· Auto Da Fay, by Fay Weldon, Flamingo, London, 2002.
|Another pages about this author, here, and here, and here|
Life and loves
Parts of her early life were so 'insane' she can only write about them in the third person. But as novelist Fay Weldon reveals in her new autobiography, she managed to find refuge in patches of happiness
Monday May 6, 2002
Except for the few months after the birth of her first child, Fay Weldon has never kept a diary. There was nothing to say, she says, or else there was too much to say. Introspection was the luxury of girls from good homes. The one time she was asked to stand up in class and read aloud her composition, it was a recipe for bread. "Good, clear, lucid prose," she says. "But how dull!"
Weldon's autobiography, Auto da Fay, sets out the life of a practical woman. She lives in a house in a posh street in Hampstead, with her third husband, Nick. Outside, the blossom flops and the foliage dangles. It is beautiful. "It is near the tube," says Weldon. She chunters merrily. A refrain of her memoir is, "I was happy," when the circumstances, for the most part, gave no cause for it. The child of divorced parents when divorce was a sin, a poor single mother, the wife, incredibly, of a schoolmaster who aspired to be her pimp: adversity taught Weldon to find pleasure in unpromising places. Her reputation as a woman who not so much speaks as yells her mind is at odds with the modesty of her early years. The author of such bolts of hellfire as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was, it turns out, for many years practically third party to her own existence.
On the evidence of the interview, Weldon is not snooty or aggressive or, as she is often characterised, cynically controversial. She has retained the mannerisms of a woman with no confidence: quietly spoken and quick to echo laughter. Her older sister, Jane, was identified early in life as the interesting one and given licence to break the rules where Fay was not. "Jane did the doing as she wished for the both of us," Weldon writes in the memoir. "I had settled very much into doing what I ought." But on closer inspection, her manner seems to be born of precision, not meekness. If she speaks delicately it is to ensure that she has settled on the right word.
She is a leaver of long, thoughtful pauses while her blue-grey eyes search out a meaning. "Completely practical and always precise" is how she describes her prose. "I did always like to get the sentence right." Style, the subject of so much pretentious analysis, is, says Weldon, "how you say what you want to say in the shortest time available, so you can all go home". She relates this to gender. "It is rather like the way women conduct meetings. I always find that men conduct meetings very long-windedly, they sort of wander off, whereas women get straight to the point, then go home to look after the children."
Weldon has four sons, ranging in age from 23 to 46. It was after the birth of her first son, Nicolas, that she was forced through want of alternative to marry a man named Ronald Bateman. Her son's father, Colyn Davies, could only offer her a life as a gas-fitter's wife in Luton. It didn't appeal and since she couldn't earn enough money to support her son on her own (the Equal Pay Act was still 10 years off), she accepted a proposal of marriage from a respectable-looking headteacher from Acton, west London. It was 1957. The months that followed still alarm Weldon so much that her memoir's narration switches from the first to the third person. "Mrs Bateman was disgusted," she writes.
Mr Bateman was a bully. He wouldn't have sex with her. Instead, he encouraged her to find work as a hostess in a strip club and to sleep with other men and tell him about it. She did it once. Then she took her son and ran away. It is such an unexpected episode, so crazily English in its kinkiness, that I tell Weldon I could hardly believe what I was reading. "Well I couldn't really believe I was writing it, which is why I went very swiftly into the third person." When she speaks of herself, it is largely in the second person, the writer's habit of turning her life into narrative. "What is so odd is that until you wrote about the experience, you didn't really see it. The extraordinariness of it escaped you because it always does when you're living through something. It's only afterwards, when you look at little patches of your life, that you realise that it was absolutely insane."
She got through it by taking refuge in small flashes of happiness. "You get up when you want, you put on a cup of tea, you make a slice of toast, you dance around with the baby and it's lovely and then hubby comes home and night falls. It's absolutely fine, so long as you don't see it in a context, which people are very good at doing when they're in a rather murky part of the forest." Because she had grown up in New Zealand, where nothing ever seemed to happen, there was a part of being Mrs Bateman that Weldon found powerfully fascinating. "Always! Yes, always! I wanted to see more, it was part of being alive. If you're in New Zealand, you feel that the real world is just around the corner - or a long way round the corner. You're so far away, you want to know everything."
This was not a case of her collecting life-experiences to put in a novel. Weldon had no idea she could write fiction until she was well into her second marriage, to Ron Weldon, an artist and antiques dealer, the anti-Bateman. Before that she had a successful career in advertising, when she famously wrote the slogan "Go to Work on an Egg". The brevity of her style owes much to those years as a copywriter. She was happy in this period, until she tired of hanging out in the corporate bubble. "The bubble's fun, the bubble's very seductive, the bubble has friends. But I think I always knew ... it was always something I knew I would have to leave. You would occasionally be in the elevator and look around and think: really, if this lift suddenly plummeted to the ground and we all died, the world wouldn't miss a thing." She laughs uproariously.
Feminism, says Weldon, never properly addressed the issue of motherhood, short of advising women not to go into it, and of working mothers in particular. She is a feminist of the old school against whom the likes of Naomi Wolf are held up and found to be a bit drippy. Weldon has got into trouble for talking against the orthodoxy, blaming aspects of feminism for undermining boys' confidence (although only, she says, because she was asked, and besides, "If everybody likes something, you've failed. Consensus is not what you're after"). She agrees with the hot new heresy that having kids young is a good idea. Weldon's reasoning, however, is unlikely to be folded into the conservative backlash. "Oddly enough," she says, "having children young sort of gets it out of the way. It's very good for you in so far as it develops your character. You realise how horrible you are. Otherwise you go on thinking that you're a nice person. When you have children you realise you're selfish and lazy, manipulative, bad-tempered and horrible, or just like your mother. What you don't want to do is be doomed to stay at home and look after them for the rest of your life, thank you very much."
The sacrifice mothers make in their careers is, for Weldon, a bit of a moot point, since she believes "most careers are people engaged in doing something that means nothing to anybody". Besides which, she says, "Most women don't have careers, they have jobs. They're told they have careers, because that suits the employers. 'Career' is such an artificial concept. It's just people up there making money out of people down here, I'm afraid." Weldon's concept of 'career structure', the drone mentality of crawling up the ladder, was talked about at the dawn of feminism as a male behavioural model into which women were uneasily forced. It may be so. But unless you happen, like Weldon, to be talented in some jazzy creative way, it is rather hard to avoid. Her contempt for hoodwinked career women sounds misleadingly smug because, generally, she is not. "I always thought that I would be discovered as a fraud," she says, "and I still feel that, and that strikes me as one of the differences between men and women in jobs. Women think that they're about to be unmasked."
The feeling of fraudulence did not diminish with Weldon's growing fame, although she did gain some satisfaction from avenging the slights endured by her mother Margaret. Margaret's family of artists and bohemians disapproved of her marriage to Frank Birkinshaw, a doctor, and her subsequent move from London to New Zealand. When she came crawling back, practically penniless and alone but for two fatherless children, she was the victim of much condescension. Weldon turned round the family fortunes. "Fame is a very odd word which doesn't really seem to apply," she says, "only in that you get the vague thought you shouldn't go out with your tights laddered."
She gets occasional gusts of anger. As a timid child, she amazed herself one time by instinctively standing up for a girl in the class who was being bullied. "It was like Salman Rushdie, oddly enough. It was just the same feeling when everybody was having a go at him. The English establishment were absolutely abominable. In essence they all said, with one voice, 'He's a bit foreign, he's not really one of us, and he has brought us trouble.' And I thought that was absolutely disgraceful. Disgraceful."
The contradictions in her character are not something Weldon wastes too much time thinking about. The fashion for self-examination appals her. She describes a James Thurber cartoon in which a woman is crouching on the bed, slightly animal-like, while her husband says to her, "But what do you want to find yourself for ?" Weldon loves this joke. Searching for one's "inner self" is, she believes, a doomed enterprise. "There are hundreds of you, there's not an inner person that you can find, that is truly you, that has been distorted by other people. You are the sum of those distortions. They shift and change all the time and so they should. I wrote a novel called Splitting, which had different endings in the European and American editions. Because they see personality so differently in America. The European version concludes that if you strip away your neuroses, there's just a shadow that no one can perceive, a wraith wrapped around the banisters. In the US version, if you strip away the neurotic personality you're left with a strong powerful vigorous identity, a young woman who goes off to music college. I much prefer the European ending. If you think about it, we should enjoy our neuroses rather than find some bogus thing 'underneath'. It's just dull. But somehow in the States, all problems have a solution. Here, we are much more prepared to live with uncertainties, impracticalities and bad plumbing."
Auto Da Fay ends at the point at which Weldon attains respectability and, consequently, becomes less interesting. Her neuroses change but do not diminish. She will never be good with money (people who hoard money tend to be those who have always had it, she says). "As a kind of bonus, you found you could do this thing, you could write, and it was much easier than you ever thought and there was an exhilaration. And then a whole set of other problems were created. So you haven't lost your problems, but they are not as basic as where and how are you going to live? You are lifted up. But you don't forget."
Fay Weldon's autobiography, Auto da Fay, is engrossing. And maddening, for she prefers fiction to real life
Sunday May 5, 2002
Auto da Fay
Flamingo £15.99, pp366
When Fay Weldon leaves St Andrews with an MA in economics and psychology, she takes her scarlet university gown with her: it comes in useful later, she says, as a Father Christmas outfit, before moths claim it. The scarlet gown is perfect Weldon garb - it sums up the teasing personality behind her autobiography, Auto da Fay. How much of what she writes is serious-minded and educated - how much a festive charade?
The delight of Fay Weldon is that one can seldom be absolutely sure if she is serious. She has always been anarchically clever, funny, fearless, a one-woman-show. As a child, she was the Cheerful Person in her family. When her sister took up with an unsuitable man, her mother leant on Fay. 'To be cheerful was my accepted role around this time, and come to think of it, always has been and still is.' (She is full of afterthought.)
Weldon doesn't let the reader down any more than she did her mother in this frustrating, engrossing, lazily entertaining autobiography. It is the sort of book stuffed full of things that you hope are made up but fear are true. I flinched at her description of the way toads were once used in pregnancy-tests and cannot banish the description of the chef in a hotel where Weldon worked who used to blow his nose into the whipped cream when angry.
But Auto da Fay begins before the beginning, in the womb, in New Zealand. When her mother was pregnant with Fay, they survived an earthquake (might this explain Fay's enduring taste for drama? Her first short story was set in Pompeii). The New Zealand of childhood is sketchily remembered: the 'inspiring' cakes seem to have hung on most vividly in the mind, the friendships second, the landscape third. Weldon's mother and grandmother were English: 'bohemian' literary, musical, fragile - not obvious candidates for robust antipodean life. Her father was a charming doctor who liked the heat (or generated it in others, especially women).
The book's structure is slovenly, as if rambling at speed and the text itself seems unedited. But repetitions are telling: Weldon confesses (several times) that she does not like watching horror movies at home (the devil must not be invited in), she tells us (twice) about her rejected advertising slogan: 'Vodka makes you drunker quicker' (tempting to repeat that one, I can see); and she boasts three times that her grandmother, Nona, lived to 99 (this greatly appeals to her).
It would be surprising if it didn't. The amazing thing about this book is the degree to which Weldon believes family history repeats itself. Life is a game of Grandmother's Footsteps. Hand-me-downs rule. We are no more than our ancestors' cast-offs. Her belief in patterns is superstitious: 'the lost wedding ring turns up on the day of the divorce; the person you sit next to on the Tube happens to be your new boss.' She has seen ghosts, of course.
If this were a conversation and not a book, one would want to keep interrupting to ask more about what she felt, more about what her family was actually like. For someone so garrulous she is emotionally guarded, admitting - tantalisingly - that she prefers to look outside herself. The exception to this is her outburst of grief over the death of her friend, Flora. And, at one point, over 100 pages in, without warning (everything she does is without warning) she grumbles furiously, as if it is all the reader's fault, that she is not finding writing her autobiography therapeutic.
She solves the problem by writing as if her life were fiction. She describes engagingly the romance of living in a houseboat on the Thames as she did for a while and the feckless charms of the father of her first child. She resorts to the third person to relive her marriage to a schoolteacher, Mr Bateman, whom she married out of miserable expediency (for her son's sake). Mr Bateman sounds like a figment of her imagination, a bad dream. He acted as a nervous pimp, guilty about his sexual non-performance, finding her other partners. She grew fat and became source material for her first novel The Fat Woman's Joke. Narrative, for Weldon, has always been a cure.
