Profile: Germaine Greer - Another age, another rage: Her gift is certainty, but, says Isabel Hilton, that doesn't mean she's ever been consistent

Isabel Hilton
Saturday 16 October 1993 23:02

THERE'S always a moment, with Germaine Greer. In the middle ofthe fluency and the brilliance, halfway through the game old show- pony performance, just as you are curling up with pleasure at the style of her argument, she takes it that painful bit too far.

Take last Monday evening. In the course of her entertaining and characteristically angry Channel 4 presentation on the evils of youthism, Dr Greer, perched on a classroom desk and dressed in a pastiche schoolgirl outfit, asked a group of schoolboys if they fancied her. It was an excruciating moment. The schoolboys gulped. She insisted on an answer.

Was this the same woman who proclaimed in 1992 in The Change, her great polemic on the menopause, that shehad achieved post- menopausal, post-sexual serenity? Was this the person who, in the same Monday television performance, decried a culture that only counted love in sexual terms and only valued women for their sexual attraction?

Was this the same Germaine Greer who lay on the couch of the beauty parlour, lamenting the folly of those women who had not learnt to love in themselves the traces of life's passage? And could she, despite her protestations that she wanted to look her age, swear before the mirror that her own hair colour was really her own?

Greer's fame and fortune is built largely on her capacity to reprocess her own experience as universal truth for popular consumption. So if the truth she proclaims slips or shifts, or if she conspicuously fails to live up to it, she cannot expect the indulgence that humanity extends to the failings of ordinary mortals. Those who live by righteous indignation must expect it to turn and bite them from time to time.

Like an angry, louche, intellectual Bluebell Girl, Greer is still hoofing it, after nearly three decades of stardom, across the consciousness of the age. Her greatest gift is her certainty: her conviction that, if it has happened to Germaine Greer, it has unquestionably happened and we all want to hear about it.

But the universal truth of yesterday is overtaken by the universal truth of today, and tomorrow will bring another. In The Female Eunuch she urged women to explore alternatives to the family. In Sex and Destiny she romanticised a Latin family ideal. She was once famous for excess and promiscuity. Later she championed celibacy and cultivated refinement.

In The Change, she challenges the idea that the menopause is to be feared while offering her own grim physical experience of it as the model. And might her observations on the emptiness of a culture enslaved by youthism not have had more force if she had arrived at them younger - before she could be accused of putting her intelligence at the service of her disappointment at the passage of time?

'People do attack her,' said a friend. 'All the time. They love to compare the Germaine of the Sixties with the Germaine of today - as though she didn't have the right to change. They love to catch her out in what they think are inconsistencies. But really she's a seeker after truth. And she is full of contradictions because she is a human being and a human being of myriad faces and moods.'

It is not only her inconsistencies that make her vulnerable. Greer is an angry woman who has the good fortune to direct her anger outwards and the wit to fashion it into art. It makes her anger visible, enjoyable and provocative.

'MY great test of fame,' said a friend of Greer's, 'is whether they announce your death on the World Service. There is no doubt that Germaine's death will be announced on the World Service.'

She has been a star ever since she arrived in Cambridge in the mid-Sixties. She had come from a home in a Melbourne suburb, where, by her account, her unloving, distant father, who sold newspaper advertising space, would sit, indifferent, while her mother slapped her about. She arrived in Cambridge via the Star of the Sea Convent School and Melbourne and Sydney universities.

'She did seem quite amazing,' said a Cambridge contemporary. 'Undergraduates were only beginning to plan the deliberate loss of virginity - and always in the context of a relationship that might or might not be love. Germaine on the other hand was absolutely frank about her one-night stands; about just wanting sex.'

Soon she knew everyone who counted between Cambridge and London. In the fizz of the Sixties, when her generation felt it was in at the beginning of history, Greer, with her first-class degree, her doctorate and her intermittent academic career, was also an anarchic star of hyped up, druggy, experimental London. At the age of 31, in 1970, she published The Female Eunuch and became an international superstar.

'Migrants,' Germaine Greer has written, 'are special people who have the courage to venture into the unknown in order to beat the systems of inequality and limitation into which they were born in the old country.'

She was writing about the migrants who went to Australia. But in the Sixties the children and grandchildren of those migrants fled the provincial limitations of their new world and returned to the metropolis. There they met a generation that was trying to invent a modern world. The Australians brought a gift for anarchy that was not just the product of class-free colonial energy - of two generations of good food and egalitarian fresh air. It was also a mark of individual escape - of the freedom to reinvent yourself that is the attraction of emigration.

Would the Germaine Greer of the Catholic high school in Melbourne have posed for an underground magazine on her home turf, as she did for Suck magazine? Not just a nude pose but positioned with both legs in the air and her face between her legs, staring out above what the porn trade would call 'split beaver'?

It is not to underestimate her other talents to say that luck and the quality of going too far combined to make Greer memorable. When she wrote The Female Eunuch, she was not the first feminist writer. But she was among the first who were readable, and became, to the irritation of more formal feminists, the one that newspapers liked to flag as the emblem of feminism.

Like Simone de Beauvoir, she had the wit and elegance to lift the argument beyond the dreary catalogue of injustice into the realm of cultural excitement. When she published Sex and Destiny in 1984, she was not the first to suggest celibacy as an option - to venture that no sex might be preferable to bad sex. But hers was the book that took off. As she entered middle age, she pulled it off again with The Change.

'She has a genius for timing,' said a fellow author. 'You don't want to be first. What you want is to be on the crest of the wave just as it begins to break. She has done it again and again.'

To her credit, she is clever, original, witty, learned and courageous. Others have those qualities, but Greer has the rarer gift - for female readers at least - of seeming to voice the age.

Her 'luck' was to be part of a generation that learnt to drive the cultural train in its twenties and never let go of the controls. As she aged along with that powerful generation, her voice remained strong: she kept the right to celebrate her rites of passage in public and to make her experience the formative one for others.

'I have never been able to decide,' said a friend, 'whether she is a celeb pretending to be a serious person or a serious person disguised as a celeb.'

It is only one of the conundrums of Greer: to her friends, she can be extraordinarily kind, take infinite trouble, display exquisite taste. She loves gardening and homemaking, which she practises in a large house in Essex; she is meticulous about decor and cooking. She has rigorous standards of courtesy which she observes herself and expects of others.

But the same personis capable of staggering rudeness, of flamboyant, predatory sexuality. She is known for her enormous generosity towards waifs and strays - on her own terms, adds a friend carefully - and tenderness towards the weak. But she can also be savagely careless of other people's feelings. 'She says dreadful things about one in interviews,' said a close friend, 'and then, when one complains, she claims to have been misquoted.' She is an icon of feminism who can rarely resist lavishing attention on men at the expense of women. She champions the cause of the ageing woman but has made unashamedly cruel observations on signs of ageing in other women.

At 54, Greer has proclaimed her own entry into the third age and announced her intention of becoming as batty an old woman as she chooses. In fact, she is a Cambridge don, at Newnham College where she teaches English literature. After one, exceedingly brief, marriage in the Sixties, she never repeated the exercise, though she tried, belatedly and unsuccessfully to become a mother.

When she was much younger - in The Female Eunuch in fact - Greer wrote: 'Perhaps I am not old enough yet to promise that the self-reliant woman is always loved, that she cannot be lonely as long as there are people in the world who need her joy and her strength, but certainly in my experience it has always been so.'

It was a brave thing to write and, 20 years on, she still lives as though it were true. If it is true for Greer, then it is she who has made it so. However her convictions may have shifted, she has lived them to the hilt.

(Photograph omitted)

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