Battered? Erin Pizzey? Yes, a bit

Erin Pizzey tries her best not to be downhearted. So she says things like: "I can hold it together, as long as I don't think too much."

And: "England's not too bad. There's crocuses. And Tesco. And English Sellotape, which seems to stick better than any other in the world."

Yes, her GP does think she is quite badly depressed and in need of psychiatric help. And to this end, he's arranged for her to attend some kind of clinic later this week. But she can even find something jolly-ish to say about this. "My GP said, `You know, Erin, there really will be basket-weaving there,' so I said, `Good, I want to weave baskets, I'd love to weave baskets, I'm longing to weave baskets.'"

Erin laughs one of her colossal, bosom-shuddering laughs. And I know what she wants me to say. She wants me to say: "That's the spirit." And: "That's right, old girl, keep your pecker up." But I can't. Erin Pizzey isn't supposed to end up sad and mad-haired and weaving baskets in some kind of psychiatric day centre. Unless, of course, she's always been rather sad and mad. In which case, it's all been hopelessly inevitable.

Once, Erin Pizzey was something of a heroic figure. Founder of the first- ever refuge for battered women, she singlehandedly did as much for the cause of women as any other woman alive. A great battler with a great, Beryl Cook body, she moved mountains by seeming more mountainous herself. She was awarded umpteen prizes. She went on every chat show going. She was listed in Who's Who. She came across as a thoroughly engaging, go- for-it personality. She made her own kaftans by buying an enormous piece of material, laying it on the floor, cutting a hole for the head and stapling up the sides.

And then, when she went off to write novels, the snapshots that came back said she was doing very nicely, thank you. She was the "best-selling author" of 10 surprisingly erotic (in view of the kaftans) Shirley Conran- type novels. She had a new, young, handsome husband who didn't mind her being 17 stone with a questionable perm. But when she returned to London last week, she did so as someone who was penniless, homeless and on the dole. "Oh yes, I'm one of the feckless poor now," she says, in what, peculiarly, seems to be almost a boast. Is Erin Pizzey enjoying all the attention that statements such as these inevitably attract? She says not, but then says she must go and phone Genevieve at Channel 4. "They want me on The Bob Mills Show," she declares gaily. No, she hasn't a clue who Bob Mills is. But a show's a show, and that, it seems, is enough for her.

Erin says she did not want to return to this country. She wanted to stay in Italy, where she has lived for the last two years and where her four dogs and cat remain. "Oh, how I ache for them," she moans. But her debts were such that she couldn't continue there. Her landlady booted her out for rent arrears. Her landlady, she complains, had her by the short and curlies. She knew she couldn't leave, what with the pets, but kept insisting on her money, anyway. Then, one morning, Erin looked out and saw that the landlady had denuded the two gorgeous mulberry trees she liked to write under. "They were naked stumps. And that was the last straw." As, obviously, the landlady hoped it would be.

Yes, she says, some people over here did know she was in dire trouble. And at one point there was, she thinks, a Friends of Erin Pizzey fund. But, of the old sisterhood, she says, only Fay Weldon sent any cash. Not that this surprises her. She's attacked most of the others at some point or another. "I used to say to Jill Tweedie, `Jill, you are such a fucking hypocrite. You decant your wine from Sainsbury's. You have a house in the town and a house in the country. The only working person you've ever met is your cleaner. How can you spout this Marxist crap? How can you call yourself a Communist?'"

Erin spent the first couple of nights here staying with her daughter, Cleo. But Cleo is married with three kids and it was all a bit cramped. So she's now moved into a hostel for the homeless in Richmond, west London. No, the irony of Erin Pizzey needing refuge is not lost on her. "How could it be?" she cries irritably.

However, she won't meet me at the hostel. Instead, I have to meet her at the nearby house of an old friend. But she insists that the hostel is very pleasant. She has her own room, with a wardrobe, chest of drawers and fridge, for pounds 8 a week. Plus, best of all, "it is such a relief to be warm. Last year, in Italy, do you know what my Christmas present to myself was? Having the central heating on all day." Crikey, how did she keep warm otherwise? "I collected bits of kindling from the forest."

Erin says she blames herself for how things have turned out. "When I ask myself how I have come to this, I say: `This is a consequence, Erin, of the things you've done.'" But, that said, she then goes on to blame everyone but herself: her parents; her husbands; the hard-core feminists who were always out to get her; even her various publishers. Oh yes, everything would have been all right if only she'd been nicer to editors. "I once wrote a cookbook in which I called one chapter Beans Means Farts. Immediately, my editor called me up, crying: `It's unpublishable.' `Why,' I asked. `Don't you fart at Oxford University Press?'" Erin chuckles joyously.

HarperCollins, her last publishers, dropped her two years ago. Their acquisitions committee told her she was no longer what they wanted and, anyway, her recent sales had been disastrous. She says this is nonsense. They gave her the boot because she's too "difficult". Her novels, she insists vigorously, sell magnificently all around the world. (But, if so, then where is the income?) And she is currently writing her next book, The Fame Game, which is about the way men always want to destroy powerful women.

The idea came to her when she was interviewed by Hello! and the journalist said to her: "The trouble with you, Erin, is that you cast such a large shadow." Erin Pizzey? Inspired by Hello!? It would seem so.