The autobiography ends as her writing career begins. I was left musing over an unacknowledged pattern in her life that is too strange - and revealing - to ignore. It is to do with her tendency to look down (rather than back), her interest in what goes on at ankle level and below. She describes her father walking off down a beach, abandoning her family for good. This leads on to a description of a chained magpie who pecked her ankles. When she has a crush at school, it is the girl's pixie-ish footwear, not her face, that enraptures her. Anxiety is like a fox that 'snapped at her heels' and babies, she warns, grow into children who 'run around your ankles and bite you'.
Ron Weldon (to
whom she was married for 31 years) may be responsible. On their first date, he
told her to 'keep looking at the ground' as you never knew what you might find.
He then conjured a £5 note from the gutter.
This much I know
Fay Weldon, 70, writer, on the lessons she has learnt in life
Sunday May 12, 2002
There's a time and a place for everything - even incest and morris dancing - in fiction.
Therapists say you should learn to live independently after a break-up: not rush into another relationship. Are they mad? Turn your back on God's gift and it may never come again.
Children will call their teacher a fascist because he makes them do things they don't want to, and Hitler called himself a socialist. I'd always prefer a funny fascist to a serious socialist.
When I arrived in London I saw the city as a challenge. I think I've won.
In autobiography you put a kind of shape on to the life. In the first half you set all the questions, and in the second half you answer them.
Which came first, chicken or egg? The egg. You can't go to work on a chicken. Of course I didn't write Go To Work On An Egg. But it's a long and boring story and no one has the patience for it - not even me.
Yesterday's boys are today's girls, guarding their sensibilities and their virtue against predatory attack, demanding commitment, affection and babies.
True creative freedom is these days reserved for children's authors, their editors silenced and their marketing departments struck dumb by the unexpected success of Harry Potter .
The media wears you out, there's so much of it. But it's our only protection against government.
People long for literature to be pure and writers to live in garrets, but someone has to do it, someone has to be morally responsible for society, and the bishops are a bit flaky these days.
Yesterday's truth is today's lie. Ibsen gave the process 20 years and he was right. Feminism started as a revolution, succeeded, and turned into an orthodoxy.
I once killed two friends of the family by putting them in a swimming pool with a diving board but no way out. I could get addicted to playing The Sims, although the game is limited by the imagination of its creators. They have a suburban idea of luxury.
I know that I'm a real writer because sometimes I write a short story just because I want to; not because someone's told me to.
Nothing stops me writing except flu.
A little recognition always goes a long way. Getting my CBE was like a school prizegiving. We stood in a queue with the other great and good, and we chatted a lot and were asked to be quiet by the footmen. (It is possible for the great and the good to become extremely noisy.) The Queen said: 'I believe you write television plays,' and I said: 'I write anything I'm asked, Ma'am.' I have been a royalist ever since.
Women always feel the need to apologise for the weather, as if it was their fault.
I write in short paragraphs because when I began there were always children around, and it was the most I could do to get three lines out between crises.
Learn to write with a computer. I've only recently begun to use a keyboard. It happened because I read one of my own stories in an anthology of mostly American writers, and my handwritten piece seemed gnarled and twisted compared to the easy flow of the other writers who I realised all used computers. So I decided gnarled and twisted was not the path of the future. I've yet to see if it makes much difference to my style.
I would write another sponsored novel [like The Bulgari Connection] if the opportunity came and I could do it with a degree of integrity. A young male Belgian writer has just finished a book sponsored by Harley-Davidson and is getting rave reviews, so it can be done, but not often. Companies have to choose their writer very carefully.
The only historical figure I identify with is Patient Grisel in The Canterbury Tales - a forlorn and self-pitying figure who came to a bad end.
I crave nothing but constant love and attention.
World in Acton
Lynn Barber reviews Auto da Fay by Fay Weldon.
FAY WELDON started life as Franklin Birkinshaw in Birmingham in 1931. Her mother, Margaret, called her Franklin because she worked out by numerology that the name "came out the same" as William Shakespeare. Soon afterwards, Margaret rejoined her husband Frank, a doctor, in New Zealand.
Margaret was beautiful, bohemian, fey. She read horoscopes, painted tarot cards, saw visions of angels in the park, and wrote novels under the nom de plume Pearl Bellairs - the name of the vapid novelist in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. She was singularly unsuited to being a New Zealand doctor's wife.
And, indeed, she wasn't for long. The marriage was unstable from the start - husband and wife took turns to disappear, and Fay and her sister, Jane, spent much of their childhood being shuttled between parents in hotels and boarding houses. Frank was constantly unfaithful, but when Margaret retaliated by having an affair he divorced her for adultery.
Fay and Jane then lived with their mother in Christchurch and spent the summers with their father in Auckland. But when Fay was 14, her mother inherited a small legacy and returned to England on the first ship after the war. Her father waved them off and Fay never saw him again - he died of a stroke as she was starting university.
At St Andrew's she discovered sex in a big way and acquired a reputation for "putting out". This was during the Fifties, when good girls didn't. Jane married an artist and got pregnant, so Fay promptly got pregnant, too - but without the convenience of a husband. The baby's father wanted to marry her and said he could support her by being a gas fitter in Luton, but she didn't fancy being a gas fitter's wife. So she moved to Saffron Walden to have the baby, and tried to start a tearoom. This failed when she decided that the house was haunted - Weldon seems to get ghosts the way other people get mice - and moved back to London.
At this point, for reasons that she says are mysterious even to her, she married a divorced schoolteacher 20 years her senior called Ronald Bateman. Her two years as Mrs Bateman in Acton sound quite extraordinary - her husband didn't want sex but he wanted her to have sex with other men and tell him about it. She obliged once or twice, and worked as a nightclub hostess at his instigation. She also took part in foursomes with a friend who worked in advertising.
One day the first Mrs Bateman rang Fay to explain that the reason he married her was that he always put "married with son" when applying for headmaster posts, so he needed to be able to produce a wife and son at all times. And indeed when Fay left him after two years, he immediately acquired another unmarried mother with son.
Once Fay's son started school, she was able to work, and she zoomed to the top in advertising with such deathless slogans as "Unzip a banana" and "Go to work on an egg". At last she was able to support not only herself, her son and her mother, but sometimes her sister's three children when Jane had one of her periodic nervous breakdowns. Fay says she was always the efficient one, and the sanest of her family.
At 29, she met the antiques dealer Ron Weldon "and that was that for 30 years". While pregnant with their first child in 1963, she wrote a television play - by hand because her husband didn't like the sound of typing - and became Fay Weldon the writer we know and love. Auto da Fay ends at this point, saying: "What I do from now on, all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role."
It is an astonishing story, lightly and deftly told, without self-pity but also - frustratingly - without introspection. Always, at what should be the crucial moments of her narrative, she seems to skip away and start babbling about ghosts or Sylvia Plath or anything, it seems, except the key question for an autobiographer - what was going through her mind. She remarks at one point that, though often called upon to give literary prizes, she seldom wins them and she likes to think it is because the shortness of her sentences "makes the books appear to lack gravitas".
Actually, I think it's the lack of gravitas that makes the books appear to lack gravitas: she prefers teasing to truthfulness. As for her style, I cannot see how any professional writer could re-read a sentence like "We lived on a knife-edge, financially and socially: we knew better than to rock the boat" without deciding that either the knife-edge or the boat (preferably both) would have to go. Even so, Auto de Fay is gripping. It will delight Weldon's many fans and keep the book clubs happy for months to come.
A muddle turns into a morality
Anne Chisholm reviews Auto da Fay by Fay Weldon.
LIKE all autobiographers, Fay Weldon, one of the most prolific, entertaining and provocative of contemporary women writers, has sought to make retrospective sense of the muddle and unexpectedness of life.
Now rising 70, she has always drawn openly on her own experience for her sharp, funny modern morality tales; her autobiography reads like a first draft (it is surprisingly unpolished and studded with repetitions) for one of her novels, full of embattled, resilient women and selfish, unsatisfactory men. Again like her novels, the surface sparkles along merrily enough, but there are darker currents beneath.
When she was still in her mother's womb, in New Zealand in 1931, a serious earthquake flattened the town where they lived, portending, Fay Weldon suggests, future dramas and upheavals. Certainly life for her family and herself was never to be settled or easy; luckily, they were an unconventional and adaptable lot.
Her parents were both English, recent arrivals in New Zealand; her father a doctor with literary leanings and socialist opinions, and her mother an aspiring writer. The marriage was stormy; Weldon - christened Franklin Birkinshaw and nicknamed Fay - was born in England during one of several separations. Eventually there was a divorce, and in 1946 Weldon, aged 15, moved back to England with her mother and sister Jane. She grew up loving her father but unable to trust him.
Hovering over the whole book is the eccentric, bohemian figure of Weldon's maternal grandfather, Edgar Jepson, author of 73 "light but popular" novels, believer in Free Love and the occult. From him, Weldon strongly suggests, may have come her ability to write clear prose and her tendency to believe in omens and see ghosts. She also ascribes much family unhappiness to the pattern set by his sexual misbehaviour; Free Love, she remarks, has always been an excuse for "hurtful activity", and the ones hurt are usually women.
Postwar Britain was bleak, and very unlike the expatriate's fantasy of home. Money was desperately short; they moved from one cheap flat to another while Weldon's gallant, original but wildly impractical mother tried to make a living . But somehow Weldon, who was clever, found her way to university at St Andrews in Scotland, where she got a degree in economics and psychology and discovered sex.
Back in London and taking a series of odd jobs ( including a stint as a Foreign Office researcher) she describes herself, in a curiously old-fashioned phrase, as a "lost girl", looking for love in affairs with unsatisfactory, often married, men.
When she became pregnant at 22 she refused to marry the father but agreed, at her mother's urging, to change her name by deed poll. The struggle to keep herself and her child proved too much for her and she gave in to marriage with an apparently respectable schoolteacher, who turned out to be sexually inadequate; he encouraged her to work as a nightclub hostess and report on her affairs with other men. As soon as she could, and when she had found lucrative employment in advertising, she left.
Famously, Fay Weldon coined the slogan: Go to Work on an Egg. Here again, she points out, she was following in her grandfather's footsteps: during the First World War he came up with the slogan: Eat Less Bread. She did well in advertising, and made friends among the other aspiring writers and poets who were her colleagues. In 1961, at a party full of Hampstead intellectuals, she met Ron Weldon, artist and antique dealer, and fell truly in love. She married him, had the second of her four sons, and started to write her witty, subversive, increasingly successful novels.
The book ends here, with Fay Weldon the writer finally at the starting post. After all, she tells us, she learned how to make painful matters amusing in the playground of her school in New Zealand, and, for good or ill, "I have never stopped".
Anne Chisholm is writing a Life of Frances Partridge.
The life and loves
of Fay Weldon
The autobiography of Fay Weldon, published this week, is a spiky read. Its author talks to Nigel Farndale about sex, psychiatry, self-loathing and her early career as a hostess in a Soho clip joint
A RISKY business, capturing the essence of a seven-year-old on canvas - especially when you then have to show the painting to the child's mother. Rita Angus, a New Zealand artist, managed it when she painted Fay Weldon in 1938 - really dipped her paintbrush in the murky stuff of her sitter's 'inner soul'. Fay's mother Margaret, a novelist who was living in New Zealand at the time, hated it; thought that with its hard edges and simple colouring it looked like a caricature. When she returned to London with her two young daughters - following a messy divorce in which both parties admitted to infidelity - she tried to leave the painting behind.
A friend ran to the dock with it just as the gangway was rising, shouting, 'You left this!' Margaret considered throwing the painting in the sea but asked the friend to return it to the artist instead. It now hangs in the National Gallery of New Zealand.
In the painting Fay sits beside Jane, her older (by two years) sister. Both are wearing gingham dresses with white collars and ribbons in their hair. When I meet Fay Weldon - now 71, married for the third time, mother of four sons, author of 24 novels, most notably The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) - at her home in Hampstead, she is wearing Nike pumps, black trousers and a black top. But I recognise instantly the girl in the painting. It wasn't a caricature, after all. She still has the same icy-blue saucer eyes, the same moon face, the same high, pouchy cheekbones, the same bob of pale blonde hair. Her skin is still smooth, too - or smoothed, thanks to the tucks and nips she blithely admitted to having a few years ago. Even her hunched shoulders and no-neck posture are the same. Her expression, now as then, is one of mischief masquerading as innocence.
She takes a sip of coffee from a mug with himself written on it - her hand shaking slightly - and tells me why she has reproduced the Rita Angus painting on the dust-jacket of her autobiography Auto Da Fay, which is published this week. The book is partly about what she calls the 'survival unit of three': her mother, her sister and herself. 'Writing about Jane helped me come to terms with her death [from cancer at the age of 39 in 1969]. At the time I felt total helplessness in the face of it. I had to be elliptical, though. Her children don't know the extent of her illness. You can have too much truth.' You can see why she might think that. The truth or facts of her autobiography can seem rather too much. Among other things she reveals that, as a young woman, she flirted with prostitution and worked as a hostess in a Soho clip joint. She thought herself plain and dull, she writes, or at least that is how her mother made her feel - but she soon learnt that it wasn't beauty men were after, but availability. 'Sit on a bar stool in a skimpy dress and look like you charge for your favours and perfection of leg doesn't matter.'
