Fay Weldon is back, as deliciously capricious as ever
Fay Weldon has sited her latest book about a very different stepmother and stepdaughter in Hampstead and Archway, writes Amanda Blinkhorn Fay Weldon is as deliciously capricious as ever, crackling through the spectrum until she hits her wavelength f
Fay Weldon has sited her latest book about a very different stepmother and stepdaughter in Hampstead and Archway, writes Amanda Blinkhorn
Fay Weldon is as deliciously capricious as ever, crackling through the spectrum until she hits her wavelength for the day and then settling down like a one-woman Radio 4 to entertain.
This morning, she is discussing families in general and stepmothers in particular, the subject of her latest book The Stepmother's Diary, which, being Fay Weldon is about a wonderful stepmother and a wicked stepdaughter.
She is a stepmother herself, twice over. "I have stepsons and that's fine, boys are no trouble because they just need feeding and clothing and looking after. We get on very well," she says, adding that it is same sex step-relationships which cause the potential clashes.
Step-families are, she says, becoming more and more common because more and more families are breaking up, leaving children rather lost and feeling they belong nowhere.
While the adults rush around finding love and happiness, "there is a presumption that children are just expected to get on with it," she says, adding that parents may or may not notice the distress it causes. "It's a very inconvenient thing to take notice of it."
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She says this without guilt or blame, having of course been through a few broken families herself, but states it simply as a fact: children suffer when families break and remake.
"I am very pragmatic," she agrees. And candid with it, a trait which has got her into trouble on many an occasion.
As an advertising copywriter, she was best known for creating the winning "Go to work on an egg" but is less known for the pithy, but less successful "Vodka gets you drunk quicker".
Most recently, she was hauled up for saying that rape wasn't the worst thing which could happen to a woman, a fact she explained baldly, and reasonably unarguably, by the fact that if one wasn't killed by it one had, clearly, survived something worse.
It didn't go down well, and nor did it when she wrote in her book What Makes Women Happy that 80 per cent of women rarely reached orgasm, so fakery (Germaine Greer look away now) was again not the worst thing a woman could do in the circumstances. "Deal with it," she said, somewhat bluntly.
For a sharp writer, she is fond of the odd blunt word.
But that's not to say she doesn't believe in getting to the root of a problem. She is a great admirer of and a benefactor of psychoanalysis and Freud makes more than a passing appearance in The Stepmother's Diary. It's therapists she can't stand.
There are, she says, sadly some irresponsible people training as therapists who put their own self-interest ahead of their patients.
"Most people who go into therapy end up breaking up a relationship. It is very rare for a person to go into therapy to be with the same person once they come out of it," she says, adding that relationships are very fragile things and some may not be up to too much scrutiny.
"Human relationships are very fragile," she says, and subject them to too much common sense they may split apart.
But isn't it better to get these things sorted out I suggest?
"People aren't very happy alone," she says.
Getting to grips with something is one thing, but expecting someone else to sort you out is another, especially if they encourage you not to confide in your friends as, she says, so many therapists do.
Not confiding in her friends would probably kill Fay, who is on her third marriage and thriving in her new life as the wife of poet Nick Fox and living in his mother's house in Dorset.
The peace and quiet is clearly not affecting her productivity as it did when she was, rather wonderfully, moved into the Savoy in order to pursue her art in peace. It didn't work.
Becoming a writer in residence at the Savoy, as she was a few years ago, was rather fabulous, she says, but it did nothing for her work.
"I need noise and distraction and panic and deadlines to write," she explains, though contrary as ever she does admit that when her children were young she wasn't averse to paying for an uncannily similar, though modest, form of escape.
"I used to book into the Holiday Inn at Swiss Cottage," she says, adding that the children would go off and swim while she wrote, it being impossible to work at home even if she locked herself away.
"They would find me," she says, dismissing any suggestion that they would either understand her need to work or be proud of it.
"Children don't want a mother who writes," she says scornfully, adding that they just wanted a mother to look after them.
We were tiptoeing towards juicier ground again. She once warned mothers not "to fall in love with their children" as it would only end in tears.
She is on her way to promote her book in Denmark, where she was dismayed to learn that the school day is much longer.
"They stay at school until 6 o'clock," she says slightly horrified and proving once again that she cannot be expected, and indeed doesn't expect other people to practise what she preaches.
Talking of preaching, her latest scandalous activity is regular church attendance. After a lifetime of atheism - she was brought up a humanist but sent to a convent school (obviously contrariness runs through her family) - she has also found God. It's not in a heavy way, but in a cosy understated C of E way, which doesn't frighten the horses but is nevertheless slightly unsettling, until, of course, you hear it straight from the horse's mouth.
She loves everything about it, she says, the building the hymns, and, yes, she does believe it.
It is all a long way from Greenaway Gardens and the north London she lived in for almost all of her life.
"Where you live now makes very little difference," she says, adding that she had begun feeling a little isolated in Hampstead as people became too rich to live there.
"Even your neighbours didn't live there - they'd be Russian millionaires who would just fly in for a party," she says.
She grew up and went to school in Hampstead herself and still has grandchildren there - one at South Hampstead School and one at UCS - and hasn't exactly cut the cord.
"I still go back to Hampstead to have my hair done every six weeks," she says.
She is clearly happy in her new rural surroundings, relishing the new life, the neighbours and her privacy and says she is no longer a party girl. "You get to a certain age when you don't really want to go to parties any more.
"The only point of going to a party was to pick up men or showing off to women. And I don't wear high heels any more so what's the point of going to a party if you're not wearing high heels?"
Ms Weldon is 77 - or was at the last count.
But despite her apparent love of sleepy Dorset, The Stepmother's Diary is set firmly in north London.
The heart of the action may all happen in a six-bedroom farmhouse, but it's a farmhouse just off the "carbon-soaked Archway roundabout, where no-one wanted to buy".
The book is as soaked in north London as a coffee-dunked croissant , as harassed put-upon mothers flit from Heath Street to the Tavistock and back again.
Even the eponymous diary is hidden in a Waitrose carrier bag.
Given that she always pictures her characters in a real place before she starts writing, I wondered why she decided to set her crazy mixed-up family in Archway and Hampstead when they could quite easily have driven each other mad in Dorset.
"Well people wouldn't find them so interesting would they?" she says, perfectly well aware of her U-turn on a sixpence.
The Stepmother's Diary by Fay Weldon is published by Quercus, priced £16.99.