Nigel Barley: Anthropologist and Writer

Nigel Barley was born and grew up in a small town south of London called Weybridge where, he says, people worked in the aircraft factory and grew cabbages for excitement. He had a particularly dull childhood, convincing him that the rest of the world must be more interesting and which he couldn’t wait to go and see. He earned his first degree at Cambridge in Modern Languages (1970) and his second at Oxford in Anthropology (1974). Nigel has written more than 15 books ranging from anthropology, biographies and novels to history and museum catalogues. Presently he’s writing about the Farquhar collection of natural history drawings in the Singapore National Museum and also working on a novel set in S.E. Asia spanning the period from the 19th century to the 1950’s.

What are your hobbies?

Growing any vegetables but cabbage, flying kites, collecting rubbish from all round the world. I have a great fondness for African pottery.

What book has deeply affected you?

Levi-Strauss’s Totemism. I thought all anthropology would be precise and incisive like that and clear away mental confusion. I was wrong.

What kinds of work have you done in your life?

I worked as a metal broker in the city and hated it to the point that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. It involved uselessly buying and selling options simply to make a profit. I was a university teacher where I felt like a total impostor since I didn’t really know very much about anything. Finally, I worked as a curator at the British Museum where I learned to actually enjoy being ignorant about things. I worked at that fine institution for some twenty years until, one day, they left my door unlocked and I escaped.

Have you traveled to many interesting places around the world?

I’ve been to quite a lot of places. I liked Japan where I was always totally lost. India was fascinating. Every time you turned a corner, something strange was going on. Cameroon, in West Africa, was perhaps the most interesting but the least enjoyable. I lived on my own in a village up a mountain and nearly died.

How did you first become interested in Indonesia?

I always knew Indonesia would be good. The first time I simply wandered around with my mouth open for several weeks. For many years, I disapproved of Bali and avoided it as not ‘genuine’ Indonesia. Then one year, I was forced to come to Bali in order to change planes and found it delightful and very, very Indonesian. Since then I’ve been to most places in the country but I suddenly found I had got old before I reached the easternmost islands. Just too many islands!

Why do you think you became a writer?

I started to write as a way of knocking a hole in a closed and suffocating world. I think most people become writers because it’s a way of retreating into themselves and creating worlds out of their own heads. Of course, once they are published, their publishers drive them out to perform a sort of striptease in public.

Why did you choose to write about Walter Spies and Stamford Raffles, two vastly dissimilar characters?

I looked after the Raffles collection at the British Museum – made in Java between 1811 and 1816 – and it was clearly a long time since anyone had laid out the material and really looked at it. I began to wonder about the man behind the collection and became obsessed with him. Writing his biography was a way of sorting it all out in my mind. I waited for fifteen years for someone brilliant to write about Spies, a fascinating character, who was a painter, film-maker, choreographer, ethnographer and musician, and finally decided I’d better do it myself if I wanted to see it done at all. I suppose both men embody aspects of what Westerners dream they might have become, given the right circumstances. Both have been mythologized and demonized and both were deeply flawed people.

What’s the most difficult piece of writing you’ve ever taken on?

Any book proposal. As works of complete fiction, they are always much harder to write than the actual book. That’s why I tend to write a book first and try to find a publisher afterwards. Writing to order is the sensible path but I just can’t do it.

What kind of writing do you like best?

I like to take a complicated subject I know nothing about, find out everything I possibly can about it, and then sum it all up in an approachable and non-technical way. It doesn’t matter if the end result is ethnography, fiction or travelogue. The process is the same.

What’s the most unusual writing assignment you’ve ever embarked upon?

I once wrote an anthropological assessment of Madonna before she became respectable.

Do you have any future plans?

I want to go to the Cocos-Keeling Islands (between Christmas Island and the Australian mainland) largely because they are so difficult to get to. Also I plan to take a pottery course and learn to make myself the stuff I have written about and see if what I wrote is true and what I make is beautiful or hideous.

How may interested readers learn more about your work?

There’s a brief Wikipedia entry, a CV on my agent’s site ( or just look on the Amazon or websites.

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Copyright © 2009 Al Hickey

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