Paul McCartney

The soundcheck over, Paul McCartney –  he rarely uses the Sir –  stares out across the empty seats of the ice-hockey stadium, eyebrows raised in that way of his, lost in thought. In two and a half hours these chairs will be filled with Americans waving the Stars and Stripes; holding up lighters; crying, singing, hyperventilating; greeting the latest concert of his 19-city tour with what the press have been calling ‘Maccamania’. He hands his guitar to a roadie and picks up his jacket, flipping it over his left shoulder in the same movement. Taking the stairs two at a time, he steps down off the stage and greets me with a cold, dry handshake. ‘Art,’ he says bluntly. ‘You’re here to talk about art, right?’
‘Here’ is Long Island, New York, and it’s news to me that I’ve flown all this way just to talk about his paintings. ‘Among other things,’ I answer, trying not to show the alarm in my eyes. What about the juicy stuff? His children’s feelings about his marriage in a few weeks’ time to a former swimwear model who lost a leg and became a charity campaigner? His bitter feud with a dead man, John Lennon? What about George? Linda? And, of course, what about the Beatles, a band ‘bigger than Jesus’ that broke up more than 30 years ago and yet still sells as many records each year as it ever did, a billion at the last count? At least he didn’t add ‘and poetry and classical music’, the other art forms in which he has taken to dabbling.
As he leads the way along a corridor, a crowd –  road crew, hangers-on – mills around him briefly, jostling for position like petitioners in a Tudor court. When we pass through a door at the end, their progress is blocked by a security guard and I notice Paul McCartney’s walk: it is loose, swaying, almost a swagger. He will be 60 next month but, apart from a few crow’s feet around his bovine-big eyes and an interesting chestnut tint to his hair, he shows little sign of it. ‘I think someone must have falsified my birth certificate,’ he says, his flat Liverpudlian vowels softened by 30 years of marriage to an American. ‘Joke! It’s just I feel as youthful as I’ve ever felt. And pretty fit. I used to have to wring out my shirts after shows. Now I hardly sweat at all.’ He is indeed looking lithe, tanned and moisture-free –  and a little shorter than I’d imagined. I’ve read that he is 5ft 11in; but we all remember that conspiracy theory about how he died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced by a taller double, only to give the game away by walking barefoot –  a Sicilian symbol of death –  on the zebra-crossing outside the Abbey Road studios.
Backstage we sit on sofas in an ashram-like room draped with black curtains, lit by candles, heavy with the smell of joss sticks. McCartney scoops up a handful of nuts from the coffee-table. ‘Excuse me if I eat these while we talk,’ he says between crunches. ‘I usually nibble at this time before a concert.’ We have an hour before he has to change for the show –  less if he feels the talking is putting a strain on that golden voice of his.
Alongside the bowl of nuts are copies of the Sun and the Daily Mail, just arrived from England. Both carry full-page features about how, after 11 September, Americans are saying McCartney is ‘healing’ them, just as the Beatles did in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. Healing, Paul? Healing? ‘I know! I know!’ McCartney says, the puffy curves of his lips smoothing out into a grin. ‘Better than bad reviews, I guess. Actually, I don’t read them, because they have an affect on me: I either think I’m too great or I get paranoid.’ The glowing reviews in the American press may have something to do with the fact that he has not toured for a decade; also that the show includes 21 Beatles songs; in the past McCartney has refused to play more than one or two of them at his concerts. ‘I used to get pissed off when people called me “ex-Beatle Paul McCartney”,’ he says, tossing another handful of nuts into his mouth. ‘Now I’m more comfortable with it.’ He chews and swallows. ‘JFK had died a few months before the Beatles’ first tour and there was a sense then of America wanting to get back to normal after a world-shocking event. The same is happening now, though I feel more connected with it this time because I was in New York when the terrorist attack happened.’
Entering into the spirit of the thing, I ask if this tour is also about ‘healing’ Paul McCartney –  after all, he has said that he ‘cried for a year’ when his wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998. ‘Yes, there is a lot of that for me. And I have a new woman in my life who I’m going to marry, so that’s part of that, too. Heather has made me feel more at ease with things. After two full years of horror and doctor’s offices and scares and diagnoses…’ He trails off. ‘In truth when you have been through that and come out at the end…’ He trails off again. ‘I’m grateful not to have to spend my days doing that any more. And I’m lucky to have found a good woman who is strong like Linda and beautiful and positive and funny.’
He found it odd dating again after so many years of marriage and he felt guilty, too, but soon rationalised that it would be what Linda wanted. With the 33-year-old Heather Mills, he tells me, it was ‘big attraction at first sight’. Then, ‘I really started to fancy her.’ The marriage will take place at his home in the Hamptons, near New York, on 6 June, three days after he performs at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace. His daughter Stella, a celebrated fashion designer, won’t be designing the wedding dress. And there are rumours that his other children –  Mary, James and, from Linda’s first marriage, Heather –  are not wildly enthusiastic about the union either. ‘I think a second marriage is hard for the children,’ McCartney says, nodding gravely. ‘No matter who it is: people in my position are told not to worry, that time will heal. But it’s very difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. They find it difficult to think of me with another woman. But it’s how it is and how it must be, and I think that, more than anything, they want me to be happy –  and this is what makes me happy.’