One could be forgiven for wondering if these episodes have been included simply because she thought they might help sell the book, even if she does feel they represent 'too much truth'. After all, she first found success not as a novelist but as the advertising copywriter who coined the phrase 'Go to work on an egg'. She knows how to sell a product, in other words. This commercial sense was demonstrated admirably by the press coverage she generated for the launch of The Bulgari Connection last year. It was, she calmly announced, a product placement novel sponsored by the Italian jewellery designer Bulgari. There were howls of indignation from the literary world, who accused her of selling out and compromising her integrity. She just shrugged and said, 'Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck?' And when another book, Big Women, about a feminist publishing house in the 1970s, was published four years ago, she caused a storm by making the rather non-feminist comment that rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman. 'No,' she says now in a soft, breathy voice. 'These things stir themselves up, it's not me. And I don't think they help with sales. If you were more mysterious and difficult as an author people would feel they had to read your books.'
Did she find it therapeutic to write about her youthful follies, then? 'Cathartic maybe, which I do not believe is therapeutic. Things are not made better if you face them. They are just reactivated. I'm all for denial. It's a tried and tested survival mechanism.' She examines her nails. 'And yet if things happened in your life, you should put them in your autobiography - even if life is less believable than art. When you make things up in a novel people recognise themselves and try to sue you for using their lives. They assume everything they do is unique. Yet we all have much in common.'
I can't believe that many people would have had marriages in common with hers. 'I suppose my marriages were unusual,' she says with a gentle laugh. She is now married to Nick Fox, a jazz musician and poet 15 years younger than her, who has popped his head - bushy eyebrows, clipped beard, a cigarette between his lips - around the door to say a friendly hello. They married days after she divorced Ron Weldon, her second husband, in 1994. Ron, a jazz musician and artist, had been in psychoanalysis for ten years before he met Fay and soon persuaded her to take it up as well. 'Both Ron and I went to see our analysts twice a week so really there was no need to speak to each other,' she recalls drily. The marriage came to a sudden end after 30 years when, Fay claims, Ron switched to an astrological therapist who told him that the couple had incompatible star signs. Eerily, on the day their divorce was finalised Ron died of a heart attack.
But her marriage to Ron was straightforward compared to her marriage to Ronald. In 1956 she married Ronald Bateman, a headmaster at a technical college in west London who was 25 years older than her. She was a bohemian single mother not long out of university (St Andrews, where she read economics and psychology) and needed a roof over her head. 'Poor Ronald Bateman,' she writes in Auto Da Fay, '[I] was a heartless, practical monster.'
'But actually it wasn't so unusual,' she tells me. 'Marrying for convenience happened a lot. Most girls who got pregnant had the baby adopted or they had a shotgun wedding. Or the girl's mother pretended to be the mother, so the child grew up thinking her mother was her sister. Extraordinary the lengths people went to to be respectable. When I wrote about that episode I did have a reaction. I was filled with self-pity and did think, "Poor little thing. What a stupid child."'
She had decided, she says, to donate her sexual and domestic services in exchange for bed and board. Ronald Bateman didn't want to consummate his marriage, though, he just wanted 'wife and son' on his cv. Instead he offered his wife to his friends, telling her if she wanted to find a lover he wouldn't mind. A 'mean-eyed' stallholder in the market then offered her a pair of stockings in return for sexual favours; she told Bateman who then vetted the man. She arranged to meet the stallholder, found herself trapped in his front room, was stripped, humiliated and forced into 'painful and unwanted' sex. Then, while she wept, he gave her the stockings.
Is Ronald Bateman dead? 'Yes.'
Phew, in a way. 'Yes, but I felt bad because he isn't around to put his side. It wasn't really his fault. Almost nothing is anybody's fault, you come to realise. Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing.'
I get the feeling from reading her memoirs that she is amoral, or at least a morally ambivalent person. Is this fair? 'Morality tends to be what you can afford. It's like when I was in advertising and refused to work on a tobacco account. Had I not been able to pay the rent at that time through writing I might not have made such a principled stand.' She absent-mindedly plays with the beaded neck chain attached to the arms of her Armani spectacles, coiling it and uncoiling it on the table. She sighs. She frowns. 'To do things to your own advantage and at someone else's expense seems an offence to one's own dignity, so better not do it. I think that is my position.'
What about when she accepted the silk stockings in return for sex? 'They weren't even silk, they were nylon!' She gives a snuffly laugh. 'That was just masochism.' She had low self-esteem? 'Of course I had low self-esteem! No, I had a labile sense of self-esteem, sometimes very low and sometimes very high. The masochism was deeply ingrained in my psyche, as it is in all women. That is where the pleasure lies.' She stares out of the window. 'I'm not going to bare my soul completely but, of course, I was depressed.' One manifestation of this depression was her comfort eating - which later became the subject of her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke (1967).
'I wasn't happy because I felt I was wasting time,' she explains. 'I wasn't cut out to be a suburban housewife in Acton.'
Was her self-worth affirmed by having sex with strangers? 'Yes. Intimate congress with another human being is very reassuring. It makes you feel alive and worthy of their attention. It's like a drug. Heroin addicts enjoy the pimples and the dirt and the syringes and the self-disgust. The debasement is part of it.'
Her father Frank, an English doctor with a practice in New Zealand, died of a stroke in 1947. She never mourned him properly, she tells me, and she thinks this may be why she always ended up marrying men who were, in different ways, like her father. 'Yes, that's right,' she says, pronouncing her 'r's as 'w's. 'No, no, that's not right at all,' she adds, demonstrating another verbal quirk, a tendency to instant self-contradiction. 'I think I always married my mother. Women are supposed to marry their fathers but actually the temperament of those they marry tends to be more like that of their mothers.'
Fay's mother is a redoubtable woman. Once, when she came across a poem that Fay had written as a teenage schoolgirl - revealing an innocent crush on another girl - she overreacted wildly and declared that she had always suspected her daughter was a lesbian. 'I didn't understand what she was talking about,' Weldon recalls in her memoirs, 'or how I had suddenly become so loathsome: to be a lesbian was something perverse and horrible, not just something you did but what you were as well. Next day, on the No 9 tram coming home from school, I contemplated suicide - wondered how to set about it.'
Was it the sort of suicide fantasy teenagers are prone to, or had she been serious? 'Suicide has never seemed to me to be anything other than a rational response to the world,' she says with an incongruously fluffy laugh. 'It's mad not to be suicidal if you have a sense of the futility of life.
I don't think it was a romantic fantasy. Perhaps it was. I don't think it was depression, though. It's like everyone saying Sylvia Plath [who was a friend of Weldon's] killed herself because she was depressed. She didn't. She killed herself because she was unhappily in love. Somebody [Ted Hughes] had spurned her. This is unhappiness, but it's not madness.'
Surely love is a species of madness? 'True. And therapists would say love is neurotic dependency, but what do they know? You have a whole range of emotions: some are pleasant, some unpleasant, but you need them both because, if you dampen one, you dampen the other. My quarrel with therapists is that they want to iron out emotions, render everything down and leave you with a lot of soupy feel-good - and that is only half living.'
Her own family's emotions were decidedly unironed. An aunt of Weldon's (Faith, her mother's sister) and her own sister Jane both spent time in lunatic asylums. Given the hereditary nature of some mental illnesses, did Weldon ever worry for her own sanity? 'No, I never felt I was losing my mind. I was too practical. Yet other people worried. And I suppose I have worried myself about patterns of behaviour. Maybe I am just in denial.' Smile. 'When I was growing up, insanity was the great dark fear of the age. Speaking openly about madness was not fashionable. We were more superstitious about words. If you didn't use them, they didn't come true.'
It is often said of Fay Weldon that, in the 1970s, she was a leading light of the women's liberation movement, though no one can quite remember why. A few years ago, when she had a book to promote - naturally - she caused a stir by saying that she had changed her mind about women, and men. They weren't so bad after all? 'Men became OK. My position was reasonable in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a patriarchy, and men did abuse their power and spend their time despising women. It was a dreadful and humiliating time to be a woman. You see it in extreme example in the Taliban - the basic male attitude was not that different. But as soon as women began to earn proper wages and could control their fertility through the pill it all changed. To blame men now seems to be foolish. Women now talk about men in the same language men used to talk about women. Their only defence is that men deserve it because they were so horrid to us in the past.'
Did her attitude to men also change because she is now happily married and she wasn't then? 'Yes, how could it not be?' she asks airily. 'Nevertheless, I think there is enough truth in my position for me to universalise it.' Well, she's never been afraid of doing that. 'No, I haven't.
I sometimes take extreme positions because I want to be argued with, to see whether my position is defensible. Instead, you often get dismissed with people saying, "Pish and tosh, who does she think she is?"'
When debating on radio or television she can seem nonchalant to the point of woolliness, but also fearless. Is this an affectation? 'In my personal life I shy from confrontation all the time. I can't bear to have a cross word with anyone - which is rather foolish.'
But I have read that her husbands always complained she was too argumentative. 'Yes, they did, they do. I don't think I am, though. It seems to me I am just putting facts forward, and when people disagree with them, which they should do, then I moderate them.'
So is she just dressing up opinion as fact - which is a rather arrogant thing to do? 'Entertaining,' she corrects. 'When I do get into trouble it's because I have abandoned truth for the sake of a witty reply. I do talk more than most people so I am bound to have a higher percentage of foolish remarks, like poor George W Bush.'
Did her time working in advertising leave her feeling cynical, in the sense that she learnt how easy it is to get away with lying? 'No, I believed every word of it. I'm very good at self-deception. I like the material world. I like the difference between one washing powder and another. I could enthuse about eggs because I thought they were rather wholesome beautiful things.'
There is something of the insouciant, easy-natured dilettante about Fay Weldon. She doesn't believe in doing much research: if something feels right, she thinks, it probably is. When she worked as a television scriptwriter - for Upstairs, Downstairs among other things - she would submit a first draft, wait to be asked to make changes, do them, deliver them and when she was asked for yet more changes, as she knew she would be, she would deliver the first draft again: as that seemed somehow familiar, it would, she says, be accepted at once. She is moreover, by her own admission, in possession of low taste - very much a gold taps, kidney-shaped dressing-tables and country and western music person. In her autobiography she comes across as a strange mixture of laziness, decadence and frivolity, a capricious yet rackety intellectual who is easily bored. Is it a true account of her life?
'We all delude ourself about ourselves. One paper [a mid-market tabloid] yesterday said I was "a heartless scheming bitch". No, what was it? "A monster." That's OK. I can live with that. There is an element of total irresponsible frivolity to me. But that may just be my mother's view of me.'
Her mother was her opposite, a serious woman? 'Extremely!'
Would Fay Weldon like to be taken more seriously? 'No, I wouldn't survive. At all. So, really, my frivolity is a defence mechanism. My sister was the serious one. I was the youngest child who couldn't do anything but charm and chatter on merrily.'
And, as we have seen, contradict herself without blushing. She will make reckless assertions only to laugh them off later and she has no real consistency of thought: she used to be a freethinker, but as of two years ago she is a regular churchgoer (C of E); she was once very pro-therapy, now she is very anti; for a long time she believed passionately in ghosts, now she dismisses them as mere projections; she still considers herself to be an old-fashioned socialist yet, by her pronouncements on the purity of advertising and her endless quest for book sales, it is obvious she has now reconstructed herself as a capitalist. 'Of course,' she says, another conversational trope. 'Of course people are contradictory. I see no real virtue in consistency.'
An English teacher, a friend of a friend, once said she had a shallow personality: was he on to something? 'No. Absolutely not. On the contrary. I think it was because I would just sit and smile sweetly under attack. I wouldn't burst into tears or react. So they would just dismiss me.' Does that make her manipulative? 'Yes of course. I hope so.' She purses her plump lips. 'No. No, I do not try to manipulate or blackmail or put thoughts into people's heads. No. I think I'd get on much better if I did. But I can't concentrate for long enough. My mind keeps reverting to fiction.'
She coils her beads on the table again. 'I think women who didn't have father figures are bad at flirting and being manipulative because they never learned to use their fathers to do their mothers down. I was no good at competing. At the sign of any competition I left.'
As a child she once accused another child of throwing sweets at her and wept until a nurse came to comfort her. 'I knew it was an accident but preferred to be miserable, for the sheer drama of it. Later in life I'd treat lovers and husbands this way. Taking offence and suffering - knowing in my heart that they aren't to blame, that I just wanted a drama, my turn to be victim.'
Is she difficult to live with? 'I do often go into a world of my own and my children do complain of that and bang the table and shout: "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here."'