She doesn't, as yet, have a publisher for The Fame Game. She published her last book herself. And the one before that was remaindered after a week or two. So, no wonder she now owes pounds 35,000 to banks in Italy and pounds 15,000 to banks here. She has no idea how she is going to pay these debts off. Especially as she is now on pounds 47 a week and has only the prospect of basket-weaving and a spot on The Bob Mills Show ahead of her.

Erin is now 58. The face, once so lovely in its plump, strong, wonderfully fearless way, is now that of a very old woman. Deep lines criss-cross it, then come back and criss-cross it again. The eyes swim in opaque pools. The stapled-together kaftan has been replaced by a baggy track suit that may once have been black but is now a tired, washed-out grey. She smells jolly splendid, though, very Hello! "It's Femme, by Rochas, my one little indulgence," she confesses sheepishly.

Certainly, you wish things had worked out better for her. She did something magnificent once, and it would seem only fair. But, that said, she had a rotten childhood and maybe the seeds were laid then for a rotten old age. Once messed up, do you inevitably go on to mess up? Is that how life works? Perhaps.

Her father, Cyril, was in fact a brilliantly clever man. One of 17 children born to a poor Irish family, he was, she says, the first person ever to get into the Foreign Office from grammar school. He became a diplomat, travelling endlessly; Erin's childhood was played out all over the world until she was sent to an English boarding school at the age of nine.

Her mother, Ruth, was a gorgeous-looking woman, with a superb figure, blue eyes and glossy, chestnut hair. But she was cold, snobbish, wholly unaffectionate and given to explosive fits of violence. "She would beat me very badly using the flex of the iron. She would do it for no reason, although I always knew when it was coming because her face would twitch and a red spot would appear on her cheek."

Erin could not go to her father for comfort. He was a terrible bully who threw things and whose idea of a good joke was blowing cigarette smoke up the dog's nose. As far as can be made out, her parents' only pleasure came in tormenting each other. "Their rows were endless, with the worst being about money. My father lived on the imagined abyss of destitution, she lived in the never-never land of imagined plenty. They were doomed never to meet in the middle. She bought whatever she fancied: antiques; paintings; hand-made underwear from Harrods. He saw no reason to spend money on anything. In fact, it was hard to get him even to change his clothes or take a bath, because he considered baths weakening." Erin doesn't know why her parents were as they were. Probably, they were messed up, too.

She did not, she insists, hate her mother. She pitied her. "She just got everything hopelessly wrong, didn't she?" And her father? Well, two days after her mother died - when Erin was 17 - she walked out of the house and never saw him again, even though he lived another 25 years. Enough said.

At 20, Erin married Jack Pizzey, a naval officer who went on to become a reporter for TV programmes such as Nationwide and Man Alive. When I ask her why she married him, she doesn't come back with "love", or even, "because I fancied him rotten." No, she says it was because she wanted something she had never had: a loving family. She admits: "Oh, I was young and naive back then."

She had her two children, Cleo and her son Amos (who paid her fare back from Italy) but the idyll of the loving family did not come to fruition.

Jack, she complains, was never at home. Jack was always working. Or, at least, he said he was. Once, at a BBC party, an elegant woman came up to her and asked: "Do you ever suspect Jack of having affairs?" "Never," she replied. "We trust each other. He doesn't mind that my body went to pot after having the children. He likes me in my stapled kaftans." Later, though, she discovered that Jack played away from home quite significantly. "And that woman was one of them," she cries furiously.

She has always, she says, had a lot of love to give and, with Jack not around, she had to award it elsewhere. Her children got a lot of it. As did the children of others, who came to stay and never left, and whom she refers to as "my eight adopted children". And then there were the battered wives of the neighbourhood, who came because they had heard Erin was a good egg and never turned anyone away. And so Erin got her big, loving family, of sorts. And perhaps Jack just felt rather squeezed out.

Erin opened Chiswick Women's Aid, the first refuge of its kind, and one which spawned a worldwide movement, in 1971. For a time, she was a heroine. But things took a nasty turn when, in one of her books, Prone to Violence, she claimed that women in violent relationships may in fact seek out those relationships through a kind of addiction to violence.

The feminist sisterhood went bonkers. And after receiving death threats and being forced to have police protection, Erin fled the country with her new husband, Jeff Shapiro, an American psychology graduate 20 years her junior. They lived in New Mexico and the Cayman Islands before settling in Italy and then, finally, divorcing in 1992. Jeff, she says, helped her to type up her novels. Being dyslexic, she couldn't manage it herself. Then, she continues, he got it into his head that he was the great writer, not she. So she told him where to get off. And he left. And, yes, things did rather dry up on the novel front after that. So she got behind with the rent. And couldn't afford the central heating on. Or the oven. She cooked on one of those little camping thingies.

And now here she is, back in London, where she is trying to keep her chin up. Sometimes, though, it's quite tough, regardless of whose fault all this may be. "It's the little things that finally get to you," she says. "This morning, I went to the bathroom in the hostel and found someone had left a nasty brown fag butt by the side of the sink. I had a little cry over that. It reminded me I was not in my own home. And a home of my own is all I have ever wanted, really."

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