It’s a steely remark, as cold and dry as his handshake. McCartney once said, ‘I’m not really tough. I’m not really loveable either.’ He was half-right. You don’t stay at the top for as long as he has without being pretty tough and single-minded. His comment about how his children will just have to lump it seems to reflect this, as do his thoughts about his reaction to George Harrison’s death last November. Looking distraught, McCartney went before the cameras to pay tribute to his ‘baby brother’. Was he wanting to make amends for the flippant comment he made in 1980 when John Lennon was shot? ‘It was definitely to do with that, yeah. I was conscious of that. I was just as distraught when John died, probably more so because it was a shocking murder. I knew George was going to die. I’d seen him and I knew. He had terminal cancer…’ He shakes his head at the memory. ‘But you’re right. When John died I didn’t know whether to stay at home and hide or go to work. I decided to go to work, as did George Martin, and at the studio we talked about John and cried and when I was leaving that night, in the dark, in the London traffic, I had the window slightly open and someone pushed a microphone in and asked me what I thought about John dying. I said, “It’s a drag.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. And, in print, it looked so heartless. When I saw it written down I thought, “Jesus Christ.”‘
It was not just in print. He said it with a shrug, as if in an attempt to be cool. And the callousness of the comment seemed to confirm what many suspected McCartney really felt about Lennon. When the Beatles broke up in 1970 the world blamed Yoko Ono. But John, George and Ringo blamed Paul, partly because he had, they thought, become too bossy, partly because he refused to work with the band’s sinister new manager Allen Klein (later imprisoned for tax fraud), partly because he was the first to tell the press –  much to the annoyance of John Lennon, who had already told the others in private that he was planning to leave the band and wanted to break the news himself. Feeling angry, unemployed and bewildered, McCartney retreated to his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, grew a beard, drank too much and had what he later described as a nervous breakdown. Eventually he recovered his composure, became a vegetarian, sued the Beatles, recorded the gorgeous ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, formed Wings –  with Linda on keyboards and vocals, much to everyone’s amusement –  and had a long run of chart-topping singles and albums. He also wrote ‘The Frog Chorus’.
Lennon, meanwhile, moved to New York, became a junkie and revealed himself to be the borderline psychopath many had always suspected him of being. He embarked on a hate-campaign against McCartney, comparing his former partner to the cabaret artiste Engelbert Humperdinck. McCartney would try to patch things up and have ‘very frightening phone calls’ with Lennon which always ended with one telling the other to ‘fuck off’ before slamming the phone down. In 1976 Lennon said of McCartney: ‘He visits me every time he’s in New York, like all the other rock ‘n’ roll creeps.’ McCartney felt hurt, not least because, as he said in 1987, ‘I always idolised [John]. We always did, the group. I don’t know if the others will tell you that, but he was our idol.’
If George was his baby brother, was John his big brother? McCartney smiles, causing crinkles to arc downwards from his hazel eyes. ‘Yes, definitely, although not in the Orwellian sense. John was older than me and, in the good sense of the phrase, he was a big brother. He was a lovely guy. But we were very competitive. Looking back on it, I think it’s…’ He purses his lips. ‘It’s awkward. You don’t always say to people what you mean to say to them when they are alive. And with John, we had a guy relationship, loving each other without saying it. We never looked at each other and said, “I love you,” but people would ask us, “What do you think of the rest of the Beatles?” and we would say, “I love them.” So we knew indirectly, peripherally.’ He rubs his hands together to brush off some crumbs. ‘We were brothers. Family. Like an Irish family. It’s not unusual to get brothers fighting, but we did it in the spotlight –  everyone got to look at the O’Malleys arguing. We gave and took a few good blows. But with John, we made it up by the time he died and I was very thankful for that. We were talking normally about baking bread. And cats –  he was a cat man. He would talk about going round his apartment in his “robe” as he called it by then, dressing-gown to us. So, ordinary stuff.’
But there’s more to it than that. For years now Lennon’s role in the Beatles has been talked up and McCartney’s down. Lennon is portrayed as being deep and cool, McCartney shallow and cheesy. Yoko Ono has played a large part in this. Most witheringly she said four years ago, ‘John was the visionary and that is why the Beatles happened. Paul is put into the position of being a Salieri to a Mozart.’ McCartney has been trying to counter this, to make his version of the Beatles story the official one, most notably in an authorised biography, Many Years From Now by Barry Miles. He wants it to be known, for instance, that he, not Lennon, was the one who introduced the Beatles to Stockhausen and the avant garde.