In 1996 her son Tom, then 27, was caught in possession of 15,000 Ecstasy tablets in Amsterdam. He was given a three-year prison sentence. Did she feel responsible? 'Of course, I wonder whether I should have done this or that, but I didn't and I couldn't, and actually it worked out well. It did him a power of good. Prison works in Holland. They thought he was a genius. He started to paint and learn computer graphics, and came out and slipped benignly back into society. But, of course, you worry.'
She believes it is impossible to be a good writer and a good mother at the same time. 'It is. Of course it is. And I would always be a good writer. I sometimes sent my children out in odd socks.' She smiles. 'Being a good mother is often a matter of public display. The Jungian view is that the child is born perfect and it is the mother who determines its character and, if it goes wrong, then it is the mother's fault. This is a terrible burden and I can understand why the birth-rate among professional classes has fallen. Who would embark on such a task?'
Her novels tend to be dark satires on the battle of the sexes. There are few sympathetic men in them, indeed most of her male characters are callous and idle. 'I started writing because I felt a female view of the world should be registered. I couldn't relate to any of the heroines written by men: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and so on. I had not the slightest understanding of what Madame Bovary was about. I just thought, "Why couldn't she have gone on having lovers?" I always thought there was something wrong with me, but it was the writers. Then I got good at writing novels and felt I had a duty to carry on. The fact that I am still trying to get it right more than 30 years later amounts to a failure, I suppose. But everything you do is a failure, in as much as it wasn't what you set out to do.'
It is an unexpected comment, not least because this is a not a woman burdened by self-doubt. Perhaps it is a part of her 'truth therapy', perhaps it is just another example of her charming, frivolous mendacity. After all, she gives the appearance of candour but she clearly inhabits, as she puts it, 'a world of her own' - a fiction writer's world.
It is time for the unserious Fay Weldon to visit her serious mother, who lives in a retirement home nearby. Her mother doesn't come out of the autobiography in a particularly favourable light, I point out. Has she been given a copy of it to read yet? The author mouths the word, 'No.' A ghost of a smile. 'Not yet. I've been rather putting it off."'
May 05, 2002
Review: Memoirs: Audo Da Fay by Fay Weldon
AUTO DA FAY by Fay Weldon (Flamingo £15.99 pp367)
Fay Weldon learnt to argue at St Andrews about 50 years ago. It is debatable whether this was a good thing. “We had an agreeable way of conducting dialectic,” she explains in her artful autobiography. “I say something extreme, you say something equally extreme in denial . . . and in the end a compromise is reached. It is like a successful trade-union negotiation: you go in asking for a third more than you know you will get.” These days, however, as she cheerfully admits, the system has broken down. “I say my over-the-top things, wait for the comeback, and there is none. Or else silence, and then uproar.”
It seems typical of her that, having identified this problem, she adopts a would-you-believe-it attitude and carries on. Raised in New Zealand in straitened circumstances by a literary mother, she learnt early not to “rock the boat” with complaints, a practical outlook that endured. She tells us she has had a discontinuous life, marked by the surnames she acquired — from Fay Birkinshaw to Fay Davies, Bateman, Weldon and Fox — but the same person self-evidently was the sex-mad student; the young woman who coined the (sadly unused) ad slogan “Vodka Makes You Drunker Quicker”; and now the woman with the ultra-rational, killer-sweet tones on the Today programme arguing that men have had a tough time of it lately, and need someone to stick up for them.
What a shame life is plotless, she sighs. So many loose ends! And then she just gets on with it, knowing that the rich, fruity haphazardness of her experience will startle and amaze. This book stops at the point when, in the early 1960s, she became a writer. Up to then, there has been a pattern of rather brutal childhood uprootings, then “home” to an unknown England in the freezing winter of 1946-7, life below stairs, an illegitimate child, and a romantic career so potentially damaging — yet so gleefully undertaken — that a modern feminist reaches for the smelling salts. Weldon’s strength was always that she accepted without surprise what the world provided. She refuses to consider that it might also have been a weakness.
This is a book that reminds us of the value of living first, writing later. Pity the earnest MA creative writing student nibbling his keyboard at East Anglia, whose imagination could never summon up stuff like this. Those reviled, racy GI brides on the boat from New Zealand after the war — what a subject! Fay’s days working in the Foreign Office, where her reports on Polish affairs were marked like school essays by Churchill himself — “Exc”, “V.G.”! Married to Mr Bateman in the 1950s, she is urged by her husband to take a job as a nightclub hostess — and instead of slipping arsenic into his jam roly-poly, she complies! As they say, you couldn’t make it up. It is all, as ever with Weldon, an exercise in disarming the reader. Disarming is what she does best, tempering the sometimes sensational content (ghosts, a few times) with rational-sounding, aphoristic generalisations. “I have never known a confession of infidelity work anything but harm” — that’s the sort of thing. “Making tasteful, natural craft objects in the home is never an effective way of making money.” “Wombs are now seen as optional extras to the female, not the root of their being, as once they were.”
“I generalise, of course,” she says. “But when did I ever not?” And you have to admire the force of personality. This is the woman who coined “Go to work on an egg” and “Unzip a banana!”, don’t forget — you can’t expect her to hang about questioning her right to have an opinion. Dismissive as ever about the benefits of therapy, she is revealed here as therapy’s living rebuttal. “But what do you want to understand yourself for, Martha?” she quotes Thurber, approvingly. Thus this book is not a therapeutic exercise in pursuit of “closure”, and in the end, can be commended for this above all. Weldon remembers her training: she sees one side, and however daft, the other; then she comes to an overview. Only Weldon, one feels, could explain how today male doctors have fewer opportunities to molest female patients, and then add, “Mind you, these days it is much harder to get an appointment. As ever, something’s lost and something’s gained.”
Life and loves of a mischievous devil
Fay Weldon (Flamingo, £15.99)
Reviewed by Jane Shilling
One of the reasons that I have never much cared for Fay Weldon's novels is that they seem to have a certain bullying quality about them. Not a hairpulling, wrist-twisting sort of bullying, but a kind of insistent emotional tyranny, like the girl in the playground who decides that she is going to be your friend, whatever views to the contrary you may entertain.
Weldon's novelistic persona is perpetually there, standing a bit too close and breathing all over you, nudging you in the ribs in case you've missed some nuance of the action, keeping up a constant patter of coy little quasi-aphorisms, each of which has the tired tinkliness of a newspaper horoscope or fortune-cookie motto, as though no one ever quite thought of it for the first time.
One advances a trifle warily on the autobiography of a writer whose immensely popular and successful novels one knows one dislikes. No one - or very few people - really enjoys not liking things. It is human nature to want to praise, to admire, to be entertained. The title of Weldon's memoir, Auto Da Fay, is not engaging. It sounds as though it were thought up by a jaded sub-editor late on production night after an incautious trip to the Dog and Duck. And anyway, the pun doesn't work, does it? No immolation on grounds of faith here, surely?
The jacket design, on the other hand, is strangely disarming. It shows a painting of a small girl, evidently Weldon, whose looks have changed very little - facelift or no facelift - in the intervening decades, dressed in a tidy red gingham frock and harsh green cardie, flanked by a brace of rather horrible dollies, gazing with that familiar, knowing little smile, which is, you notice, unnervingly at odds with the expression in her vast, blank, blue eyes that could be dread, or a terrible resignation, or simply acute boredom.
In the book, Fay (who turns out not really to be called Fay at all, but Franklin, with a considerable string of different surnames on top: she has theories about changing your name and the subsequent effects on the personality of doing so) says that the child's expression in the picture is probably boredom - unlike her sister, Jane, who was also in the painting, she had trouble sitting still. But hindsight could equally well read those darker emotions into the child's harebell stare. Truth, as Weldon remarks here, on more than one occasion, is much stranger than fiction. And, a reader's voice might add, ever so much more interesting.
The story is one of genteel horror, resourcefully borne. On both her parents' sides of the family there are patterns of emotional disruption. Weldon is interested in patterns, perhaps because so much of her own early life seems so frighteningly unpredictable - one or another parent absent; continual changes of home and school; a wrenching move from the comparative security of New Zealand to grey, postwar Britain; abandonment and madness, unexpected pregnancy and forgotten birthdays - all accompanied by the kind of poverty that is the more grinding for being respectable.
At one point - when she marries a Mr Bateman in order to provide a home for her fatherless-baby - the narrative sidesteps from first person into third, remarking laconically that "Fay Bateman is more than the current 'I' can bear". The story stops quite suddenly, too, with the birth of her second child. "What I do from now on ... is write, and let living take a minor role," she concludes, a trifle mischievously, since it is, after all, still only 1963.
The horrors are recounted with a sprightliness that seems, when one knows that a real person endured them, more gallant than annoying. The aphoristic tendency flourishes, too: " People trusted far more to luck then than they do today." "Today's teenagers ... have to take their ecstasy in pill form; we created our own." And so on.
At such moments, Weldon can sound like a version of Lynda Lee-Potter on whom some kind fairy has bestowed an enhanced gift for narrative. But when one considers the nature of that narrative, the brutal unsteadiness of the voyage that she has navigated with the help of these little verbal aids to buoyancy, suddenly, the garish colours and irritating tendency of her literary style to bob about seem not merely explicable, but endearing and - with a sudden shift of focus - admirable.
The ones that got away
by Rachel Cooke
|Fay Weldon looks for all the world like a contented New Jersey housewife - the kind who eats too many Oreo cookies and cruises around town in a vast, four-wheel-drive people carrier. I am sitting in the cluttered kitchen of her Hampstead home trying to avoid admitting to her third husband, a former book-seller called Nick Fox, that, yes, it was me who gave her last novel such a stinking review, when she arrives.||
Round and blonde and smiley, she is wearing a navy T-shirt, matching baggy trousers and a pair of white Nike trainers. Never in a million years would the casual observer surmise that this suburban pixie has 35 books to her name - or that, on Sunday night, she will be the subject of a glowing South Bank Show documentary.
But appearances are deceptive - as Fay knows very well. After all, before she decided to write her autobiography, who would have guessed that, in her youth, she flirted with prostitution (she was once given a pair of nylons by a creepy-sounding market stall-holder in exchange for sex) and worked, rather successfully, as it happens, as a hostess in a Soho clip joint? Not me, that's for sure.
"You are what you are, you did what you did," she says later, when I ask her why, at the age of 70, she finally chose to reveal these risque episodes to an agog public. "There's no point in hiding it. In that sense, I'm totally unrespectable. I only regret the men I didn't go to bed with."
The memoirs, entitled Auto Da Fay, tell the story of Weldon's haphazard childhood in New Zealand and postwar London, where she lived with her novelist mother and elder sister, Jane. But things start to get really interesting later on, after she leaves St Andrew's University.
Fay gets pregnant by the doorman of the Mandrake Club and decides to keep the baby. She has a son, Nicolas, but life, she discovers, is tough in a world where respectability is all - so when Ronald Bateman, headmaster and owner of a property in Acton, asks her to be his wife, she agrees. The marriage, however, is sexless - Ronald, 25 years her senior, is more interested in life at his Masonic lodge than in her. At this point, she starts "entertaining" strangers.
Bateman encourages this, even offering her to his friends. In fact, he longs to hear details of her naughty encounters. Finally, though, she can stand life in Acton no more - it is boredom rather than shame that sees to this - and she hops off once again, eventually landing herself a job in advertising.
Not long afterwards, at a party in Belsize Park, she meets Ron Weldon, the man who was to be the father of her other three sons and her husband for 30 years (this union was finally shattered by an astrological therapist who told Ron that he and his wife had incompatible star signs; Weldon died in 1994). Here, the book ends.
Ronald Bateman sounds an odd creature: sometimes kind, sometimes cruel (luckily, he is dead, too, so we can say what we like about him). "Yes, he was all these things," says Weldon, giving me one of her wide-eyed and innocent smiles. "He wasn't a bad man. He was just confused. He kept marrying unmarried mothers with sons." How much poetic licence did she use in describing life in Acton? Did she, I wonder, have her eye firmly on sales as she scribbled away?
"I left a lot out," she says, tartly. "And certain parts you put in the third person otherwise you feel rather horrified by them." But Weldon famously thinks you can have too much truth. Didn't she despise herself for spilling her guts?
"My publisher asked me to write it and I got on with it. Only afterwards was I cringing in a corner, waiting for the headlines to pass." Has Nicolas read it? "My children are not allowed to read anything I write. If they do, they're not allowed to talk about it. The extracts were very lurid. I told Nicolas not to read them. So, naturally, he went out and bought the paper. He didn't know it all already, but he thought it was very nice.
"The past is so hidden to people now. The 1950s are like Edwardian times, they feel so far away. It was very tough for women. People don't understand what life was like. Now, it's so easy to have a baby, you just lie there, or stand in an alley. You don't have to work, there are benefits. I'm just surprised that the teenage birthrate is as low as it is."
