Naughty, naughty Fay!

Marvel at her manicure! See how she shops! Fay Weldon, Old Feminist Icon, has become an account-card-carrying member of the Harvey Nichols tendency; The Deborah Ross Interview
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The Independent Culture
GIRLS! ENVISAGE Fay Weldon and me, if you can, ricocheting with excitement around Harvey Nichols. We have half an hour to spare before our manicure appointment - yes! manicure appointment! - in the beauty salon. See us racing giddily from linens to perfumes, from designer womenswear to over-priced handbags.

Sisters, I wish I could tell you we aren't enjoying ourselves, but we are. Sisters, I wish I could tell you it isn't easy unpicking 25 years of feminism, but it is.See me purchase a Paul Smith T shirt! Look at Fay - naughty, naughty Fay! - urging me on. "Have it! Have it!" See Fay buy a little Italian, fake animal-skin, very Scary Spice handbag (pounds 110) with matching, very Scary Spice make-up bag (pounds 70). See Fay pay. More, see Fay pay with her Harvey Nichols account card. Fay! A Harvey Nichols Account Card! You're an old hand at this! You're Tamara Beckwith in disguise! "I am! I am," Fay cries happily.

Girls, if you've ever wondered what happens to Old Feminist Icons, here's the answer. They become New Babes. They even feel sorry for poor ickle men. Oh Pity the Poor Men, Fay has taken to saying of late. It started with a newspaper article she wrote last year and it's been rumbling on ever since. Alternatively, it could just be Fay being mischievous again. She's a terrible rascal. Still, I love her for it, almost as much as I love my Paul Smith T-shirt and my now beautifully-manicured, remarkably purple nails. Although not quite, of course.

Sisters, before you start feeling too betrayed, let me help you get the measure of Fay. OK, she can come out with a lot of tosh at times - pity the poor men indeed! - but that doesn't make her any less of a national treasure. Or less of a serious figure. She's said a lot of very important things over the years, and still says a lot of important things. Don't forget it! Plus, readers, she is just such ludicrous fun to be with.

Our manicure appointments are for 3.30pm. I'm not too sure how this manicure business came about, actually. I think it's just that when we had our first conversation on the phone, she said she needed her nails done, so I said: "Ohhh, I'll have some of that too. Yes, please!"

We first meet at 1pm, in the super-smart Fifth Floor Restaurant. I confess that I have never been to Harvey Nicks before. "No!" exclaims Fay in disbelief. However, I continue, I do appreciate this is quite a very glamorous place and, as such, you must appreciate that if someone like Lulu, say, turns up, I'll have no choice but to tip you off your chair. She laughs one of her soft, fluffy, easy, laughs. She has, as it turns out, nothing to worry about. The only other person of note here today seems to be Thora Hurd, who is quietly eating in a corner while quietly getting even older, if such a thing were possible.

Actually, it's hard to imagine Fay being out-glamourpussed by anyone, even Lulu. She's 66 and utterly beautiful. Soft white skin. Soft blue eyes. Soft plump arms. Soft blonde hair. A splendid ledge of bosom. She's been HRT-ed, yes, but why not? "Nature is not on the older woman's side. It does not behove any woman over 45 to worship nature or approve of anything because it's natural. Why side with the enemy?"

I say I'm nervous about our appointment in the beauty salon. Beauty consultants terrify me. Indeed, over the years, I've found it much easier to just keep doing my make-up as first copied from a diagram in Jackie magazine back in 1974. Fay is sympathetic. "I was brought up with a smudge of blue, until such time as I realised it was not only vulgar and crude, but also did nothing for one's appearance." She goes on to recommend a girl called Ginny, who works on the Clarins counter at Harrods. "She always gives a very good assessment, I find."

She adds that Harrods is another excellent place for a manicure. "My hands are terrible. Too much dishwater over the years. But at Harrods they're so accustomed to women who muck out horses, mine are nothing compared to theirs." Fay has a good line on everything.

Some people, I know, are not such huge fans. They say Fay is not really serious. She's just a jumped-up copywriter, an entertainer with an eye for a good gimmick. In some ways, they're right. She is entertaining. She does have an eye for a good gimmick. She was once a copywriter. It was Fay who, famously, coined "Go To Work On An Egg" for the Egg Marketing Board. Less famously, she also thought up Swoop as the name for the birdfood. "And I'm really rather proud of that, too." So, yes, she is all these things. But she's also a great deal more, besides.

Ever since her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, was published in 1966, she's been out there, making mischief and subverting the received wisdom. There have been some 30 books since - including Lives and Loves of a She Devil and The Cloning of Joanna May - plus a number of plays and TV adaptations. Her subject - the gender battlefield explored as a kind of black comedy - quickly became her own.

Yes, her men were always hateful - vain, cruel, idle, selfish. And the women weren't much better, as bitchy and vengeful as they were. Still, you sensed women were only like that because men beat them down so. It was a man's world. Women suffered. In the Seventies, in particular, this was wonderful and amazing stuff. She took the personal and made it truly political.

Her latest project is Big Women, a four part drama series that goes out from 2 July on Channel 4. It's the story of the founding of a feminist publishing house - loosely based on Carmen Callil's Virago in the Seventies, it is said - and destined similarly to collapse in a mess, its wimmin reverting back to women. It's not, frankly, as good or convincing as any of Fay's past stuff, but it does throw up some interesting thoughts. "The sisterhood is kaput," laments one character at the end. Is it? I ask Fay.