Does he feel he has finally set the records straight? ‘I became more comfortable that my contribution was being recognised, yes. And George’s. Sad that he had to pass away before people really saw it… There was a re-writing of history after John’s death. There was revisionism. Certain people were trying to write me out of the Beatles’ history, as well as the other two. George was reduced to the guy standing with his plectrum in his hand, waiting for a solo and, as John would have been the first to admit, George was very much more important than that, as a character, as a musician. And Ringo is now being sidelined because he wasn’t a composer. We all needed each other. We were four corners of a square. There were people close to John, saying, “Well, Paul just booked the studio,” –  which was galling. The trouble is’, he says, scooping up another handful of peanuts and speaking indistinctly through them, ‘I became worried that the John legend would totally wipe out any of our contributions. I’m sure I got paranoid about it, but, hey, that’s normal for me.’
Such was McCartney’s paranoia he even tried to have the Beatles songs he wrote retrospectively credited to McCartney-Lennon (as oppose to Lennon-McCartney, a brand as revered as Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein). Yoko Ono, who inherited Lennon’s estate, refused to give permission for this. ‘I didn’t want to remove John,’ McCartney tells me, ‘just change the order round. I don’t mind Lennon-McCartney as a logo. John in front, that’s OK, but on the Anthology (1996), they started saying “Yesterday” [a tune that came to McCartney in a dream] by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and I said, “Please can it be Paul McCartney and John Lennon for the sake of the Trade Description Act? Because John had no hand in that particular song.”‘ He jiggles his knee up and down in agitation. ‘I recently went to a hotel where there was a songbook and I looked up “Hey Jude” [another McCartney song] and it was credited to John Lennon. My name had been left off because there was no space for it on the page. Do I sound obsessive?’
Just a bit. Everyone knows who wrote which Lennon-McCartney composition because the songwriter always took the lead vocals. And he’s Paul McCartney, for goodness sake. His boyhood home has been preserved for the nation by the National Trust. According to the Guinness Book of Records, he’s the most successful songwriter in history. Bigger than Elvis. Bigger even than John, now. How can he possibly feel insecure about his reputation? ‘I know! That’s what people say to me. Because I’m fucking human. And humans are insecure. Show me one who isn’t. Henry Kissinger? Insecure. George Bush? Insecure. Bill Clinton? Very insecure.’ It’s a curious crew to compare yourself to –  the model for Dr Strangelove, a Texan to whom English is a second language, a philanderer –  but perhaps it makes sense in light of something McCartney said at the height of Lennon’s war of words: ‘John captured me so well. I’m a turd. I’m just nothing.’
Improbable though it may seem, Paul McCartney appears to have suffered periodically from low self-esteem. Linda McCartney once said: ‘I don’t dwell on what people say about me. I dwell on what people say about Paul, for some reason. Maybe it’s because he can’t handle it.’ For all his chirpy optimism, mannered blokiness and double thumbs-up gestures, he is, it seems, prickly about his reputation. As Private Eye discovered when he reacted with cold fury to the inclusion of one of his poems in Pseud’s Corner recently, he takes himself very seriously. His ‘fucking human’ comment is intriguing in another respect: it suggests that, in his professional life at least, he suffers from Paradise Syndrome: having a perfect life he needs to find something to feel anxious about. It’s not enough that he’s credited jointly with writing the soundtrack to our lives, he wants his name to come first. It won’t suffice that, since he was 20, millions of his fans have been calling him a genius –  he needed to hear it from his ‘big brother’, his musical equal, his idol, John Lennon.
But you can’t help feeling that he should be, that he can afford to be, a bigger man. He shouldn’t rise to Yoko Ono’s bait. It looks so petty. Worse than that, his attempts to control not only the Beatles’ history but also their mythology have come across as boastful, petulant and self-serving. Perhaps it is just that, for all his gifts as a lyricist, he frequently expresses himself badly in conversation, often hitting the wrong note, not saying what he means. His mother died when he was aged 14: his first response? ‘What are we going to do for money now?’ He has regretted that line all his life. Even his heartfelt tribute to his ‘baby brother’ George seems a little patronising and ill-considered. He must have known that Harrison always hated being thought of as the baby of the band, not least because when the Beatles first formed Lennon used to refer to ‘that bloody kid hanging around’ –  and Harrison, long after the Beatles broke up, said he thought that was how Lennon still regarded him.
Perhaps McCartney’s insecurities only seem undignified –  even indecent –  because in so many other ways he is such a dignified, decent man. He pays his taxes, he doesn’t wear leather shoes on principle, he sent his children to the local comp, he was faithful to his wife for 30 years (something almost unheard of in the priapic world of rockstardom), he does his own shopping at Selfridges, he travels on the Underground. The superstar next door image he has tried to cultivate may seem like a tragic affectation given that he is worth £713 million, but at least he tries. ‘You said I have this thing about wanting to be seen as an ordinary man: well, I’m sorry but I am,’ he tells me. ‘It’s just too bad –  I can’t be anything other. I’m a lucky ordinary guy, it’s true. I’ve done a lot of things and fulfilled a lot of my dreams, but it doesn’t mean…’ He smiles ruefully. ‘I assumed, like you, that when I met someone who had done well that they would be saintly and just say, “Thanks, I know I am OK now.” But it doesn’t work like that.’