At this point, the door to the living room opens and in comes Nick (he is 15 years younger than Fay and a bit manic). To my horror, in his hand is a copy of the review I wrote for the New Statesman of his wife's most recent novel, The Bulgari Connection (so-called because it was sponsored by the Italian jeweller). He has an extremely protective look on his face.
"Now listen to this!" he says, voice booming indignantly. "You (he means me) worry that she (he means Fay) says that women menstruate at the full moon and that oral sex is good for the complexion." Oh dear. This is true. I can hardly deny it, given that it's there in black and white in front of him. "What else? Yes, you say 'distinctly feeble ... what this story lacks is SPARKLE!'"
OVER at the other side of the table, like a kindly goblin, Fay is giggling merrily. Perhaps the cheque she received from Bulgari was sufficiently big for her not to mind my petty criticisms. "She's very hard, isn't she?" she says to Nick. "She's very difficult. She probably didn't like it because it didn't have any sex in it. Look, you've embarrassed the poor girl now."
Fox leaves the room, his work done. I look at his wife. She is not at all flustered (unlike me). "It's all so subjective," she says. Later, she tells me that she loves being married, and that she did it again for a third time so as not to let Nick get away. "The good marriages are the irrational ones," she says. "The coming together of opposites. But the therapists disapprove of those. The ones they like are the dull ones, where people have shared interests and talk about their incomes. You're not meant to be consumed by jealousy or rage or hysteria. The expression of those emotions is forbidden. But we need more weeping and wailing and shrieking." She has a hunch that the rot set in emotion-wise after women started working in offices. "There, they just can't shriek at their fellow workers and beat them about the head."
It's hard not to enjoy her delicious habit of saying the very opposite of what you're expecting. In her day, she says, bulimia was a "skill not a disorder". Neither can she understand why modern girls make such a fuss about fitting in babies. "What do these women mean when they talk about their careers? It's all in their heads. On the whole, people have jobs, not careers."
When her 27-year-old son Tom was sent to a Dutch prison for three years for possession of drugs, "it did him a power of good". He learned to paint and is leading a normal life again, she explains. Most bizarrely, she thinks that women who reach 40 without having married or bred spent "too much time combing their hair and complaining about their period pains".
Luckily, breeding was never a problem for her and she now has five grandchildren. But for all that she pretends to have no ambition - "I didn't set out to do all this" - she has no intention of settling down into a quiet retirement just yet. She is already working on a new novel and volume two of the memoirs is bound to contain more bombshells. "When I turned 70, I thought it was time to behave with a certain gravitas," she says. "But that remains hard. I'd rather be 20. Who wouldn't?"
In the world of cooks and scullery maids, death often came calling in the middle of a banquet. A cook's life was hard. The hours were unending and the stress unbearable. Rich food and frequent nips at the sherry bottle meant these women often fell where they cooked. The meal had to go on, so the maid simply took over the dead woman's place, while the other servants dragged away the body. It was how a girl got promotion and was baldly referred to as "stepping over the cook". Fay Weldon records the practice, and attributes her own rise in the world of advertising to a 20th-century equivalent, in this strange, deceptively formless but actually very structured autobiography of her early life.
Fate and will, nature and nurture are underlying themes in this book, and in her life. Scheduled to be born into a tolerably settled doctor's family in New Zealand, Fay was actually, thanks to an earthquake, born in London into a family fractured by much more than an earthquake. Blown backwards and forwards between England and New Zealand, scrabbling around to get an education and make a career, Fay Weldon got on with what was under her nose. It was a family tradition, handed down through the female line. Her mother, born to an eccentric intellectual family in Hampstead, worked as an artist, a writer, a guard on the London Underground, a home help and whatever else came her way.
Exasperated into adultery by her husband's philanderings, Fay's mother brought up her two daughters, along with her own idiosyncratic mother, shifting them all back to England for the last time on an unexpected legacy. If that money hadn't arrived Fay and sister Jane might have stayed in New Zealand and been happy housewives with perms. The book is littered with paths not chosen, but what appear to be random, whimsical decisions seem to have a theme and structure.
This is so much more, though, than one woman's journey over difficult, seismic terrain. Fay Weldon is not so wrapped up in telling the extraordinary facts of her life not to notice the scenery around her. Her account of arriving among the blasted buildings of post-war Britain, of sexual politics before and after the pill, about suburban behaviour and social mores, are sharp and particular. She remembers, as few others would bother, to record how when a husband came in the front door any visiting female neighbour would sidle out the back. She records all those lost tribes: sleazy doctors who got by on work for insurance companies and were prone to groping the daughters of doctors, the first wave of advertisers working for commercial television, the last wave of poor tenants hanging on by a legal thread to lodgings in up-and-coming areas.
An unmarried mother in the Fifties, Fay Weldon got on with being a career woman. Stuck at home with a pregnancy that seemed unending, she got out the pen and paper and became a writer. Husbands, lovers, a truly bizarre cast of relatives, and a few ghosts, have pushed her life this way and that. But she was always determined and resourceful, and she has always had her tremendous talent for writing. Weldon may have simply stepped over the cook and done "what was under her nose", but she had to be willing to do it.
Fay Weldon: You ask the questions
Such as: so, do you like men as much as you like women? And what are your views on the cloning of human embryos?)
09 May 2002
Fay Weldon was born Franklin Birkinshaw in Worcestershire in 1931. She was brought up in New Zealand and London. She went to St Andrews University and worked in advertising for several years, inventing the slogan: "Go to work on an egg." Her 24 novels include Big Women and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, which was made into a TV series and a Hollywood film. She has four sons and five grandchildren and lives in Hampstead with her third husband, Nick Fox. She has just written her autobiography, Auto da Fay.
What have you discovered about yourself by writing an autobiography? Cynthia Pakes, Milton Keynes
Not much. Perhaps a little more about what applies to everyone: how we tend to repeat our parent's mistakes, how we don't spring ready-made into the world, how all our stories start long before birth. How the decades form us, and how the society around us dictates our morality, our opinions, and the form our self-esteem (or lack of it) dictates.
You talk a lot of sense about men and women. Is this because you like the former as much as the latter? Jeremy Q Sleath, Leamington Spa
Thank you. To dislike either men or women would be to dislike half the human race, and a fairly pointless exercise. I'd rather go the cinema with a girlfriend; I'd rather go to a party with a man.
You're lucky enough to have four sons, but did you ever yearn for a daughter? Debbie Pinks, by e-mail
Of course I yearned for a daughter, though I was exceedingly grateful for my four sons. In the past, if boys were born congratulations were in order, if girls were born, commiserations. Now it is the other way round: girls are seen to have the better life ahead. Longer life expectancy, more easily socialised, better at passing exams, finding work, looking after you when you're old and more fun to dress when little.
Dr Severino Antinori claimed recently that one of his female patients was pregnant with a cloned foetus. Are you looking forward to its birth? Harry Clunes, Horsham
No. It's too soon. I only hope there's not a human-womb farm somewhere, Third Reich style, tucked away in some rain forest, where the process of cloning humans is being currently refined. It's the kind of horror-film experiment that sometimes seeps into real life. But I'm not as against respectable cloning as many seem to be. A leading geneticist pointed out the other day that wherever women are given control over their own fertility and the ability to earn, they choose not to have babies. (Witness the rapidly falling birth rate in the developed West: moreover, the trend is spreading worldwide, with the occasional dire Taliban blip.) So scientists will have to step in and do it for them. He would say that, wouldn't he, but I can see a truth in it. Once you interfere with the Darwinian mechanism of survival of the fittest by introducing medicine and hygiene into the proceedings, there is no going back. We can only go forward, into a world where there will be less accidental diversity when it comes to babies, and less likelihood that parents will opt for blind chance when it comes to giving birth.
How did you manage to be such a prolific writer when your children were young? Did you have paid childcare, or did you used to burn the midnight oil? Lucinda Grant, London
I burnt the midnight oil, or at any rate the early-morning oil. I reckoned the children would out-sleep me, and used the margins for writing. And I had a job, and did the housework, and stoked the coal stove, and took the washing to the launderette, no domestic machinery being allowed in the house. Could I do it now? No. As soon as I could afford to, I had a live-in au pair. As soon as I could, I worked from home.
Did you read your horoscope today? Did it come true? Chrissy Sutherland, Flitwick
Of course. Did it come true? Of course not.
Do you think with hindsight that your dismissive remarks about rape were rather ill-judged? Sam Maxwell, Stoke-on-Trent
My remarks about rape were certainly not intended to be dismissive. Of course rape is monstrous, though as Germaine Greer pointed out, "It is only a penis." It is in the elements that go along with the attack that the major monstrosity lies. But I think we may be making it difficult for victims to forget and get on with their lives by stressing the horror of rape, making it central to a life's experience and not something traumatic that once happened. There are many societies in which a raped woman is disgraced and rendered unclean, unable to marry. We don't want to go back to that, and we're in danger of it if we encourage the victim to see herself as permanently polluted. Or himself, of course: there are many male victims of rape.
Of course there are worse things than rape. For a woman to discover that she's infertile, say. For a young man to be paralysed. To be sexually betrayed by the one you love. But that's a sour kind of game – Worse Things that can Happen – and I'd rather not play it.
Your early novels have strong feminist themes. Do you still call yourself a feminist? Louisa Stanford, by e-mail
It depends what you mean by "feminist". In the Seventies women lived by courtesy of men, dependent on their goodwill for the roof over their heads. It was an easy choice to be a feminist and fight for the rights of the underclass. But now women can make their own choices: to have children or not, to marry or not; to have the career of their choice. Men are no longer the enemy. If we can extend the remit of feminism to include the rights of men and children – all our interests overlap, though they don't necessarily coincide – then I am most certainly a feminist.
For years I have suffered from depression, and I have now learnt to live with it thanks to psychotherapy. Why do you persist in being so negative about therapy? Simon Jones, Perth
I am glad you are dealing with the depression. It sounds as if you are having treatment with a cognitive therapist, and this is the one therapy that does seem to work – learning useful strategies for dealing with conditions that medication can't touch. If I am negative about psychotherapy it is because at its worst it reinforces the blame culture in which we increasingly live – everything is somebody else's fault, so leave your spouse, don't speak to your mother, accuse your father, let me be your saviour. It is a recipe for loneliness and a fractured society. Of course there are remarkable individuals about who have the gift of healing unhappiness, and I have no quarrel with them. I see therapists as novelists who work with living people, impose a narrative upon their lives and write in the happy ending according to the particular genre in which they were trained. Sometimes they write well, sometimes they don't.
I can't believe you are into your eighth decade. How old do you feel? Patsy Vaughan, Weston-Super-Mare
About eight, actually.
Auto Da Fay
11.05.2002 By CARROLL du CHATEAU
Fay Weldon has charitable memories; hers is a generous autobiography. Despite an early life that included being left with her previously distant father when she was 4 and her sister 5, while her mother bolted back to England, she writes fondly of both parents. Overall, "probably the life that was lived was the best that could be done: even, to the outsider, better than could have been expected," reads the dust jacket in this, the first of her memoirs.
This slice of Weldon's life takes in the first 30-odd years, from the time when she was nearly born in Napier, New Zealand (her mother whisked herself and tummy back to England where Weldon was born in 1931) to her marriage to Ron Weldon in the early 60s. In between comes a life crammed with ups and downs, men, books, babies, sex, poverty, ghosts - and, of course, the writing that kept her together, soul and body.
Weldon is not a snobbish writer. She used her talent to feed her family, her career to feed her head, and revelled in her days in advertising where her slogan for the British Egg Marketing Board - "Go to work on an egg" - became as much an icon as the Milky Bar Kid.
And, throughout, you get the feeling that Weldon sailed on, unflappable, talented, funny and with the kind of generous nature that accepts what happens with alacrity - and maybe a touch of bewilderment.
As Weldon explains it, she inherited three important characteristics. First, her mother's delight in nature: "Sometimes, in the dawn of a bright day - I would always get up with the sun if I was allowed - I would be conscious of the exhilaration that filled the natural world."
Second, both parents' talent for poetry and writing. Third, her grandfather Edgar's joy in sex. "I saw sex as both a sacrament and enlightenment, I saw the coming together of two people ... as the best-possible way of being part of the creation ... I stay full of sympathy for those bands of noisy bad girls who go out to pubs and clubs, wild and dissolute, looking for sex. Of course they do: what else is beautiful in their lives, but the dark ecstasy of being part of another person."
She is refreshingly open-minded, airily dismissing ideas of inconsistency as she swoops from free-thinking to formal religion, and from twice-weekly counselling-type therapy to today's total dismissal.
