Fay Weldon: 'All that anti-man stuff is no longer appropriate'

The one-time feminist novelist has moved to the right and says that women must try harder to stop judging and start liking men

I lie," says Fay Weldon, with a sly little smile, "for the sake of entertainment, or to pass the time". Well, that's a great start to an interview. And, perhaps, a slightly surprising comment from a former atheist who is now a pillar of her local church. But that's the thing about Fay Weldon. You never quite know where you are with her. You never quite know where you are with her narrators, who are unreliable to the point of psychotic, and you never quite know where you are with her polemic, which has veered from the man-hating to the woman-hating and myriad points in between.

Still, where we are at the moment is a pub in Primrose Hill, where her latest book is set. It's a beautiful, sunny day, but Weldon – a round, smiley figure who looks as benign as a farmer's wife – has insisted we sit inside. "Don't worry, you can make it up!" she says, as I frown over the tape recorder, and the clattering, and her surprisingly quiet voice. Which, of course, is what she has done, in her new novel, Chalcot Crescent, and in the 30 or so that have gone before. In this one, the boundaries are even more blurred than usual. The narrator, Frances, is Fay's would-be younger sister, the girl her mother miscarried two years after Fay was born. Fay is there, a shadowy figure envied by her younger sister, but she is also there in Frances, a once-successful writer, now 80 (Fay is 77) with dodgy knees.

"I used to deny that I used my own life in fiction," says Weldon, delicately sipping a glass of Muscadet. "I thought the whole thing was invented. But if you put yourself in a different body, in different circumstances, it's still you there. In a kind of way, all women are one woman anyway, in a way that all men are not the same man." Sorry? Two minutes into the interview, and we've already got Fay the man-hater-turned-woman-hater saying that all women are the same. Er, why?

"Because," says Weldon airily, and her smile doesn't falter, "we're all kind of governed by these terrible hormones, and have babies, and the same things gratify most women, the same patterns, the same jealousies. If you look at a cat and how she behaves towards her kittens, the sort of movement the cat makes is the movement the mother makes, the movement all women make when they look in mirrors." And this is the author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil?! But surely male hard-wiring is just as profound as the female version?

"Of course!" says Weldon cheerfully. "But women multi-task and men single-task, and the area that they single-task tends to be different. I don't know," she adds, "but I'm married to a very powerful, male man." Right. The logic of all this isn't instantly clear, but it's certainly true that Weldon is married (to Nick Fox, a poet and former bookseller 15 years her junior) and that the marriage has lasted for 16 years. She has, in fact, been married rather a lot. At 25, a single mother struggling to bring up a small son, she married Ronald Bateman, a headmaster 25 years older than her who, it turned out, only proposed so that he could put "married with a wife and son" on his CV. Bateman wasn't interested in sex. What he was interested in was sending his wife out to have sex with other people (once, in exchange for nylon stockings) and sending her out to work as a hostess in a bar.

No wonder the marriage collapsed, and no wonder Weldon's next marriage, to another Ronald, antiques dealer, Ron Weldon, felt happy and normal in comparison. And it was, apart from the infidelities, and the fact that Fay felt obliged to tear articles about herself out of newspapers and take the fuse out of the plug if there was anything by her on telly. "It seemed to me," she says, "a perfectly sensible thing to do." She was less happy when, after 30 years of marriage, Ron left her for an astrological therapist, an experience which inspired her novel, Affliction. He died eight hours before the divorce was finalised, but by then Fay had met Nick.

So how does this marriage compare to the one with Ron? Weldon twinkles. "Well," she says. "This one is emotionally secure. If it's anybody who plays emotional games, it's me." You don't say. Quarter of an hour into the interview, and I already feel swept away on a tidal wave of energy, which is to say that I already feel charmed, manipulated, and just a tiny bit unsafe. That, presumably, is how the reporter from the Evening Standard felt when he turned up on her doorstep 20 years ago and was told that the person he was speaking to wasn't Fay, but her sister, Frances. "They were so upset when they found out," chuckles Fay, "they believed me!"

And, er, did lying become a habit for her? For the first time, Weldon's smile fades. "Look, truth is very dangerous. You don't tell the truth to people, it's hurtful. But I go about my business as an honest person, and I turn up when I say I will. I do my students' marking [she's professor of creative writing at Brunel University]. I'm reliable. I don't want to be labelled as a liar. I like to think I'm an honourable person, with alarming propensities to invent."