Yet, to the outside world, he seems so positive and well-adjusted. ‘Yeah, but my worst fear is being found out… I don’t want to elevate any higher than I am now. Sir Paul McCartney is as elevated as I ever wish to go –  in fact, it is a little too high. It was a great honour and all that but… I need the people around me to know I am still the same and I want to feel the same, because I like who I am. A bit insecure. So I don’t go, “Fuck you! How dare you tell me that. I’m better than you.” It would be easy to do but I don’t want to get like that. Know why? Because I’m working-class [his father was a cotton salesman, his mother a nurse, and he grew up on a council estate]. If I got like that now, people, the crew out there, would be doing this [he flicks the V-sign] behind my back as I walk past.’
He checks his watch pointedly. ‘Now,’ he says. ‘The Walker Gallery, Liverpool.’ There is an exhibition catalogue for it on the coffee-table and as we flick through the paintings –  bold colouring, some abstract, some figurative –  I nod approvingly. Pretty disturbing, though, some of them. ‘Oh. Yeah, a lady friend once walked through my studio and said, “Paul what would a psychiatrist make of all this?” Here,’ he says stopping at one. ‘It’s red, so I suppose you could say “demonic, red, hell,” but I just like red. In the Rorschach test, some people see a butterfly, some see a devil. You are supposed to betray yourself in painting. But that’s OK. I don’t try and hide anything about myself.’ He turns to a warmer image. ‘These beach paintings aren’t disturbing, though. That was just a memory. Shark on Georgica is somewhere I used to sail. I knocked the paint pot and a shark appeared. I like that accident. Perhaps it betrays some hidden fears.’  Freud said there are no accidents. ‘Exactly.’ He flicks on a few more pages. ‘The curator picked this one out and says it’s very sexual. I’m not sure what he means but I’ll go along with that. That could be phallic.’ He gives a thin laugh and moves the page round to view the painting from a different angle. ‘When I was a kid I used to draw nude women and feel guilty. Now when I look at nudes in photographs and paintings I don’t giggle. I had to get over that block, get over the smutty stage. I started painting seriously when I was 40, when I had children, and that was when I got over it. To have babies we do have to do certain things…. Here’s a nude of Linda. Why not? I was married to this woman for 30 years.’
Has he painted any of Linda since she died? ‘No, I haven’t painted too much in the past couple of years. Well, I’ve done one or two and they are a bit disturbing. But they would be, wouldn’t they? I was disturbed.’ He grieved properly for Linda, he says, something he didn’t do when his mother died from breast cancer. ‘I certainly didn’t grieve enough for my mother. There was no such thing as a psychiatrist when I lost her. You kidding? I was a 14-year-old Liverpool boy. I wouldn’t have had access to one and I do now. I saw one when Linda died and he said, “A good way to grieve is to cry one day and not cry the next, alternate days so as you don’t go down one tunnel.” I took his advice.’
McCartney has said that in the months following Linda’s death he thought he might die from grief; did he mean he considered taking his own life? “No. I was very sad. In deep grief. But never suicidal. I’m too positive for that. After a year… It was as if the seasons had to go right through, as if I had to feel like a plant. A couple of months after the end of that cycle I began to realise I was also having other feelings, that I was emerging…’
That all you need is love? ‘Mmm. I am a romantic. I like Fred Astaire.’ Me, too, I interject. ‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘Now I feel I can open up to you. I always say to young guys, “Be romantic,” because not only do women love it but you’ll love it, too. English men are so reserved, though. The idea of being caught with flowers on the bus! You hide them under your jacket.’ He mimes hiding a bunch and looking nervous. ‘Well, I’m not like that any more.’
McCartney looks at his watch again. Nearly time to go to his dressing room. Presumably the big difference between touring America in 2002 and 1964 is the seats; audiences today don’t wet them quite as much. ‘I think the main differences is the age range of the audience,’ he says with an easy laugh. ‘The Beatles audience was essentially our age or younger, a lot of screaming girls. Now the audience is layered: people the age I am now, but also their children and grandchildren. They were holding up babies the other night, which was like, What?’
I say I imagine people bring their babies along because they want them to have a stake in history –  like watching the Queen Mother’s funeral procession. ‘Yeah, there’s probably something in that. People want to be able to say, “I was there.”‘
Later I make my way upstairs to take my seat for the concert. The excitement of the crowd is palpable and infectious. And when a giant silhouette of Paul McCartney’s violin-shaped Hofner bass appears on a screen on the stage, everyone goes nuts. The screen lifts, the crisp, heavy, opening bars of the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’ are heard, and thousands of hairs on the backs of thousands of necks stand on end, mine included.


