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Thursday, 25 June 2009

FEATURE: Barbie – Life and Soul

Barbie, in Melody Maker days, on a pilgrimage to Macca

She only came for three months. Now, after 17 years, Barbie Drillsma is leaving as ABSW Administrator. Ted Nield asks her: what next?

I first met Barbie in the mid 1980s when I was writing regularly for New Scientist. Now and then, if something of mine was deemed worthy of the cover, it became the subject of a news release written by the magazine’s media relations person. Barbie didn’t strike me as a typical PRO, and I guess she doesn’t strike many as a typical ‘membership organisation administrator’ either. Nevertheless she has been the life and soul of the ABSW for almost as long as I can remember.

Barbie started the hard way, indentured for three “slave” years on the Liverpool Weekly News, the Widnes Weekly News and the Runcorn Daily News. After gaining her NCTJ she freelanced for the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo and various other regional papers. She got her big break when she was twice runner-up for the Woman Journalist of the Year Award, which opened the way to a string of assignments for glossy magazines, including NOVA.

Equally adept on the PR side, Barbie worked as a public relations officer for Liverpool City Council, and then landed a dream job as North West Correspondent for Melody Maker. As she describes it, Barbie’s life then seems like something out of Life on Mars – mornings covering magistrates’ courts, afternoons drinking with off-duty rossers, and evenings trailing around clubs and hotels after the biggest names in the music business.

They were, as she says, ‘heady days’ – so heady in fact that she sometimes found herself covering the court appearances of the very people she had been at gigs with the evening before. Reviewing appearances of everyone from Bowie to Zeppelin, Barbie’s frank reviews earned her the singular honour of having her picture used as a dartboard on the dressing-room door at the Marquee Club. She claims there is no connection, but at this point Barbie ran away to Katmandu for six months (people did this sort of thing then). Duly finding herself “skint in Iran, having to hitch all the way back”, she decided to start taking things seriously. After that, things begin to take on more familiar form.

Moving to London, Barbie freelanced as a media officer for a number of IPC mags and met Bernard Dixon, then Editor of New Scientist, who persuaded her to take on NS as part of her portfolio. Shortly afterwards Mike Kenward took over. Any story she didn’t understand, she tells me, she would show to a certain bass-playing PhD student she had lately met called Lionel Milgrom. Through Lawrence McGinty, who left New Scientist as News Editor, she also became media relations officer for the newly founded C4 News.

Many ABSW members will be aware of the colourful relationship that Barbie and Mike Kenward still enjoy. She tells me: “I love Mike. Really. Under that brusque exterior there’s a really kind and helpful guy, driven to total distraction by my lack of technical skills. But I am really grateful to him, because he introduced me to the world of science journalism and was very supportive over my maternity leave.”

Her fate, and that of ABSW, became linked when Pearce Wright, then Science Correspondent of The Times, invited her out (“Spot of lunch, dear heart?”) to beg three months’ help “on the admin side”. When Pearce mentioned the dreaded subject of ABSW accounts, Barbie demurred; but his reply was: “You’re a journalist – you do your expenses don’t you?” And so Barbie was hired – though she continued to write freelance in between her two official ABSW days per week (though in reality much more than that, as every ABSW Chair since Wendy Barnaby will attest).

When she joined, the ASBW had just over 200 members. Now it has nearer 600, and Barbie knows many of them personally. Highlights? “I loved it when there was more money around and reporters had time to lunch” she says. “Monthly off-record briefings at the Civil Service Club were a great success. And I adore being involved in the European Union of Science Journalists Associations (EUSJA), and making it spend its money on its members!”

So, what of the future? Barbie is not going very far away. She is still the ASBW’s EUSJA representative (and is in fact Vice President). After that, she will stay on the Executive Committee, to advise all those who will have to turn the handles after she lets them go in August. Barbie plans to perfect her French (daughter Amy lives in Paris now), keep up the freelance writing and maybe take up a part-time degree in History of Art. Or write a bonkbuster.

For the girl reporter who got thrown out of Bowie’s hotel by security for being a groupie, but who kept coming back to get the interview, persistence is a Barbie strong-point. And those heady Liverpool days ought to provide plenty of material…

Ted Nield
Outgoing Chair