Certainly, the fabrication of Frances is what gave rise to her new novel, Chalcot Crescent, set in a London reeling not just from a recession, but from a Shock, a Crunch, a Squeeze, a Fall, and a Bite. Bailiffs are pounding on the door of 3 Chalcot Crescent, where Frances, a part-time copywriter (Weldon, remember, is famous for coining "Go to work an on egg") and national treasure (a phrase emblazoned on many of Weldon's novels) and has-been writer (Weldon isn't, though she had to move publisher to get this novel published) has lived for 50 years (and where Weldon lived for 15). The National Unity Government is in crisis and the country is on the verge of collapse. Like all her novels, it's sharply observed, entertaining, and with a sparkling satirical edge. So what triggered it?

"First of all," says Weldon, "there was Frances. If Frances was alive, what would she be doing? What would the world be like? I wrote it," she adds proudly, "before the whole Parliament expenses thing." And it's true that it does seem remarkably prescient. Parliament in the novel is discredited, the economy has been wrecked, and food and electricity are scarce. But does she really see the future so bleakly?

"Well, they're all managing, aren't they?" she counters. So, I reply, are people in Zimbabwe, but I'd prefer not to live in Zimbabwe, or in an England like that. "Oh, you will yet," she says with another smile. "If we go on with quantitative easing, and if what is paid out in benefits exceeds what comes in through income tax." Not a big fan of New Labour, then? "I started staunch Labour," she says, "but as you get older you lose your faith in the fact that everyone is good and nice, and veer to the right."

A brief discussion about politics elicits the view that writers would be better at governing than politicians, that the system we have now in Europe is "Soviet Union lite", that it would be a good idea to have a "village-level jury system" of about 12 and that the move to "destroy our institutions, which started in the Sixties, has now become almost part of the conspiracy". Weldon shocked the world nine years ago by announcing that she had been baptised into the Church of England. She now goes to church, "to a sort of regular, old-fashioned, traditional, prayer book service", every Sunday morning at eight. She has talked in the past about the pleasure of singing hymns, but what has any of this got to do with God?

"I think," she says, "God comes into it in a sense of marvel, what you're seeing as a pattern of symbols, which certainly in Christianity involves sacrifice. Nothing is achieved without giving something up." And does it affect her world-view, her sense of the environment-heredity debate that has obsessed her since reading psychology and economics at St Andrews 60 years ago, and which is clearly the central theme of her work? "No. It's something completely separate. In fact, there's so much invented, so much alternative reality, this basic one you come to rather late becomes rather necessary in order to fix you in a spot."

Ah, I'm glad she raised it. Splitting was the title of one her novels, about a single personality split into four bodies, and splitting is one of the words that springs to mind when you think about the complex entity that is Fay Weldon. We're all made up of myriad facets, of course, but she seems unknowable in a rather unusual way. Does she agree?

Weldon flashes a smile of rare warmth. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "Completely." Part of what's confusing, I venture, is that mix of cheeriness and pessimism. As the first volume of her autobiography Auto Da Fay reveals, she has at times suffered from serious depression, but her external face to the world has always been vivacious and upbeat. "My sister," she volunteers, "had schizophrenia and it is a very odd thing to have an older sister who is schizophrenic, because you cannot work out why they don't love you. I had to be the sunshine girl, and I remember thinking that this was simply not fair, that you were not allowed to have the emotions, or to make a fuss."

Was that partly why she aimed to please so much? Or why she slept with so many men? She pauses for a moment. "I think," she says, "I just liked sex. The only way you ever got to know someone was if you went to bed with them. This is probably why I say that men are more different than women." Indeed. Whatever the reason, she became a part of the permissive society she now castigates, a society that has led to what she perceives as the disaster of the "blended" family.

A couple of years ago, she had a near-death experience and a vision – yes, really – of "pearly gates". They were, she said at the time, double-glazed and "vulgar", a sign, she thought, that this could only be "the other place". She was, she thought, being punished, for promoting a lifestyle, and an anti-man message, of which she now disapproves. The story has a familiar narrative ring – oh yes, of a Fay Weldon. Doesn't it?

"No," she insists. "I think it's true. I think if you write anything, you're responsible for what you do. I think that what I wrote in the beginning, which is what people like, really, which is the anti-man stuff, was totally appropriate in 1970, but is not appropriate any longer. Women don't need that. They need to strain every nerve to like men, if they can, whereas before they had to strain every nerve to judge them."

I feel like hugging Fay Weldon. The woman who became a symbol of feminism at its feistiest, but who has spent her life in thrall to men, the woman who believes that what makes women happy is chocolate and what makes men happy is porn (and that women faking orgasms makes them both happy), the woman who believes that children should grow up in stable families, but who did it all wrong and it "worked out fine", the woman who is cheerful, troubled, fearful of envy, economical with the truth, and also profoundly moral, believes she is going to hell. Luckily, her beliefs are rarely written in stone.

'Chalcot Crescent' is published by Corvus next week

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit