Jeanette Winterson: Tea with the Holy Terror

Since her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, burst on to an unsuspecting world in 1985, Jeanette Winterson has learnt to soften some of her Northern edges, but her passion for opera is no affectation - it is as intense and heartfelt as her writing
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The Independent Online

I didn't know you could get couriered to your own doorstep like a package. You can if you're as petite as Jeanette Winterson. I have been banging on the door of what looks like a moribund greengrocer's in London's Spitalfields for 10 minutes, wondering where the hell my interviewee has got to, when a motorbike roars up and deposits the diminutive novelist on the pavement. The black knight zooms off without a second glance, and Ms Winterson whisks me inside, past a comfortable sitting-room (formerly the shop) and up a wide set of stairs, talking all the way. She has had to go to Primrose Hill for emergency dental work, and hooks her mouth wide for me to admire the gap.

"Do you want a drink?"

Tea, please, I say. This is a test. I've decided to award Winterson points over the course of the interview, for appropriate Northern behaviour. Has she got a teensy bit out of touch? Is she just a little bit full of herself? We'll soon knock that out of her. If she's only got herbal, lapsang souchong or some other scented filth, she will be marked down.

"What kind of tea?" she asks, which is just the sort of dubious enquiry you would expect of someone who's been Down South too long.

"Ordinary tea," I say firmly. She has an old-fashioned kettle that whistles on the hob. She's off again, down to the nearby deli for cakes. "Have a look round," she yells as she clatters down the stairs. I promptly oblige. It's a glorious building, all wood-panelling, bare boards, artfully peeling green paint and open fires, with piles of books on the table and floor. One of the first books that I look at is a Hogarth Press first edition, still with its publicity slip from March 1929. Virginia Woolf probably typed that, you know.

Winterson is racing up the stairs again with a bag of shortbread. "I don't know what I'd do without that place," she gasps. "And the best thing is, I don't need money. I have an account, and every month they send me an amazingly large bill." Strong, no-nonsense tea in a mug and buying your food "on tick" – full marks already.

The charmingly ramshackle wedge-shaped house was a dangerous structure when she bought it. It took two years out of her life to restore the building, but it was her destiny, she says: she met an old inhabitant of the street who informed her that it once had a board outside reading "JW Fruits". The panelling was found piled up in the cellar. The handsome kitchen units, which look like they've been in situ since 1900, are all salvage. There's no sign of any Le Creuset cooking pots.

"This opera thing's really serious with you, isn't it?" I say, looking at the two old ticket stubs for Parsifal, the book on Mozart on the floor by the armchair, the piles of opera CDs, the knee-high stack of Royal Opera House programmes. "Either that or you've got an excellent house-stylist who comes in and hides the Britney CDs."

"Oh, I've got Britney as well," she retorts. "And Kylie."

She has just written two short stories (to be published in The Independent this month) to celebrate the new Glyndebourne season, but this is a love affair of long duration. She started going to the opera in 1990, and, "I've gone to pretty much everything I can go to ever since. I never had any interest in it before, I hated listening to opera. I felt alienated from the music and I think that happens to a lot of people, because opera is a wraparound spectacle. It should be huge and dramatic and colourful and expensive." Although, as she insists, "You really can go cheaply. It's six quid still at the Opera House and 10 quid at Glyndebourne."

The first operas she saw were Turandot and Der Rosenkavalier: "Both massive operas with massive sets, 100 people in the chorus: all those people opening their mouths, the physical pleasure of it affect me as nothing else can. It's very primitive. But there's also the sophistication of it – this artificial art form that we've invented because we need that space to play in. It has always baffled me when people talk about it being too contrived. We get naturalism and realism every day of the week. We also need something that is astonishingly and confessedly outside the normal limitation of our lives. When it works, it's like nothing else."

This is a personal apologia, of course: her novels, too, are playful, extravagant, artificial and contrived. Like opera, her writing tends to be sublime or bathetic. And her defence of opera is a defence of her own artistic project. When she says, of opera, that, "it isn't ugly, it is rich and beautiful, and rich and beautiful are nowf seen as completely decadent and not what you're meant to be", you can't help feeling she's talking about her own work.

Accrington's ugly, she says. "When I went back there recently, I looked and all the cobbled streets had been tarmacked and, even worse, they'd taken up all the York stone pavements, so they've compounded ugliness. It was never a picture-postcard place, Accrington, but it had a reasonably harmonious architecture. Now, it's abysmal."