Fay Weldon

The autobiography of Fay Weldon, published this week, is a spiky read. Its author talks to Nigel Farndale about sex, psychiatry, self-loathing and her early career as a hostess in a Soho clip joint

A RISKY business, capturing the essence of a seven-year-old on canvas – especially when you then have to show the painting to the child’s mother. Rita Angus, a New Zealand artist, managed it when she painted Fay Weldon in 1938 – really dipped her paintbrush in the murky stuff of her sitter’s ‘inner soul’. Fay’s mother Margaret, a novelist who was living in New Zealand at the time, hated it; thought that with its hard edges and simple colouring it looked like a caricature. When she returned to London with her two young daughters – following a messy divorce in which both parties admitted to infidelity – she tried to leave the painting behind.

A friend ran to the dock with it just as the gangway was rising, shouting, ‘You left this!’ Margaret considered throwing the painting in the sea but asked the friend to return it to the artist instead. It now hangs in the National Gallery of New Zealand.

In the painting Fay sits beside Jane, her older (by two years) sister. Both are wearing gingham dresses with white collars and ribbons in their hair. When I meet Fay Weldon – now 71, married for the third time, mother of four sons, author of 24 novels, most notably The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) – at her home in Hampstead, she is wearing Nike pumps, black trousers and a black top. But I recognise instantly the girl in the painting. It wasn’t a caricature, after all. She still has the same icy-blue saucer eyes, the same moon face, the same high, pouchy cheekbones, the same bob of pale blonde hair. Her skin is still smooth, too – or smoothed, thanks to the tucks and nips she blithely admitted to having a few years ago. Even her hunched shoulders and no-neck posture are the same. Her expression, now as then, is one of mischief masquerading as innocence.

