By Daphne Guinness
May 6 2002
Fay Weldon: unmarried mother, adulteress, nightclub hostess. She was indecently assaulted (twice), sold herself for stockings, rigged research for a Gallup poll. Had suicidal tendencies and, before the word existed, was bulimic. Did she, like Princess Diana, upchuck? “Of course. That way I could eat what I want and lose weight. No big deal.”
She says therapists will be furious she put that in her autobiography Auto Da Fay (after the Spanish Inquisition auto-da-fe which tortured confessions out of victims). “They’ll say, ‘obviously she is in denial and her father abused her’.”
But that’s life, and this is Fay Weldon, who wrote The Life and Loves of a She-Devil in Sydney’s Darling Point, now on her yellow velvet Victorian brothel sofa at home in Hampstead, London. She discusses episodes of her past and wonders how the sofa was used in a brothel when only one can lie on it.
Auto, a hair-curling memoir, was written she says to put the record straight on the Internet. Was she wise to do it? “I have no idea. The Mail On Sunday serialised it with extraordinary headlines. ‘I WAS A SCHEMING, HEARTLESS MONSTER’ was one. I am now known as ‘CBE SHM’ at home. That’s Commander of the British Empire with SHM tacked on.” The Mail certainly went to town. “My sinful life as a suburban she-devil … Blackmailed by a rapist … A ‘lesbian’ crush, Bed with my best friend’s lover and the day I nearly had a back-street abortion … I ran off with the penniless busker … The day my lover’s wife turned up in my bedroom. Would he choose her or me?” were other screamers and they only skim the surface.
“They were disconcerting, but I don’t dwell on them. I don’t say, ‘Oh, pity me’ or ‘Oh, look at me’.” Auto ends at Fay Weldon, age 32 (she is 70) for fear of upsetting living rellies, especially her mother Margaret, 92, unaware of Auto‘s existence. There will be more? “Oh, I think so.”
Meanwhile, digest the past. Her “lesbian” crush at 10 on Alison Grey at school: “She had curvy lips, a voice pure and bell-like. Within five minutes I was head over heels in love with her.” At 13 she wants to commit suicide: “I still do sometimes. Don’t we all?”
She loses her virginity at 20 to her best friend’s Ellen’s boyfriend: “Oh, the dark, male saturnine-ness of it all. He rode a Harley-Davidson, wore a leather jacket, smoked Gauloises. I thought he was wonderful. He came to visit Ellen but if Ellen was away he stayed with me.”
Somewhere in the scheme of things she is indecently assaulted by three doctors, separately. “It’s not a statistical sample I’m offering here. I’m not saying all doctors are like this; it just happens I ran into a lot of them.” One offered me an abortion if I slept with him so I did,. Abortion was illegal and expensive. He wasn’t very nice. The other was really nice, making a house call and finding me in tears, my husband just having left me. But she says it, that’s the point.
She meets a penniless busker, and becomes pregnant. “For two minutes only” she considers abortion; now her son is a famous jazz pianist with his own website and people ask if she could possibly be his mothet? Wow!.
But in the ’50s Franklin Birkinshaw (as she was born, aka Fay) becomes Davies (by deed poll) and wings it through a series of jobs menial (waitress), jobs horrible (Daily Mirror readers’ advice page) to jobs amazing (writing advertising copy).
Then while her mother babysits, and man-crazy Fay goes to pubs and parties, she meets and marries a headmaster (divorced) to let her mother off the hook and her memoirs spasm from first person to third. Not because Mr B was so awful but because “this was an aberration which I refuse to acknowledge” It’s all there: a 2-year union of strange ways.
Did she ever have sex with him? “No.” Was he homosexual? “It didn’t occur to me.
People didn’t think that of themselves then. It would be horrific.” Anyhow, Mr B says take a lover, which was generous “Yes, it was” and with Ellen she gives visiting advertising clients a “good time” in London’s lay-bys, sometimes foursomes if the mood took them. She makes it sound so funny. “Well, it was. In those days it was unusual for nice girls to be doing this kind of thing,” and she giggles girlishly.
A local stallholder chats her up and Mr B says: “Next time ask how much he pays.” What extraordinary behaviour, but as Mrs Bateman points out, a gift is not a payment (that’s when she gets her stockings). She goes off the idea when she sees the letch’s vulgar decor, but is forced into painful, unwanted sex. “Well, what did I expect? I could scarcely cry rape since I had freely put myself into this situation.” By now he knew she was the wife of the masonic lodge master. Same time, same treatment. Blackmail!
“What about nightclub hostess?” suggests Mr B, and he buys her a sexy dress and drops her off. “Exactly, he colluded in all this.” That was fun, too. “It was delinquent, you see. It was fun in the way parties are fun actually, socially it was easier because there were rules.”
She discovers it wasn’t beauty men were after but availability. Did she go along with that? “No, but I knew I could.” It’s all very surreal and that’s why, says Weldon, she can’t (or daren’t?) pigeonhole her ex as she would in fiction. “Because it’s real life, you see. And you know, he was not a bad man. He was a good man with sexual problems. ”
At this point her adventures in the third person end and, stealing £4 from Mr B, she runs away. As plain Fay Bateman she falls in love with a married man with three children, and his wife bursts into their bedroom. “Never apologise when discovered in flagrante delicto,” she advises in her novella The Rules of Life, and she doesn’t.
“It was appalling of me,” she says now. But the wife was appalling to break into their bedroom. “No, she didn’t behave appallingly. I did by having her husband in my bed. I should have been at least apologetic and ashamed of myself.”
At 29, Fay Bateman, now group copy head and out of love with Pers, meets Ron Weldon the artist, and that’s that for 30 years. Except it’s not.
She backtracks to the beginning and, with Ron, goes to analysts. In she goes crying; out she comes weeping even more. But Ron insists. “When we met, he said, ‘If you’re marrying me you have to go, too, or you won’t understand a word I am talking about.’ I said, ‘Yes Ron’, because I was a Good Girl.” Would she do that today? “No, of course not,” shrieking with laughter.
Still, Group Dynamics “kind of” helps her writing, and Ron’s surname definitely does. She doesn’t succeed until she adds Weldon to Fay (“because it says Well Done, get it?”) On her way to hospital to deliver their first child, Daniel, she posts a TV play A Catching Complaint and wonders why Ron is with his best friend’s girl, “a proper artist’s moll”, instead of with her. She mustn’t worry, she tells herself. It is Fay he loves.
The world knows what happens to Ron Weldon: he leaves Fay for another woman and dies the day they divorce. She writes a book about it, Splitting.
And her fans? “Oh, I’ve got beyond caring. This is the past. It’s social history. Twenty-one-year-olds now have so many choices; we had none. You could choose to keep out of people’s beds, I suppose, but it was never a choice of mine.”