates is delicious. I ordered many rounds of their tiny deep-fried battered oysters. And it’s open throughout the day, so it keeps writers’ hours. There’s also the The Little Fish Market, which I love even more. They only have one menu, so you don’t make any choices and everything you get is a surprise. It’s fish-based without feeling like you’ve been put in trawler.
Natalie Haynes, who’s a friend. She’s touring with Troy Story, which brings the Greek drama to life, and she makes it accessible and funny. She has a BBC Radio 4 series called Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, and she has a new novel too, A Thousand Ships.
I was in the National Arts Club in New York the other week and there was a fragment of a Keith Haring sketch of white chalk on black paper and it was very haunting – they looked like little ghosts. He entered my consciousness, then it turned out there are three shows this summer in the UK, so I’m definitely going to go and find out more. He’s often reduced to tote bags and tea towels, but using the visual language of the street, graffiti and pan-African and rave culture, he’s one of the most political artists of his generation.
I went to New Zealand on a fellowship last year and discovered Zealandia by Dudley Benson, who’s often described as a male Björk. It’s somehow patriotic without being nationalistic; the title track is all about New Zealand’s beauty, the stars, landscape and relationship with the Maui people. Just listen to that one title track and you’ll get it.
I tend to listen to narrative ones, the most recent being Intrigue: The Ratline by Philippe Sands. It is chilling. He’s the descendant of Jews from a town in Germany, and in this, he meets the descendant of the Nazis who eradicated his family to find out what they knew or didn’t know about what they were doing. It’s a 10-part BBC podcast that’s almost like a war thriller but it’s contemporary, and I like that it includes the process of how they track letters, diaries and notebooks. I also like how these people, who have so little reason to get on, actually manage to be friends. It’s really dark, but hopeful.
Social media profile
Benjamin Dreyer’s book about punctuation and grammar, Dreyer’s English, has been a bestseller in the States, and now it’s being published here. His posts on Twitter (@BCDreyer) are equally brilliant. He’s been Random House’s copy editor for years, and he calls out grammar issues, but explains his points in a humorous and generous way.
I’m trying not to devour all of Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. Sitcoms are so old fashioned as a genre, but somehow the way the family relate to one another, even though it’s sometimes quite mean, it’s always warm and loving. There’s a final sixth series on the way after the current one.
I watched Can You Ever Forgive Me? on the plane the other day. Everyone thought Melissa McCarthy was “that fat funny chick falling over” but here she plays a writer having to forge letters to make a living, because the culture she’s in isn’t interested in her or her stories. It’s a brilliant depiction of genteel, artistic poverty in New York, and a look at the gossipy, literary scene of the time. People will watch it and think it’s made up, but she was real. You get to the credits and think: “Oh God, this amazing woman, who I now want to meet, is dead.” I found myself crying watching it, and I didn’t expect that.
Damian Barr will be reading from You Will Be Safe Here in the Gutter Bookshop, Dublin. Booking from eventbrite.ie