For us New Zealanders though, the early chapters are probably the most interesting. The little girl who toddled off the boat from Britain had piercing observational skills; the 71-year-old woman has a brilliant ability to make the memories come alive.
"I remember my mother turning cartwheels on the lawn, white legs flashing, short skirt whirling, and being overwhelmed with admiration. None of my friends' mothers turned cartwheels. They wore pinnies and made apple pies."
There was the bout of polio that brought her mother, who had bolted back to England, back to her side. The sudden, terrifying plunge into a Catholic boarding school, the father who forgot to turn up to take his daughters out, the mother who finally bundled them back on the Rangitoto and to the even more complex world back "home".
Throughout, Weldon writes with underplayed insight. As a young girl, she caught the "sad anxiety" on her stepmother's face (typically, she loved her stepmother) when her father referred to his receptionist as a "willowy blonde", and hated him for causing such pain. "It would be so easy for him to reassure her, but he wouldn't. Men had too much power, I thought for the first, and not for the last time, to make women suffer."
Even her sister Jane's tragic descent into madness and death from a brain tumour is accepted with grace, though "the emptiness left behind was terrible".
My only quibbles with Auto Da Fay are structural. The beginning, which in an effort to set up its message - the repeating rhythms of life - skips between generations of Birkinshaws (Weldon's maiden name) with speed and disdain for a chronological narrative, is hard to follow.
Although the book is divided into tantalising slices with workmanlike headings (New Mothers, Among the Dispossessed) there is no index, while the black and white photographs that pepper the memoir are captioned only in an index at the beginning.
The end, which even Weldon admits she had trouble with, comes with rather a bump.
But that is more than made up for by the wonderful writing, the insight, the sheer fun of a life so thoroughly lived.
* Carroll du Chateau is editor of Weekend Life.
One of fiction's battlers, Fay Weldon, was shaped by her early life in New Zealand.
By BRONWYN SELL.
Fay Weldon is apprehensive about visiting New Zealand this month. "I'm rather dreading it," she says. "People are going to say it wasn't like that, this never happened or that never happened, or what do you mean, you got the dates wrong? Somehow it's their country and they want you to get it right, and you know if you haven't, they'll tell you.
"But it doesn't say anything awful about New Zealand, does it?"
What we are talking about on this chilly spring day in Hampstead is Auto Da Fay, Weldon's autobiography, and no, it doesn't say anything awful about New Zealand.
It's just that somewhere in New Zealand a girl called Beverley, whom everyone hated at school because she had cross-eyes and spots and was smelly, might have become a 70-something-year-old woman.
So might have one Alison Grey, whom Weldon fell in love with at Christchurch Girls' High School. And when they read Weldon's latest book, they may feel resentful that the classmate with the red ribbon and fair hair parted in the centre grew up and wrote about them from her, undoubtedly subjective, perspective.
Weldon, New Zealand conceived, British born, New Zealand raised, British settled, toying with the idea of one day moving back, sits at a long wooden table in her gracious brick house in north London, surrounded by art and books by Pepys, Freud, Waugh, Rushdie, Greene.
She is welcoming and frank. Her life, after all, has literally become an open book - and she laughs readily.
The house is cosy and modest, with the lived-in feel of unvacuumed carpets and a clutter of books, newspapers, handbags, key-rings and coffee cups. Beyond an impeccable garden and tall hedge, a dignified early evening silence has settled on the green-and-brick established streets of Hampstead.
Outwardly, there is little about the famous novelist or her surroundings that could be ascribed to New Zealand aside from a windbreaker jacket she swears by, emblazoned with the slogan: "100% Pure New Zealand".
Certainly there is not a trace of a New Zealand accent that was drilled well out of her on the boat aboard which she left the country abruptly in 1946 with her mother, Margaret, and sister, Jane, a team of three which Weldon describes as the survival unit.
"Oh my toe is frozen in the snow. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Mr Brown won renown, wore his britches upside-down. Move the face, open the mouth, don't keep your chin in your chest and speak up."
By the time the Rangitoto reached the British port of Tilbury, the 14-year-old colonial refugee had become English. She was immediately absorbed into the tumult of post-war England and her upbringing was cast aside. It simply didn't occur to anybody that you would have to acclimatise.
In New Zealand, Weldon had been an outsider, a homie. Arriving in London was like returning home. But, says Weldon, the New Zealandness is still there, hidden somewhere beneath the rounded vowels.
"There's this extraordinary practicality. New Zealand girls don't seem to put on airs. If there's a snowstorm, they'll just shovel the snow away. If anything unexpected happens, they can cope with it," she says.
"Then once you've dealt with it, you can afford to have an emotion about it. Whereas you find English girls sort of go to pieces, they don't know what to do. They think someone should come along and rescue them."
Weldon has needed it, that strength, particularly in the first 32 years of her life, those tackled in her autobiography.
The first upheaval of her life was a literal one. Her mother Margaret was three months pregnant during the 1931 Napier earthquake, during which Weldon's father Frank deserted the family for the first time. It took another 32 years for Weldon's life to settle.
But this is not the story of Fay Weldon the writer. She does not become Weldon until the third-to-last page. Life falls in cycles, she explains, tracing loops with her finger on to the unpolished wood. Hers falls into three, she says, drawing them. Auto Da Fay is No 1.
This story is of Franklin Birkinshaw, the bewildered younger daughter in a dysfunctional but loving family. (Her mother was so certain the baby would be a boy she didn't bother to think up a girl's name - and in numerology, the name was identical to William Shakespeare.) It is also the story of Fay Birkinshaw the confused teenager and lovelorn university student, Fay Davies the copywriter and unmarried mother, Fay Bateman the wife of a sadist. Fay the survivor.
Weldon has since become Fox, but that's another story - Fay Weldon part two, or maybe part three, depending on whether she decides her third marriage in 1995 ended a loop or began one.
Like her novels, Weldon's autobiography is wry and often dark. Suicide seems a natural cause of death for those around her, mental illness an inevitable state of mind, marriages don't last long and ghosts lurk weeping in the hallways. Her life is dominated by women. Most men are bit players, unflatteringly rendered. Weldon part one, in 366 pages.
Weldon part three is dressed down in a casual navy top, patterned trousers, sneakers, lank blond hair, almost apologetic smile. She has spent the day moving her now 95-year-old mother, Margaret, into a new rest home, at her mother's insistence.
Weldon considers Margaret the heroine of her life. Margaret raised her then-inseparable daughters, "Jane 'n' Fay", alone in Christchurch after their father headed to the North Island. She took them back to England as teenagers, and apart from one memorable slip when her marriage was falling apart and Margaret returned "home" to England leaving her daughters at only 4 and 5 with their father, she was as constant as men were fickle.
Starting then, when she rushed back home to Christchurch where Fay lay ill with polio, she repeatedly packed up her life to return to her adult daughters in times of strife. Margaret is about to become famous, but Weldon suspects she'll be more upset at the illustration on the book jacket than the words inside.
The illustration, of a young Weldon and her older sister Jane (ill-fated, like many of the characters) was painted in 1938 by Rita Angus, a friend of their father. The sisters wear identical red and white checked dresses with white collars, green cardigans and rosy cheeks. Jane's eyes are deep brown, Weldon's are huge and bright blue, almost turquoise.
Margaret despised its hint of caricature and hard edges and left the painting behind, in a dark corridor, when they packed for London. When a friend ran to the gangway with it, crying, "You left this, you left this", Margaret nearly dropped it overboard, but politeness prevailed, and she asked the friend to return it to Angus.
Weldon part three has the same eyes, although there is less of them to see now the sockets have caved in a little.
The sun has been fickle today, battling for space with black clouds. Now in the twilight the light is harsh, filtering through the new spring leaves on the trees outside to fill the creases in Weldon's face. She often presses her hands into her face as she thinks, sometimes resting on a cheek, sometimes covering and distorting her face.
This is the beginning of open season on Fay Weldon, who is more accustomed to creating the characters than being them. Weldon says she doesn't normally dwell on the past - the New Zealand "get on with it" trait again - but this month by virtue of her autobiography, she's reliving it, over and over, with endless media interviews and book tours.
She's still not quite sure why she wrote the book. "In a way, you wish you hadn't done it. You really wish you hadn't done it. Because, you know, it seems a silly sort of thing to do," she says. "I don't know, why do you write any book? You don't know, except it's there, so you write it. And it's too late then.
"I mean, I left lots out, I did." She laughs. "I could do another book on those years, on the bits you leave out."
Weldon writes in the book that a general pattern dominates most lives. That, like waves on an ocean, nothing happens and nothing happens and then all of a sudden everything happens.
In fact, there are few pages in Weldon's book in which nothing happens. She tumbles from crisis to crisis, but always manages to recover. Through the many violent swings between crises and peace in her early life, Weldon remembered the summers spent with her father in the Coromandel as the Golden Age.
"Red pohutukawa trees leaned down from the cliffs to meet the rocky sea-line, where cormorants shrieked and dived, past rough shacks where Maori, brown, beautiful, glistening, lived and fished, and on to Coromandel bay, and the ghost town of Coromandel itself. And even then, as a child, I knew how privileged I was to be in that place, at that time, in the Golden Age."
Weldon wonders whether one day she'll return to New Zealand for good. In the past she says, she was not torn between England and New Zealand because there was no way she could go home.
"And by the time I could afford it, I didn't have the time, or I didn't have that feeling any more."
Now, she says, she's torn. "London gets a bit funny, you know. And even email's made such a difference to New Zealand. Somehow, it's around the corner, really."
But her family would have to go with her. The family bond is strinkingly important. In later years (parts two and three) men took stronger, more positive roles. Weldon has four sons of whom she is immensely proud, finally found love with second husband Ron Weldon, and despite divorce and his death, found it again with Nick Fox, with whom she lives. The fate of her sister Jane, who withdrew into mental illness before dying young, is a source of obvious pain.
When Jane died, Weldon's analyst, Miss Rowlands, said she was like a walnut withered in its shell. Weldon thinks Jane had more of a life than that, and loved and lost and had children and wrote poetry, and sure, occasionally went mad, but was well acquainted with God. "I think she was a rose which fell off its stem in a storm, instead of waiting to grow old and blowsy and drift away like the rest of us."
Jane's is probably the ghost Weldon will never be able to exorcise, but she has seen too many others and, once the wave of publicity subsides, will happily return to fiction. She is now co-writing a book with an American woman. "It's turned into a novel about writing a novel - which seems to me will be a good way to explain the things you do." Not that fiction writing is something that can be taught, she says.
Weldon, who believes that writing comes from internal forces, not external ones, doesn't go in for writing workshops or creative writing courses. For her it seemed the natural path, once she got all that early stuff digested. Her parents and grandparents were nearly all writers, with the exception of her grandmother Nona, a pianist.
After 32 years Weldon had enough life experience to draw on. She had been a copywriter in London for years (famous for a slogan "Go to work on an egg" for the British egg marketing board, says every profile of her), and says writing novels was simply a case of drawing the words out and focusing on selling an idea, rather than a product.
The idea behind her autobiography is that life falls into patterns which repeat through the generations.
She stopped the book rather abruptly partly because she did not know how to continue. "I can already see it - it's a trilogy - which means I probably will end up writing it," she says, almost absent-mindedly, as if the thought of finishing the story has just occurred to her.
"The story just gets more difficult to tell because of the feelings of those involved, on the whole," she says.
"What happened then was all so long ago that, really, even the living are hardly going to mind it. But as it gets to the next stage, there are people's sensibilities to consider, and your own. But we'll see, we'll see."
of the ergonarchy
Monday 17th April 2000
We could have the leisure
society if we wanted it. But Samuel Smiles won; our lives are ruled by a work
ethic and a duty to consume.
By Fay Weldon
In 1857, Charles Dickens observed that the nation was overpopulated, over-pauperised, over-colonising and overtaxed. Over-colonising is no longer a problem - we managed to get rid of the British empire and the cost of running it, but the rest of his description stands untouched. A population of 22 million, which seemed worrying enough in Dickens's time, is now approaching 58 million. True, a birth rate of 35 per 1,000 has fallen to 12 per 1,000 (not enough to replace the existing population), but any shortfall in numbers is topped up by immigration and higher life expectancy.
We are still over-pauperised: more than a quarter of all government-managed expenditure goes on help to the poor. And what in Dickens's day seemed gross overtaxation at 3p in the pound is now for most people around 30p, once we've paid not only our income tax but our road tax, inheritance tax, our community charges and all the rest of it. But we manage, we manage: we go on living longer and longer, in spite of pollution and GM foods and mercury in our teeth fillings. Life expectancy will soon be twice what it was when Dickens made his speech in 1867. He died, poor man, in 1870, aged 57. Here am I, a novelist of today, ten years older than that and still going strong, thanks to good nutrition and medical care: I'd have been dead once if it weren't for antibiotics, and twice if not for surgery.
