Helene Guldberg has a woman-to-woman talk with Fay Weldon
'Tony Blair is like a little girlie'
'Tony Blair is a girl', giggles Fay Weldon. 'It is the whole feminisation of politics. At the head of it is Tony. In America we have Clinton, who is also a girl. He isn't guilty of penetrative sex, is he? It's a kind of letting off steam, like a railway engine.' She leans forward, pushing her hands up in the air: 'Ssssshhhwwwoooooosssshhhh, like that! And somehow this is what he has to do - which renders him girlish. It is not penetrative. It is not male sex.
'And on this side of the Atlantic we have got Tony - idolising the pop stars like a little girlie, talking in the language of caring and sharing. He is a girl. And Mr Hague - now he just can't make it as a girl. He is too associated with the old men. He hasn't learned to say sorry, like Blair.'
Fay sees the current propensity for everybody to apologise for everything as part of the post-Diana feminisation of society. 'You know, even Australia has its "Sorry day" [for the treatment of the Aborigines]. It's silly isn't it? It doesn't make any difference saying sorry. If it means people won't do it again - well, good. But it's more like your grandmother telling you "say you're sorry". So you say "sorry" and then you do it again. I think we should apologise to the Japanese for dropping the Bomb. Have we said sorry to the Argentines?' Lounging on her living room settee, we get carried away discussing all the things that could merit an apology. The list is endless.
But what about Fay Weldon herself - maybe she has something to apologise for? Has she not turned her back on sisterhood, writing articles entitled 'Pity poor men' that ask whether 'feminism has gone too far', and whether 'the pendulum of change has stuck and needs nudging back to a more moderate position'?
She has even half-jokingly talked about the need for 'a masculinist movement'. What is going on? Fay and her husband Nick Fox have seven sons between them - which, of course, could explain her concern about what is happening to men. But there is more to it than that. 'Men have changed', she says. 'You sort of feel they are opting out. They don't seem to know where they are going today. There are more women applying for university than men. Women cope better with tests.'
Pity poor men, indeed! She once wrote, 'Men, or so the current female wisdom goes, are all idle, selfish bastards/rapists/think with their dicks. So men shrink, shrivel and underperform - just as women once did'. Polly Toynbee was not impressed, wondering aloud whether Fay Weldon, 'the great imaginative voice of feminism', had suffered a 'damascene conversion', or turned into 'an obedient little woman' in her comfortable Hampstead home, complacent about the plight of the women who do not have it all.
Fay is a little irritated by such misinterpretations. 'Polly Toynbee, what does she know? Things have changed. But that does not mean I have turned my back on the plight of women.' Anyway, Fay never described herself as a feminist. 'I wrote about how people lived. I am now writing about what it is like today, what people struggle with, what people's hang-ups are. It's difficult to put your finger on it.'
She does put her finger on some of the key changes in her most recent novel Big Women. The book charts the life and death of Medusa, a female publishing company, from its inception in 1971 to its end, following an aggressive takeover bid, in 1996. It is a witty, enticing and thought-provoking novel.
Through the main characters, Fay explores the way in which society has changed - the shifts in the values we uphold, the relationships we form, our fears and aspirations. The four women who launch Medusa, referred to as 'the Furies', are not particularly sympathetic characters. It is rather difficult to take them seriously. The image of Stephanie walking out on her husband and children, after the birth of Medusa, naked, with 'bare boobs pressed into the steering wheel, for she had not brought her glasses', sums up the farcical nature of the women's travels through life. But they do at least have a vision of where they want to go (even if not being able to agree on how to get there). As Fay says, 'Their enterprise did take off because they believed in something'.
So what is she trying to tell us? Fay sees society turning its back on male virtues in favour of female ones. 'Traditional male and female virtues are not necessarily what men and women are like. It is part of the roles that we were expected to have. The male virtues were those of reticence, courage, intellect, reason, self-discipline and a protective instinct, I suppose. The traditional female virtues were nurturing, caring and sharing, also feeling, apologising and all the rest of it. And society has sort of flipped, I think, towards the female. Politicians speak in a female voice. And the male values are somehow discarded.'
Fay Weldon was born Franklin Birkinshaw. She changed her name to Fay but used the male-sounding Franklin when filling in application forms, which, she believes, helped her get into university. Now she thinks the tables have turned: 'Young unmarried professional women who are educated have a wonderful time, better than any other section of society.' Today, Fay believes, you may get further with a female name. For instance, as a writer, you are more likely to get the big advances from publishers - 'which is not necessarily a good thing. It's only as good as the book is'.