No, says Fay, it is not, although it should be. The rhetoric, she says has gone on for much longer than necessary. What, after the battle had been won, you mean? Has the battle been won? "The point of feminism,'" she replies, "was not to win, not to put men down, but to achieve equality, to be allowed to be a person first and a certain gender second. But now it's gone too far. Now women diminish men in the way men used to diminish women." And off she spins, in poor ickle men mode.

Her view seems to be this. Men, these days, are far more likely to fail in school, turn to crime, commit suicide, think they're rubbish. This is the fault of women. Women get the jobs now. Women get everything after the divorce. Women have spread the belief that all men are "idle/selfish bastards/potential abusers/rapists" - all the things she has basically portrayed them as in her books. "True! But when I wrote about them behaving like that, that's how they were behaving. They don't behave like that now."

Men, she says, now need a men's movement. If so, I say, what should the slogan be? "I suppose, a man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle." Oh come on, Fay. It should be: "A man needs a woman otherwise who would go to Tesco?" Fay laughs another easy laugh. Thankfully, she has never taken herself too seriously

But Fay, I insist, it isn't pity the poor men. It is still pity the poor women. Men are not being diminished, Fay, they are just getting fatter and fatter in front of the World Cup. "Oh well, maybe I am wrong," she finally concedes cheerfully. Fay is as capricious as she is brainy. She tries on ideas like hats, to see if they suit. But, then, why not? "No idea is right for long."

Her own life has certainly been as helter skelter, and as full of exclamation marks, as any of her books. She was born in New Zealand (where her parents had emigrated) in 1931. They divorced when Fay was five and she, her mother and her older sister, Jane, (who died of cancer in 1969) came back to England when Fay was 14. They settled with her grandmother in Kentish Town. As she also attended an all-girls school, her view of the world became exclusively female. She thought she would be a nurse, "so I could buy nice dresses and talk to doctors," but ended up going to St Andrew's University in Scotland to study economics and philosophy.

Shortly after graduating, she became pregnant. She had her first son, Nick, when she was 23. She tried it as a single parent, but hated it. So, when Nick was three, she took the purely practical step of marrying a headmaster 25 years her senior. "I wasn't a wife. I just housekept and smiled."

She left him after two years, and met Ron Weldon - an antique dealer turned interior designer turned jazz musician. But three further sons and 30 years of seemingly devoted marriage later, he upped and left her after consulting a New Age therapist who told him he and Fay were astrologically incompatible. She never spoke to Ron again. Then, the day after the divorce came through in June 1994, he dropped dead from a stroke.

Fay has since remarried. Her third husband, who is 15 years her junior, is a former bookshop owner and poet who now manages her business affairs. She says she has thought about going to Rome for another baby, yes. "But you have to use someone else's eggs, and I don't think I like that. I'll wait another couple of years, I think, until they can clone an egg encoded with my own genetic material."

One of her sons, Tom, 27, who was a New Age traveller for five years, was jailed last year for drug trafficking after 15,000 Ecstasy tablets were found in a car in which he was travelling in Amsterdam. He claims he was framed which, as his mother, she must believe, even though he recently lost his appeal and now won't be out until February. She visits him once a month at the Bijlmer-bajes prison on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He is, she says, doing rather well, as it happens. "He's learned computer animation, and has started painting."

She does not feel she is to blame in any way, no. "I was of the generation that still thought everyone was born with original sin, so we didn't expect them to turn out perfect." Still, I wonder if her Pity The Poor Men stuff has something to do with this Tom business. Maybe Fay is still making the personal political, in a different way.

Our lunch ambles most entertainingly on. We take in New Labour - "just a lot of people in love with Tony Blair" - and Germaine Greer, whom she admires ("always something new to say") and Camilla Paglia, whom she doesn't so much ("prone to making personal attacks, which aren't very helpful"). She is immensely fond of Erica Jong, who once gave her an invaluable piece of advice. "She said, `Fay, always try to arrive by helicopter or limo...' "

After lunch we do our dizzy bit of shopping, then arrive at the beauty salon. No, there is nothing wrong in going to beauty salons. Or having eye-tucks. Fay's had an eye tuck. "It just makes you look nicer," she says. She had it done in Hollywood. "Because, had it gone wrong, it would have been easier to sue."

There is nothing silly or frivolous about any of this. "It's in our genes. Nature dictates it. It's what oestrogen does. It's what we've evolved to do." She is great at getting you off hooks, is Fay.

Our fingers are bathed, oiled, orange-sticked and base-coated by a lovely Chinese manicurist. Then, Fay and I pore over this season's new nail colours. What's it to be? Peak's Pike Purple? Or Flint Island Flicker? Oh, sisters, the tough choices women face today! In the end, I opt for the Purple while Fay goes for the Flint. We are pleased with our choices. We love our nails. We blow on them.

Now it's time for us to part, but I've had such an enjoyable time, I don't want to. Fay, I say, how about going home via Harley Street and a spot of liposuction then, perhaps, onto Stringfellows to dance around your new handbag and maybe pull? "Yes! Let's!" cries Fay. Fay, I was only joking, actually. "Oh," she sighs. And for the first time today she looks truly crestfallen.

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