I get thoroughly depressed, I tell her, by what seems to be the slow shredding of the English language all about us. Press releases from prestigious publishing houses now routinely come with grammatical errors. "I do worry about that," she admits. "It does appear to be truth rather than paranoia that there is a shrinking vocabulary – now around 200 words, which is about what you have when you're five. That is scary, and entirely a product of bad television. For ordinary people such as myself, growing up in a Northern town, you would have diversity because you had the language of the King James Bible. People think it's completely old-fashioned, but it's allowing the mind to hear different kinds of rhythms, sentence structures and words, and I think that's wholly beneficial."

In the past, and, of course, in her brilliant debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson has been scathing about her Accrington upbringing, adopted into a family of Evangelicals. But there are signs now that she's mellowing. When I ask her what qualities her religious background has left her with, positive and negative, she replies: "You know, as I get older, the negatives seem to drop away, and I think what's left is wholly good. Because there's no anxiety any more, no pain, no pressure. What it did give me at the time was enormous self-confidence to stand against the world, because you are a child apart! So that's quite handy if you're going to push yourself out into the world at the age of 16. That's what happens in the faith: you are separate, you are called upon to do something different. So when things started to go wrong for me in the middle years, it was easy to bear."

Was her rebellion against her parents accompanied by a loss of belief in God, I ask.

"No. Never. I cannot lose that sense of God. I'm not religious nor would I seek to be. But I suppose it's about transcendence. It's because I am convinced of the invisible world beyond the material that I write the way I do. I'm not either a materialist or a humanist, because I am sure that there are other forces at work, inside and outside, whatever you call them, that are much bigger than this."

She has one of London's most beautiful churches at the end of the road, Hawksmoor's sublime Christ Church. "I go and sit in it, yeah, but I can't go to services because it's been taken over by the happy-clappies! If you had something that was a little bit higher, people round here would go, but they don't because they're disgusted with its intellectual incapacity. It's all just gush, nobody wants to sit down and listen to all that."

On 11 September, Winterson was in an isolated hut with no heating or water, with the director Deborah Warner, hacking away at her last novel, The PowerBook, carving it into play-form for the National Theatre. "September 11 was the day we left: if it had happened at the beginning of our stay, we wouldn't have known for weeks. We put the car radio on and thought the world had ended."

Warner, Winterson and Fiona Shaw – it's such an inspired combination, I'm amazed it hasn't happened before now. "So am I, so are we all. As you know too well, people have reputations in the world... Deborah said, 'We kept thinking we'd seek you out, but we didn't because we thought you'd be very lofty.' And I've seen all their work, but I've never gone backstage. You do make incredible mistakes when you think that what you know about a person is what they'll be like. It's very rarely true."

It's the same with her, I point out. When I told people whom I was interviewing, they wished me luck, advised me to bring a flak jacket, joked about having security grilles installed. She has a reputation as a Holy Terror. She looks innocent, until I remind her that she once furiously doorstepped the reviewer Nicci Gerrard. "Yeah, that didn't help, did it? But hell, it was a long time ago. I think a lot of it is Northern plain-speaking. That's had a negative effect. Not so much now, because I have learnt that there's a problem there. But yeah," – she leans forward conspiratorially – "you can't just open your mouth and say what you like down here, can you? People are a bit funny!

"If you meet me, God knows there are drawbacks, but I'm not cold and I'm not horrid. I can't run on negative. At the same time, if somebody goes for me... Holy Terrier, more like! I go nuts if it's my personal life, I always have. I get really angry. A PR person, years ago, said to me: 'Look, Jeanette, you may feel this, but you don't say it, you don't show it; we get rid of them for you.' But I didn't know that in those days."

The interview is at an end, and Winterson is very keen for me to roar off on one of her "bike limos": "They've changed my life!" But Jeanette, I say, I'm wearing a skirt. "Tuck it up round your waist! He'll go slowly if you're frightened." She can't convince me, but insists on accompanying me to the Tube. As she locks up, she points out the original greengrocer's awning folded up outside. She unrolls it on sunny days. "I set up my own pavement café and sit out there with my tables and chairs."

I think I shall take to hanging around Spitalfields as the weather improves. Well, she does make a great Northern cuppa.

Two new stories by Jeanette Winterson, inspired by operas in the 2002 Glyndebourne season, will appear in 'The Independent' on 20 and 27 April. For details of the 2002 Glyndebourne season, call 01273 815000, or log on to www.glyndebourne.com

Deborah Ross is away

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