What does she think of the new women's writing? 'I think Bridget Jones's Diary is a terrific book! It is the sort of epitome of all these books. It's very entertaining, Helen Fielding's got style. I am not sure if it is literature though, because it's so personal - and yet it is a fictionalised feature. But that's fine. Why not?'
So is Bridget Jones a kind of role model for women today? 'I think it is a very unaspirational role model, but I am afraid it will do for a lot of women. It tells us a great deal about a lack of aspiration. And about relationships...' As she continues I start feeling a little downhearted. I too enjoyed Bridget Jones's Diary. What I did not like was any of the similarities I could find between her and me. Like Bridget I am a single thirtysomething. I would like to believe the comparison stops there. But here is Fay Weldon having a go at young single women, lumping me in with Bridget Jones.
I tell her I don't need a relationship, I am quite happy at the moment with no men cluttering up my life. 'You just don't try hard enough', she says. So we younger women should all make more of an effort? 'Yes, I think you should. I think you should make much more of an effort to put up with relationships.' Maybe she is right; maybe I should try harder to form a proper 'relationship'.
Fay continues: 'A lot of young women despise men. They are all looking for men who are better and brighter, who earn more and are higher up the social education scale. Their instinct is to look for their better. It's a sort of transfer situation. Men always used to marry beneath them. It was just assumed that that was what you did as you were not going to find your equal.' So now we should make do with men who we do not consider our equal? I start going off the idea of trying a little harder, and quickly change the subject.
'What do you think of more women MPs?' is the first question I can think of. 'I don't necessarily think it is a good thing. I don't know whether just because an MP is a woman she is a better MP. I don't know whether these sort of traditional gender politics of nurturing and caring are what necessarily makes a good MP.'
Fay has a bit of a reputation as a mischief-maker. It is not so much what she says but the way she says it. Earlier, while sipping some rather strong Grappa in her kitchen with Nick, she recounted what she had just said to a departing journalist from a wildlife magazine. 'It is a little sentimental to be preoccupied with saving particular species, don't you think? I told him that extending sentience to more and more animals is part of the dumbing down of human abilities!' she declared triumphantly, glancing at us over her glasses. I can imagine the stunned silence of the journalist. I caught a glance of him earlier and he looked like such a gentle man. But then again, I suppose he should have known what he was letting himself in for. Nick looks a little concerned however. 'You've got to be careful', he mutters. 'What will people think?!' But I agreed with her. I drew the same conclusion in an article I wrote for LM last year about animals and pain.
Fay says she will be pursuing the theme of the 'gender switch', also explored in her imaginative new collection of short stories A Hard Time to be a Father , because 'it just seems so interesting and makes people so cross'. Do you enjoy doing that, making people cross? 'Well, no. But when you say something which you think is perfectly sensible, and other people react in this way, you know that you are actually saying something that is to the point. Therefore you must pursue it. It's not that I do it because it makes people cross. I do it because there is something there that needs to be aired.'
Her anti-therapy book, Affliction, also provoked a reaction. 'Therapy stops you forming new relationships', she says. 'Therapy destroys relationships.' Fay has firsthand experience of this. In 1992 Ron Weldon walked out on their 30-year marriage after his therapist told him that his star-sign, Gemini, and Fay's, cusp of Virgo and Libra, were incompatible. He refused to discuss the matter with her and died of a heart attack within hours of her receiving their divorce papers.
'If you listen to your therapist you think your problems are somebody else's fault.' But did you not benefit from therapy? 'Yes, but that was in the sixties. It was about wanting to know about yourself. Today it is not about wanting to know about yourself but to get somebody else to cure you of your unhappiness. You want somebody else who knows better than you. But you are unlikely to find them. Unless you are very - it is a term I hesitate to use - but if you are very stupid. Then somebody more intelligent than you may be able to tell you, for instance, that if you hit your wife then she won't like you any more. We don't need to be told the self-evident. Everything is lowest common denominator.'
Fay also raised some eyebrows after meeting Dolly the cloned sheep. 'She was lovely. She had a soul, such a benign spirit.' A soul? But what if cloning was extended to humans? 'What's wrong with that? I don't think it's that different. People already do the best they can to breed the right kind of person. Just because people are the same genetically they are not going to turn out the same, are they?'
Most of what Fay Weldon says is perfectly sensible. So why all the fuss? I hope Fay will keep plugging away. What I really like about her is that she has got so many of what she described as the traditional male virtues - courage, intellect, reason and self-discipline - which she manages to wrap in such a warm, soft exterior. She can get away with murder while she giggles like... well, like a big girlie.
Big Women and A Hard Time to be a Father are published by HarperCollins, £12.99 each. Big Women starring Daniella Nardini will be broadcast on Channel 4 in July
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998