My lovably ordinary brother Syd
Tim Willis – The Times – July 16, 2006
The ‘crazy diamond’ founder of Pink Floyd was no acid casualty or recluse. He loved art and DIY, his sister Rosemary tells his biographer Tim Willis in her first interview for 30 years
When the death of 60-year-old Roger “Syd” Barrett was announced on Tuesday, the media raised an astonishing last hurrah for the founder of Pink Floyd, the “crazy diamond” who had shunned the public gaze for decades.
The descriptions of him as a “mad genius”, “recluse” and “acid casualty” were far off the mark, however, according to his sister Rosemary.
When I wrote Barrett’s biography, Madcap, four years ago I had off-the-record guidance from Rosemary — his junior by two years and closest friend. Last week, after his death, we spoke again and this time she went on the record — the first time she has given a press interview for more than 30 years.
She described him as a loving man who “simply couldn’t understand” the continued interest in his distant Pink Floyd years and was too absorbed in his own thoughts to spare time for fans.
While her account is naturally fond, one should remember that she has spent much of her working life as a nurse and therefore sees no stigma in mental illness. As children, she and Barrett shared a bedroom and she recalls him leaping from his sheets to conduct an imaginary orchestra. He always had an extraordinary mind, bordering on the autistic or Aspergic. He had a rare talent to exploit ambiguities in language and also experienced synaesthesia — the ability to “see sounds and hear colours” — which was to be a huge influence on his music in his psychedelic phase.
As a performing artist, signed to a label, he was under enormous strain. Not only did he find fame a two-edged sword, he was also deeply resistant to his record company’s commercial demands. He was run ragged. Between January 1966, when the Floyd turned professional, and January 1968, Barrett played 220 gigs around Britain — not to mention broadcasting and performances abroad — as well as writing, recording and co-producing two hit singles, most of the band’s first album and part of the second.
While his enthusiastic ingestion of any drugs available might have triggered some disturbing behaviour, such stress might tip anyone into nervous collapse.
From 1981, when he returned from London to the suburbs of his native Cambridge, resumed the name Roger and set up home in his mother’s modest semi, he made faltering but significant progress.
Rosemary is adamant that he neither suffered from mental illness nor received treatment for it at any time since they resumed regular contact 25 years ago. At first he did spend some time in a private “home for lost souls” — Greenwoods in Essex — but she says there was no formal therapy programme there. (“And besides, he didn’t mix, because he was very content to be basket weaving and making things.”) Later he agreed to some sessions with a psychiatrist at Fulbourn psychiatric hospital, Cambridge, but neither medication nor therapy was considered appropriate.
He might have continued to find social interaction difficult — when I knocked on his door while writing my book he greeted me in his underpants and avoided conversation by saying that he was just looking after the house — but the idea that he “didn’t recognise he was Syd” is nonsense. His troubled years had been so painful that even thinking about his former incarnation upset him, so he made a conscious effort to avoid that trap.
Because he was so interested in his own thoughts, his sister said, he often forgot about the mundane chores essential to comfort. To keep an eye on him, she would visit or phone every day and sometimes accompany him on expeditions into town.
Earlier this year an old friend saw the pair in Robert Sayles, the Cambridge department store, and went up to renew their acquaintance. “Hello, Syd,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
“Yup,” replied Barrett. But Rosemary cut in with “Roger is only interested in buying some ties today”, and led her brother away. Now she admits she might have been over-protective.
Barrett lived in the semi with his mother until her death in 1991 and then remained there alone. “So much of his life was boringly normal,” said Rosemary. “He looked after himself and the house and garden. He went shopping for basics on his bike — always passing the time of day with the local shopkeepers — and he went to DIY stores like B&Q for wood, which he brought home to make things for the house and garden.
“Actually, he was a hopeless handyman, he was always laughing at his attempts, but he enjoyed it. Then there was his cooking. Like everyone who lives on their own, he sometimes found that boring but he became good at curries.
“When Roger was working he liked to listen to jazz tapes. Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were his favourites — he always found something new in them — but apart from the early Rolling Stones, he’d lost interest in pop music a long time ago.
“As for a television or radio, he didn’t feel the need to own one because he didn’t want to waste any energy concentrating on it. It’s not that he couldn’t apply his mind. He read very deeply about the history of art and actually wrote an unpublished book about it, which I’m too sad to read at the moment. But he found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted.
“He did have leisure interests. He took up photography, and sometimes we went to the seaside together. Quite often he took the train on his own to London to look at the major art collections — and he loved flowers. He made regular trips to the Botanic Gardens and to the dahlias at Anglesey Abbey, near Lode. But of course, his passion was his painting.
“Roger worked in a variety of styles — though he admired no one after the impressionists — and you could say he came up with his own type of conceptual art. He would photograph a particular flower and paint a large canvas from the photograph. Then he would make a photographic record of the picture before destroying the canvas. In a way, that was very typical of his approach to life. Once something was over, it was over. He felt no need to revisit it.
“That’s why he avoided contact with journalists and fans. He simply couldn’t understand the interest in something that had happened so long ago and he wasn’t willing to interrupt his own musings for their sake. After a while he and I stopped discussing the times he was bothered. We both knew what we thought and we simply had nothing more to add. It became easiest to pretend those incidents never happened and just blank them out.
“Roger may have been a bit selfish — or rather self-absorbed — but when people called him a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them.
“Roger was unique; they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe him and so they pigeonholed him. If only they had seen him with children. His nieces and nephews, the kids in the road — he would have them in stitches. He could talk at length and he played with words in a way that children instinctively appreciated, even if it sometimes threw adults.”
He was quite a sharp dresser, too. “He didn’t follow fashion — he just bought what he liked for himself — but he liked to look presentable. His clothes were always clean and pressed. In fact, if he had an obsession, it was with that.”
Barrett suffered from stomach ulcers for 30 years — which he managed by drinking milk — and also developed diabetes. “But he simply refused to admit it to himself. For days at a time he wouldn’t take his pills — which, being a nurse, could have worried me. But to be honest, it can’t have been very severe because he never showed any ill effects.”
What he did show, she said, was love: “I gave it to him and he gave it to me. He was incredibly supportive when our mother died. And in the past week I’ve been surprised to learn how popular he was with the local tradesmen. He was simply a very lovable person.
“He showed his personality in lots of different ways — which some outsiders found confusing — but underneath he was solid as a rock. It may have been a responsibility to look out for him, but it was never a burden.”