She takes a sip of coffee from a mug with himself written on it – her hand shaking slightly – and tells me why she has reproduced the Rita Angus painting on the dust-jacket of her autobiography Auto Da Fay, which is published this week. The book is partly about what she calls the ‘survival unit of three’: her mother, her sister and herself. ‘Writing about Jane helped me come to terms with her death [from cancer at the age of 39 in 1969]. At the time I felt total helplessness in the face of it. I had to be elliptical, though. Her children don’t know the extent of her illness. You can have too much truth.’ You can see why she might think that. The truth or facts of her autobiography can seem rather too much. Among other things she reveals that, as a young woman, she flirted with prostitution and worked as a hostess in a Soho clip joint. She thought herself plain and dull, she writes, or at least that is how her mother made her feel – but she soon learnt that it wasn’t beauty men were after, but availability. ‘Sit on a bar stool in a skimpy dress and look like you charge for your favours and perfection of leg doesn’t matter.’

One could be forgiven for wondering if these episodes have been included simply because she thought they might help sell the book, even if she does feel they represent ‘too much truth’. After all, she first found success not as a novelist but as the advertising copywriter who coined the phrase ‘Go to work on an egg’. She knows how to sell a product, in other words. This commercial sense was demonstrated admirably by the press coverage she generated for the launch of The Bulgari Connection last year. It was, she calmly announced, a product placement novel sponsored by the Italian jewellery designer Bulgari. There were howls of indignation from the literary world, who accused her of selling out and compromising her integrity. She just shrugged and said, ‘Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck?’ And when another book, Big Women, about a feminist publishing house in the 1970s, was published four years ago, she caused a storm by making the rather non-feminist comment that rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman. ‘No,’ she says now in a soft, breathy voice. ‘These things stir themselves up, it’s not me. And I don’t think they help with sales. If you were more mysterious and difficult as an author people would feel they had to read your books.’

Did she find it therapeutic to write about her youthful follies, then? ‘Cathartic maybe, which I do not believe is therapeutic. Things are not made better if you face them. They are just reactivated. I’m all for denial. It’s a tried and tested survival mechanism.’ She examines her nails. ‘And yet if things happened in your life, you should put them in your autobiography – even if life is less believable than art. When you make things up in a novel people recognise themselves and try to sue you for using their lives. They assume everything they do is unique. Yet we all have much in common.’

I can’t believe that many people would have had marriages in common with hers. ‘I suppose my marriages were unusual,’ she says with a gentle laugh. She is now married to Nick Fox, a jazz musician and poet 15 years younger than her, who has popped his head – bushy eyebrows, clipped beard, a cigarette between his lips – around the door to say a friendly hello. They married days after she divorced Ron Weldon, her second husband, in 1994. Ron, a jazz musician and artist, had been in psychoanalysis for ten years before he met Fay and soon persuaded her to take it up as well. ‘Both Ron and I went to see our analysts twice a week so really there was no need to speak to each other,’ she recalls drily. The marriage came to a sudden end after 30 years when, Fay claims, Ron switched to an astrological therapist who told him that the couple had incompatible star signs. Eerily, on the day their divorce was finalised Ron died of a heart attack.

But her marriage to Ron was straightforward compared to her marriage to Ronald. In 1956 she married Ronald Bateman, a headmaster at a technical college in west London who was 25 years older than her. She was a bohemian single mother not long out of university (St Andrews, where she read economics and psychology) and needed a roof over her head. ‘Poor Ronald Bateman,’ she writes in Auto Da Fay, ‘[I] was a heartless, practical monster.’

‘But actually it wasn’t so unusual,’ she tells me. ‘Marrying for convenience happened a lot. Most girls who got pregnant had the baby adopted or they had a shotgun wedding. Or the girl’s mother pretended to be the mother, so the child grew up thinking her mother was her sister. Extraordinary the lengths people went to to be respectable. When I wrote about that episode I did have a reaction. I was filled with self-pity and did think, “Poor little thing. What a stupid child.”‘

She had decided, she says, to donate her sexual and domestic services in exchange for bed and board. Ronald Bateman didn’t want to consummate his marriage, though, he just wanted ‘wife and son’ on his cv. Instead he offered his wife to his friends, telling her if she wanted to find a lover he wouldn’t mind. A ‘mean-eyed’ stallholder in the market then offered her a pair of stockings in return for sexual favours; she told Bateman who then vetted the man. She arranged to meet the stallholder, found herself trapped in his front room, was stripped, humiliated and forced into ‘painful and unwanted’ sex. Then, while she wept, he gave her the stockings.

