In a North Yorkshire village Stephen McClarence meets a public face of Private Eye – and much, much more.
Apparently, according to Mike Barfield, the noop is the sharp point of your elbow and oont is a North African word for camels. To mimp is apparently “to purse your lips in a disapproving manner” and to strub – you know strub? – is to “strip or rob a bird’s nest, to take all the eggs out,” says Barfield, a multifaceted artist, writer, sculptor and performer who apparently knows. “And flidder – that’s a Scarborough word for a limpet. Probably a North beach word.”
You’ll have noticed the word “apparently” three times so far. It’s a clue. Apparently is the title of the cartoon strip which Barfield, based at two-villages-in-one between Thirsk and York, has been drawing for the past 15 years for Private Eye, the satirical magazine that has been scourging the establishment for – well, strike me pink, would you credit it! – half a century.
About 70 enlargements of the strip – very clever, very whimsical – are on show in York for the next month. I’d like to give you a flavour of them, but they’re half-verbal, half-visual, so a straightforward description tends to do them no justice.
But let’s try. There’s a strip subtitled Impersonalised Number Plates. Here are NE1 and AN 0N, H0IP L0Y and RA88LE. Read them out loud. Clever, as I say, whimsical, and full of the wordplay that’s at the heart of Barfield’s humour. Humour that doesn’t dig you in the ribs with its noop.
Which brings us back to oont, mimp, strub and flidder. And malle maroking – “the drunken carousing of Norwegian sailors on board icebound sailing ships”. All these words – whose existence is surely worth believing in -– are among Barfield’s Driftwords, a series of “lost words” which he’s painted on bits of driftwood found on the banks of the River Swale near his home in Helperby. Or Helperby Brafferton, as the sign on the road down from Thirsk says.
“They’re two villages that got so close that they merged,” he says, in his mauve “Daddy Cool” teeshirt (probably ironic), hunched over the steering wheel and eyeballing the windscreen as though he means business. “If you come in from the York side, the sign says Brafferton Helperby.”
He’s met me at Thirsk station and I’m well-briefed. “I’ll send you my CV,” he said on the phone when we were fixing up to meet. Then you can turn up, have a look at the house, ask a couple of questions and go home.” I laugh this off, but then I see the CV. Even in very small type, it runs to four A4 sides, reflecting what he calls “my strangely Byzantine career”.
It includes: TV writer and script editor – Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Have I Got News for You, The Rory Bremner Show, The Two Ronnies, You Are What You Eat. Radio writer on WeekEnding, The News Huddlines, Dead Ringers. Poet in residence at this year’s Ripon Festival. Billboard poster for an English Riviera ad. Designs for Spitting Image boxer shorts. After-dinner performer at Hitchin Scouts centenary dinner.
And runner-up in last summer’s BBC Radio Five Live World Cup Song contest. His song for England was characteristically subversive, an antidote to We Are the Champions anthems. It was called Don’t Set Your Sights Too High. Not negative; just realistic, he says. He picks up his ukelele – which he plays as a licensed busker in York – and sings part of it:
“I’m quite an optimistic guy,
I like to look for pigs in the sky,
But remember this is England;
Don’t set your sights too high.”
The CV hints at his adrenalin-charged versatility. He’s a human Catherine wheel, ideas sparking off in all directions, a hyperactive mind, freewheeling, spiralling off down odd mental corridors, full of quickfire patter, as though he’s being paid for words-per-minute.
His workroom, at the back of the house, with his wife Jessica making jewellery in the front, reflects all this. On a tailor’s dummy is a top hat and a former doorman’s outfit from Claridges which he bought at a charity shop (“probably Harrogate”). He uses it for – well, to tell the truth, I can’t quite remember, as by this stage, I’d been there two hours and Barfield had hardly paused for breath and I was running out of notebook. But it’s a show that involves wind-up tin toys: “They’re hilarious, they either break or fall over.”
The bookshelves near his desk are similarly eclectic: 25 Years of Viz, James Hunter’s Book of Indoor Entertainments, Complete British Insects, Beachcomber columns (he’s done a book about them), a Spitting Image of Margaret Thatcher, and shelves of Beano and Dandy annuals, which – along with Punch cartoons which he read as a kid in the library at Wigston in Leicester – are what started him out in comedy.
As a child (he shows me his school photos on his computer: “That’s Norman Leet, who went on to play for Leicester City”), he was so obsessed with comics that he wanted to become a newsagent so he could read them before anyone else. “The only career ambition I’ve ever had,” he says. “Unfulfilled.” It led, however, to working on the Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show on TV in the 90s (“I wrote 99 and a half of the 100 episodes; it was a really great honour”).
And he did cartoons. Sent off batches of them to the London Evening Standard – “and for good measure to everyone else – Nursing Times, History Today, whatever was on the news rack”. And, back in the mid-90s, to Private Eye, for which he’d already written jokes. “There’s my first payment,” he says and brings up the £25 invoice on-screen. “Signed by the wonderfully named Dave Cash.” He addressed the cartoons to the editor, Ian Hislop.
“Jessica and I were putting up some Ikea shelving and the phone rang and it was Ian. He said: ‘I’ve got your cartoons here and I think they’re very funny and I think we’ll start running them in the New Year.’ And I’ve been doing them more or less ever since.”
They’re satirical, on the ball about fads and trends, but also gently wistful, as he is himself, when he gives himself a chance. Being so versatile and diverse isn’t necessarily a good thing, he says. “People who get on in life are very single-minded and focused. But I’m multiple-minded. People get confused about what I do, because I do so many different things.”
He also gets wistful about his TV comedy-writing life in London, from where the Barfields and their two children moved to Yorkshire two years ago. “There was a writers’ corridor in the building where we worked; ‘the coalface of comedy’. There were people who had worked on the tail-end of The Goon Show. It was a magical time.”
Briefly, because we’re running out of time before my train home, he has set up a website called Wonkipedia, “a very silly reference site for kids” with himself as Wonkmaster General. And – well, have a look on his website, www.mikebarfield.co.uk.
“I’d like you to present me as a Renaissance man,” he says, “and if you could mention my one-man show in Helperby Millennium Hall on November 4... I’ve got the small hall. There’s badminton in the big hall, a regular Friday night feature. Tickets on 01423 360364.”
And then, with the train alarmingly imminent, he can’t find his car keys to take me back to Thirsk station, but he does, and we rush out to the car. There’s no time to clunt – “to walk in a heavy-footed manner”. Apparently.
Apparently exhibition is at City Screen Picturehouse Gallery, Coney Street, York, until November 5. Viewable daily between 11am and 10.30pm.