We manage, mostly because of the rise of technology and science. Robots dig for coal, fetch up oil, and make our motorcars and our largely prefabricated buildings; computers keep information circulating. A good deal of the work and the information is totally unnecessary, but the technological west is now, perforce, in search of an occupation, and is really good at inventing tasks for itself to do. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy delays decisions and makes efficiency impossible. A letter that in Dickens's time took a day to get anywhere in the country can now take up to five. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was in the bookshops six weeks after the unsolicited manuscript turned up at the publishers. Today, two years would not be unusual.
But at least everyone's working, which means consuming: this is what it takes to keep the wheels of industry and state turning. It may cost £10 to get a single disposable nappy through the structures of the NHS and into a maternity ward, but at least those who block its path are in employment, and so can afford the 50p that keeps the baby back home dry and comfortable for a whole three hours. The leisure society we envisaged back in the 1960s didn't happen: on the contrary, we work harder and longer accomplishing less. It turned out that we had more appetite for employment than for leisure. It suited the nature of our species.
All sections of society are roped in to help with the need to consume. Education, starting young and going on late, not only puts the growing child into the habit of work, but each learning child supports the buying power of a band of bureaucrats, advisers and experts, those who dispense and guard some £16 bn-worth of annual "educational" expenditure, not to mention supporting the selling power of Microsoft. It takes a cluster of 20 children or so to earn themselves an actual teacher.
Our mid 19th-century education acts were brought in, not because "the new industrial workers, moving to the cities from the countryside, had to be taught to read the instructions on the machinery" - as the curriculum still teaches - but because workers had to be taught to turn up punctually and not lie in bed when the weather was bad. Not even the threat of starvation could get some people out of bed on a fine morning, let alone if it was raining or cold. The new machinery, designed to run 24 hours a day, was looking too vulnerable to the pulses and whims of human activity to produce a proper return on an expensive investment. So get 'em young, went the thinking. Get them into "schools"; let the truant officer terrify; let the register morning and afternoon be an unbreakable ritual; demand a sick note to explain absence - surely an element of compulsion in our early years makes it easier for us to toe the line later.
The perceived problem has always been that the machine works steadily and sensibly; humans do not. In fact, we would be more productive, and our employers would be wealthier, if we worked when we felt like it. Our natural work rhythms are not nine to five daily and a weekend off: more like a week working hard with time off only for sleep, and then a week's rest. Anyone who is self-employed recognises the pattern. Endeavour is seldom steady; as with us today, so with yesterday's peasant farmer, who worked day and night to bring the harvest in and then fell asleep until winter was over. The work patterns imposed on us since Dickens's day are unnatural. We may live longer and healthier lives, but not necessarily in tranquillity and contentment.
For, alas, we live in an ergonarchy: rule by a work ethic closely entwined with a consuming duty. Where once we worked in order to make things, and thus keep warm and fed, now we work in order to earn, and earn in order to spend in order to work. Samuel Smiles got his way: we are all industrious now, yet a technology he never envisaged accomplishes all necessary tasks for us. The job that the uneducated single mother on workfare is given is unlikely to contribute to society: rather, she will be packing mini-skirts so that teenagers can change their clothes three times a day, or something similar, and she will be marginally cheaper to run than a machine.
We are in the ergonarchy now. The purpose of our lives is no longer to laud God and bear witness to the marvels of his creation, but by virtue of the work of hand and brain - and mostly brain - to consume. To spend on the microwave and the convenience food in order to earn the time to get the child back from the minder and fed before going to bed, to get the sleep that humans require and which the employer has always so begrudged. (A multinational corporation, mind you, never sleeps: it's always awake somewhere, which may be why in today's society it so thrives.) In an ergonarchy, the relationship between work and money is fragile. Profit share as an employee, sure; but fashion, not productivity, dictates the value of the shares you own. Fine if you're working in cyberspace, not so hot if you're in retail. The lottery, not natural justice, rules.
And what a hard taskmaster the ergonarchy is, for men and women both, pushing us out of bed in the morning whatever the weather, out of the house to some distant place of employment decreed by the planners, on public transport or over the road bumps into a traffic jam, stuck listening to the radio (though some claim that's the best part of the day), our children socialised by their peers and their teachers and not ourselves, family life at the end of its tether, and for what, for what? Sure, ergonarchy comes bearing gifts: a brand new car and a holiday abroad, and a pension at the end of it provided you invested your serial redundancy monies properly and retrained wisely. But he's a devil and don't forget it. Ergonarchy thrives at the citizen's expense. Lying there licking his sticky fingers while we work and spend. Just sometimes he offers us a sweet. And we never even asked him in: he just happened.
Adults in Britain work the longest hours in Europe - an average of 48 a week, which means some must be doing 60, 70 hours, and that's not including overtime. Yet we have the lowest productivity in Europe and it's falling. Of course it is. We're tired and exhausted - look at the faces on the London Underground in the evening rush hour and be appalled - and our love lives suffer. Our sexual partners come and go because keeping them takes too much energy. The young, reaching their 30s, find themselves without permanent partners. Single-person households begin to be the norm. The old social structures dissolve: marriage is a serial event, and families that contain stepchildren will soon outstrip those that don't. Inside an ergonarchy, men complain of impotence, and women choose not to have children. How can women afford the time off work, the break in the career, let alone the emotional impact of the child? A woman who is a mother can't serve the ergonarchy as the ergonarchy sees fit. The ergonarchy wins, the birthrate falls. The old are denied their grandchildren. In the ergomaniac economy, paperwork expands exponentially: every hotel has a laptop connection and a pile of leaflets to tell you how to work it. We compete with one another, developing our skills, training and retraining for jobs that disappear as soon as we find them. "Flexibility" is just another word for personal disaster.
In the ergonarchy, language changes: "the job" becomes "the career". We are persuaded to work harder and harder, longer and longer, in what appears to us to be our own interests. Thus divided, we are easily ruled. Rightly suspicious, we look round for someone to blame, but find only ourselves - and so lose the gift of protest. Our oppressors have a shifting form. We can't locate them to oppose them; they are too well hidden in the bureaucratic undergrowth. Our "manager" works even longer hours than we do. Well, forget it. Ergonarchy spits out the old, the tired, the weak, the inadequate, but will not let them rest. The dole gets replaced by the jobseekers' allowance: how busy and anxious the work-free are kept, training for interviews, competing for courses, helped with their CVs and letters of ritual application.
Ergonarchy, this foul new bedfellow, was bred out of communism by capitalism: his midwife was feminism (all women into the labour market, all the children kibbutzised); his tutor was the international business school and he is married to the politics of the Third Way. Soft-talking Blairism is his factotum. Harsh Thatcherism, with its talk of lean efficiency and streamlined economy, was a powerful fairy godmother, useful enough at the birth, but now ignored. More carrot needed, less stick.
We are all workers now, yet who is concerned with the welfare of the worker? No one. The individual employer carries on as ever, exploiting the employee's labour for his own profit. The big corporations look after the needs of the shareholder at the expense of the worker; this is no more than their duty. The large state organisations have degenerated into Kafkaesque cost-cutting exercises, run by accountants who seem to love buildings and hate people, and see it as their duty to save the taxpayers' money at the employees' expense.
The trade unions, in this feminised age, when all must be consultation and common cause (female) and not confrontation (male), have been de-barked. All the old guardians can do is mouth silently at the serried rows of work-stations, in the darkened rooms where the ranks of the employed - computer-literate after their many years of education, education, education - pass their lives changing the configurations of the screens in front of them and, if the managers don't notice, playing computer solitaire. All are entranced. The light is dim and the blinds lowered so the sun doesn't catch the screens. Was that the grating sound of doubts being raised? Don't listen to it! So the world stops here; who cares? Ergonarchy winks and grins and rolls over in the bed you vacated this morning so early. Who wants to go home anyway? Home's boring.
The ergonarchy is the age of the biological sciences. We hurtle blithely into a future where scientists work out how to stop us ageing, how to make plant and animal life obey our orders, rather than follow any innate pattern of growth and death. The splendid tomato on your plate carries fish genes so it can grow in a cold climate; I have a new knee you can't tell from the original. Spare cloned body parts will soon be available. Some worry about dangers, but not enough for the rest of us to cry enough, enough, enough, or me to refuse my new knee.
What George Orwell envisaged in 1984 and what Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World combine to create a Newspeak world in which we are manipulated and watched by governments, while soothed out of protest by mood-altering substances. In the ergonarchy, we yearn to improve on God and/or Mother Nature - however you care to refer to the great guiding moral principle - in whom fairness was never exactly observable; and to make all things fair. Genetic technology has cured one of the great injustices of the human condition: that men stayed fertile all their grown lives, but women had to cram their fertility into 25 years or so.
In the ergonarchy, women begin to enjoy the gift of fertility-equality. Deep-freeze your ovarian tissue when young and in peak condition: grow your eggs as late as you like. All of a sudden, the biological clock is ticking more softly, so soft you can hardly hear it at all. And just as well, some will say. A new solution arises to meet a new problem. Ergonarchic woman has little time or energy to find the right partner when still young: she may well need a few extra decades before she meets up with the man of her dreams.
It may well be the pattern of our working lives in the future, that women have their careers first and then raise their children in their retirement, using their pension plans to fund themselves. It would certainly suit the state if they did, saving the benefits that now have to be paid out to the generously reproducing and improvident young. Employers would appreciate it. Mothers make rotten employees, always thinking of something other than their work and dashing off home. Fathers begin to do it, too. In the meantime, the single young in their one-person households make the best earners and the best consumers.
In the ergonarchy, it is not unusual for mothers to have children, naturally, in their 40s. With the aid of a little genetic technology, they can do it in their 50s and 60s. Of all advances, this one seems to rouse the most fear and loathing. "What about the children?" cry the horrified protesters, groping for argument, and finding only emotion. Who wants to be met at the school gate by a wrinkled hag? Who wants to be orphaned early? But if the choice is between embarrassment and not being born in the first place, being orphaned early or not being born at all, I reckon most of us would choose life. Better to be born to a flawed parent than not born at all. Whoever had faultless parents anyway, whoever was not embarrassed when young at the school gate? The wrong hat or the wrong car will do it; forget the wrong age.
In the ergonarchy, we are nervous about age, but fierce in the protection of our young. We find paedophiles under every stone. The idea of "schoolgirl pregnancies" strikes us with horror and disgust. We believe that maturity is to be reckoned by chronological age. We maintain that sex at 15 3/4 is too young for sex, but 16 is OK. We are competitive with other nations. We worry about why Britain has so many pregnant girls, while Holland, for example, has so few. Education, education, education, comes the answer; forget that the de facto age of consent in Holland is 12; that to the rebellious young, what is forbidden is alluring.
In the ergonarchy, the young, feeling the impending weight of their dull, hard-working maturity, are contrary and they court danger. They don't heed health warnings.
They think they'll live forever in perfect health. They think only bad girls get pregnant. Warn them against cigarette smoking by showing them the blackened lungs of those who died of lung cancer, and they'll compete to see who can have the blackest lungs. Show them a heroin addict crouching in a corner in a poster, and heroin chic is born. Sex is a riot, sex education seldom is; that's the problem.
In the ergonarchy, society itself is feminised. We have turned into a sharing, caring, forgiving, apologising nation: hear it in the emotional, touchy-feely language of government. We even go to war because we care. The old male values of patriotism, reticence, decency, manliness, stiff upper lippishness are out the window. Some kind of gender switch has been thrown, like the one on a miniature rail system which sends all the rolling-stock back the other way.
How else explain why we woke up one morning and found the Conservative Party, so male in its image, suddenly lost not just an election, but credibility. The Conservatives fight back now, but with feminine wiles. They, too, have learnt the value of the emotional approach. They feel, they care, they, too, are just like you and me, battling against adversity, not authoritarian figures in a distant universe.
To say that society is feminised is not to say that the values traditionally attributed to women actually describe them, or ever did. Just as not all men are brave and tough, not all women are soft and kind - or only where their babies are concerned, and not even then. Since looking after babies no longer takes up all of a woman's life, if any of it, any more than fighting wars, defending territory and protecting families takes up a man's, we must begin to look for our identity outside our gender.
But it is hard for women to give up their traditional roles as victims, just as it has been hard for men to lose their sense of national identity, to meld into Europe and become what the ergonarchy demands of us all: that we trudge gently over the brow of the hill, men and women together, good earners all, to become the Northern Consumer Force, pride of the future.
14 May 2002
BEFORE Fay Weldon started writing stories, she had already made her name as a copywriter.
It was she who coined the ad slogan 'Go To Work On An Egg'. Before that, she thought up 'Unzip A Banana!' (Sadly, one of her brainwaves, 'Vodka Makes You Drunker Quicker' never made it out of the office).
Style, she believes, is how you say what you want to say in the shortest time available, so you can all go home.
The brevity - and style - of Weldon's writing owes much to the years she spent thinking up snappy slogans. And the slogans themselves are the product of a precise mind, able to absorb information, swill it around, and come up with a suitable conclusion.
The only time little Fay was ever asked to read out a composition in class, it was a recipe for bread. 'Good, clear, lucid prose,' she recalls. 'But how dull!'
Weldon has always had the ability to step back from the facts of her own life: and reproduce them in a cool, detached manner.
The story of her life, published in her autobiography Auto Da Fay, is devoid of sensational writing. Weldon simply recounts what happens, disregards the sad bits, then moves on.
Fay was born in Franklin Birkinshaw in New Zealand. As a little girl she learned to be practical. Her older sister, Jane, was the interesting one. 'I had to settle very much into doing what I ought,' she recalls.
Her parents divorced at a time when divorce was considered sinful. She grew up in a household of women - her mother, sister and grandmother - before they all set sail for England.
The young Fay knew nothing of men before arriving in London in the swinging Sixties - but she was a willing student, and before long was startled to discover she had a reputation for being a pushover.
Fay eventually found a job in the Foreign Office, where she whiled away the days writing reports on Polish affairs. These were returned, like school essays, with marks in the margin, like the 'V.G.' she got from Winston Churchill.
But she left after falling pregnant, and returned for a while to her mother's house, where she and her sister - both single mothers by this stage - took refuge from the disapproving eyes of the outside world.
Fay later married - through necessity rather than love - a forbidding schoolteacher called Ronald Bateman, who refused to have sex with her, and instead acted as her pimp, sending her to work as a hostess in a strip club and to sleep with other men and then give him the details.
Fay did it just once, before snatching her son and running away.
It was only when she met her second husband. Ron Weldon, that she realised she could write fiction, and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed, that is where her story ends. Weldon becomes successful, and life moves along more smoothly than in the past.
Weldon is known for her straight talking. A feminist of the old school, she took the line of least resistance only because matters such as equal pay simply didn't exist when she was struggling to bring up her son on her own.
Today she has four sons, and a third husband. Her refusal to be surprised at what life has chucked at her makes her story all the more riveting. That and the matter-of-fact way she chooses to shock her readers.
After recalling that in her youth, many doctors performed abortions in return for certain favours, she notes that male doctors today have fewer opportunities to molest their female patients, then adds: 'Mind you, these days it is much harder to get an appointment. As ever, something's lost and something's gained.'
Weldon's life and times cover love, sex, babies, blokes, poverty, work, politics and some very famous names. She's been there, done that and chucked the t-shirt out ages ago. Her precise writing, cool prose and refusal to be rocked by life's stormy weather makes her story impossible to put down.
Fay Weldon will be visiting Belfast on Thursday, to talk about her autobiography at the Amnesty International Literary Fundraiser in the Staff Senior Common Room at Queen's. The event, with bar, begins at 7.30pm, and tickets cost £8.
By Grannia McFadden
Source: Belfast Telegraph
Sunday, May 26, 2002 :
Sushi with a She-devil - Interview with Fay Weldon
By Jennifer O'Connell
There's Davies, the brave, belligerent, 22 year-old single mother, who refuses to marry her baby's father but takes his name by deed poll instead. Then there's Bateman, the fetishist Fay, the one whose actions -- which include exchanging a pair of nylons for sex -- so disturb the older Fays that they can only refer to her in the third person.
Weldon is the happy, glamorous, feminist Fay, the successful novelist and mother of four strapping sons. Fox, the modern-day Fay, is not introduced in the book, though it is her voice which speaks for all the others.
I'm meeting one of the Fays today, only I'm not sure which.
The Fay who eventually pads across the restaurant floor doesn't betray any immediate clues. With her perfectly set grey-blonde hair and artfully-applied make-up, she could just as easily be an East London hairdresser, or an ageing Marilyn Monroe.
She's dressed in a dark T-shirt and baggy trousers combo: she has that kind of crumpled glamour that's equally at home in the back of a limousine or on a tour bus full of Americans.
"Hello darling," she purrs, and for a moment she's vintage Weldon. But then the photographer appears, and she looks away, busily studying her menu, and you can see traces of Birkinshaw in her flushed cheeks and awkward hands.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Fay -- Birkinshaw, Davies, Bateman, Weldon or Fox -- is confused about her identity, and that this confusion is the book's beating heart. This point is starkly highlighted in its last sentence: "And now I am thoroughly Weldon, locked in by motherhood, steam-rollered. What I do from now on, all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role."
"Of course," she giggles deliciously, now happily sinking her lips into a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, "that was an outrageous lie".
The book finishes in 1963, and as anyone who has picked up a tabloid in the past ten years knows, there was still another birth, a shock separation, a bitter divorce, a death and a re-marriage to come.
In the past, Weldon has admitted to a relationship with the truth that is sometimes estranged, but in Auto da Fay, although it reads more like a novel than a memoir, she has, she insists, been deadly honest. "I treated it as a novel -- except this time the raw material was me. But I was truthful, I really was," she insists, spearing a piece of sushi with her fork.
I know my next question is going to get me into trouble, but I plough ahead anyway. Was writing it cathartic? "Good grief no!" she shudders.
Weldon's aversion to all kinds of therapy is famous. It may have some connection to her second husband, Ron Weldon's decision to leave her on the advice of his therapist, who told him they were astrologically incompatible. "It was personally difficult, yes: there were bits I didn't want to remember. On the other hand, what happens happens, and you'd do better not to hide it."
She pauses for a moment, measures her words. "I've never believed in therapy -- stirring up the past simply stirs up the past."
She was born Franklin Birkinshaw in 1931, because her mother -- a beautiful, bohemian character who studied astrology and saw angels -- read that the name "came from the same" as William Shakespeare. It quickly became apparent that Franklin wasn't going to work -- the word 'boy' is crossed out on her birth cert -- and so it was sensibly changed to Fay.
Weldon's mother was a New Zealand doctor's wife, a role for which she was spectacularly badly suited. Husband and wife took turns to disappear, and their two daughters were shunted between boarding houses and hotels, a situation which apparently suited them just fine. "I was happy," is Weldon's constant refrain, even when the circumstances would suggest strongly otherwise.
"My mother was a feminist, in the sense that she made her own choices. She would not be told what to do. Most of the time," she says now, partly admiring, partly exasperated.
Margaret Birkinshaw had been a successful literary writer, whose Via Panama -- the story of a voyage home to England -- was adored all over the world, but made her, as Weldon puts it, "Public Enemy Number One", in New Zealand. After that, she resolved she had finished with serious writing. She adopted the name Pearl Bellairs and wrote romantic potboilers for a living instead. Was Weldon ever tempted to do the same? "No," she says firmly. "When the things I've written have gotten me into hot water, it has tended to spur me on."
Weldon once said that good writers make bad mothers. "I do still believe that, though I think I've changed my definition about what a bad mother is. I used to think that sending them to school in odd socks made me a bad mother; now I think that I was a good mother emotionally. By modern standards of child-rearing, whereby you never leave the poor little things alone for a minute, you're constantly shoving organic food into them, and making them read from cards, I was an appalling mother. My whole aim and object was to keep their minds unstimulated so they would sleep more than me."
Weldon is a feminist of the old school, one of the ones who regards Naomi Wolf and her peers as, well, a bit wimpish. "I do still call myself a feminist, but I'm not sure if they'd still have me. As soon as you see circumstances where women's lives are circumscribed because they are women, the old indignation comes back. But now, I think, we find that men are more circumscribed than women. I was saying that about two years before Doris Lessing, and someone described me as the Winnie Mandela of feminism."
Weldon was a peculiar, intellectual child, whose first real contact with boys came at university. In the book, she tells how an older prefect at her school in New Zealand persuaded her to write a love letter to a girl at another school. 'Pashes', at the time, were all the rage. "I didn't even know her, but I took the assignment quite seriously," she says. Her mother found the letter and decided her daughter was a lesbian, a suspicion she was only really able to shake off when Fay turned up on her doorstep pregnant at 22.
At St Andrews in Scotland, where she went to study, Weldon's desire to belong rapidly translated itself into a reputation for "putting out". Nice girls didn't, or if they did, they made sure not to get caught. But by now Weldon's sister, Jane, was pregnant and married, so when she discovered she was pregnant, Fay decided to have the baby too. "I think my motivation was really more simple than that. I just didn't want to stand in the way of this little creature, to deprive it of the pleasures of life," she says.
It's here that the book gets really juicy. The baby's father proposed at once, and promised to support her by being a gas-fitter in Luton, but Weldon quite sensibly decided a gas-fitter's wife was not a role to which she could easily adapt. So she changed her name by deed poll to his, declared herself an abandoned wife, and set up a tearoom in Saffron Waldon with two other unmarried mothers. The business failed when they discovered the house was haunted. (You come to expect these kind of asides from Weldon.)
After this, for reasons which are never very clear, she married an older, divorced schoolteacher, abandoning Davies for Bateman. The whole episode which followed so disturbs her even now, that in the book it is recounted entirely in the third person.
Her husband didn't want sex with her, but he did want her to have sex with other men and then tell him all about it. She obliged once or twice, and worked as a nightclub hostess at his instigation. She also took part in foursomes with a friend who worked in advertising. Just as he was proposing to set himself up formally as her pimp, she left him.
I venture that, despite her feminist proclivities, she did appear to expect to find happiness in men. "But at that time we did see men as very exciting. And quite rare. They went off into the world, and did things, and brought a bit of the world back into the home. And yes, the idea of being with one was amazing."
After her period as Bateman, she drifted for a couple of years until she met Ron Weldon, an antiques dealer and sometime saxophonist. "I am a terrible romantic. I do believe in love at first sight. Despite everything, I do," she says, for a moment lost in thought. "Or perhaps we were just two people who recognised a mutual collision of interests in one another."
Although Weldon is not given to introspection or soul-searching, her belief in patterns and predestination permeates the book. "I think everybody's story starts long before they are born," she says. "I believe in a fore life, and I believe in a kind of afterlife. Partly because, I suppose, the alternative is too horrific to think about."
She is a committed Anglican, attending church every Sunday. "I do approve of religion. I think everybody should try church before they try therapy. It's extremely healthy for you to spend an hour a week thinking not about what a victim you are, but how wicked you are."
Weldon is famously impatient with the notion of a victim culture: she got into hot water recently after she said that rape was "not the worst thing that can happen to a woman". Now she says, wickedly, "I can see it's very annoying for people who are victims."
Weldon comes from a long line of controversialists and writers. Her grandfather, Edgar Jepson, wrote 73 pot-boilers with titles such as Lady Noggs Assists and The Reluctant Footman, before leaving his wife and family and running off to marry his pregnant mistress.
Weldon's father -- who died of a stroke after she had returned to England with her mother -- once wrote a detective story which continued for 100 episodes, because he didn't know how it would end. Eventually he offered five shillings to any reader who could come up with the solution. "He knew that there was bound to be a reader out there cleverer than him," Weldon says. "And of course there was."
Theirs was a home where great writers and literature were as much a part of everyday life as roast beef dinners and the sanitary pads her mother taught her to make with a belt. "Great writers were regarded as kind of a nuisance about the house. George Bernard Shaw was this funny man who my grandmother said would never sleep with his wife and Ezra Pound was just the man who could play the piano with his nose," she says.
Weldon inherited this attitude, giving her the refreshingly un-luvvie notion of her craft that has allowed her to write for women's magazines, online publishers, TV or jewellery designers -- last year, she caused a furore in literary circles when she wrote a sponsored collection of short stories for Bulgari.
"Oh, you can't be precious about writing," she says. "The best definition of style I've ever been able to arrive at is that style is the way you say things in order to get home as quickly as possible."
Auto Da Fay is published by Flamingo
In Fay Weldon's autobiography, Auto Da Fay, five Fays battle it out for supremacy. There's Fay -- born Franklin -- Birkinshaw, the bookish, awkward child, whose early experiments in literature involved composing lesbian love letters and recipes for bread.
|6-5-2002||Daphne Guinness||The She-Devil tells all|
Believe it or not, but it bowls along
The New York Times
Writing Off a Past to Write Freely of a Future
The Washington Post
|8-6-2003||Jonathan Yardley||Jonathan Yardley|
|8-6-2003||Daniel Dyer||Adept novelist-memoirist knows how to handle fire|
The Baltimore Sun
'Auto da Fay' - head under the pillow
The New York Times
|29-6-2003||Janet Burroway||'Auto da Fay': Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman|
|29-6-2003||Katherine A.Powers||Unvarnished truth about biographers|
The Washington Times
|27-8-2003||Martin Rubin||Fay Weldon on Fay, wittily|
The New York Times
|27-6-2004||SCOTT VEALE||New Paperbacks|
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