Is Ronald Bateman dead? ‘Yes.’

Phew, in a way. ‘Yes, but I felt bad because he isn’t around to put his side. It wasn’t really his fault. Almost nothing is anybody’s fault, you come to realise. Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing.’

I get the feeling from reading her memoirs that she is amoral, or at least a morally ambivalent person. Is this fair? ‘Morality tends to be what you can afford. It’s like when I was in advertising and refused to work on a tobacco account. Had I not been able to pay the rent at that time through writing I might not have made such a principled stand.’ She absent-mindedly plays with the beaded neck chain attached to the arms of her Armani spectacles, coiling it and uncoiling it on the table. She sighs. She frowns. ‘To do things to your own advantage and at someone else’s expense seems an offence to one’s own dignity, so better not do it. I think that is my position.’

What about when she accepted the silk stockings in return for sex? ‘They weren’t even silk, they were nylon!’ She gives a snuffly laugh. ‘That was just masochism.’ She had low self-esteem? ‘Of course I had low self-esteem! No, I had a labile sense of self-esteem, sometimes very low and sometimes very high. The masochism was deeply ingrained in my psyche, as it is in all women. That is where the pleasure lies.’ She stares out of the window. ‘I’m not going to bare my soul completely but, of course, I was depressed.’ One manifestation of this depression was her comfort eating – which later became the subject of her first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967).

‘I wasn’t happy because I felt I was wasting time,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t cut out to be a suburban housewife in Acton.’

Was her self-worth affirmed by having sex with strangers? ‘Yes. Intimate congress with another human being is very reassuring. It makes you feel alive and worthy of their attention. It’s like a drug. Heroin addicts enjoy the pimples and the dirt and the syringes and the self-disgust. The debasement is part of it.’

Her father Frank, an English doctor with a practice in New Zealand, died of a stroke in 1947. She never mourned him properly, she tells me, and she thinks this may be why she always ended up marrying men who were, in different ways, like her father. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she says, pronouncing her ‘r’s as ‘w’s. ‘No, no, that’s not right at all,’ she adds, demonstrating another verbal quirk, a tendency to instant self-contradiction. ‘I think I always married my mother. Women are supposed to marry their fathers but actually the temperament of those they marry tends to be more like that of their mothers.’

Fay’s mother is a redoubtable woman. Once, when she came across a poem that Fay had written as a teenage schoolgirl – revealing an innocent crush on another girl – she overreacted wildly and declared that she had always suspected her daughter was a lesbian. ‘I didn’t understand what she was talking about,’ Weldon recalls in her memoirs, ‘or how I had suddenly become so loathsome: to be a lesbian was something perverse and horrible, not just something you did but what you were as well. Next day, on the No 9 tram coming home from school, I contemplated suicide – wondered how to set about it.’

Was it the sort of suicide fantasy teenagers are prone to, or had she been serious? ‘Suicide has never seemed to me to be anything other than a rational response to the world,’ she says with an incongruously fluffy laugh. ‘It’s mad not to be suicidal if you have a sense of the futility of life.

I don’t think it was a romantic fantasy. Perhaps it was. I don’t think it was depression, though. It’s like everyone saying Sylvia Plath [who was a friend of Weldon’s] killed herself because she was depressed. She didn’t. She killed herself because she was unhappily in love. Somebody [Ted Hughes] had spurned her. This is unhappiness, but it’s not madness.’

Surely love is a species of madness? ‘True. And therapists would say love is neurotic dependency, but what do they know? You have a whole range of emotions: some are pleasant, some unpleasant, but you need them both because, if you dampen one, you dampen the other. My quarrel with therapists is that they want to iron out emotions, render everything down and leave you with a lot of soupy feel-good – and that is only half living.’

Her own family’s emotions were decidedly unironed. An aunt of Weldon’s (Faith, her mother’s sister) and her own sister Jane both spent time in lunatic asylums. Given the hereditary nature of some mental illnesses, did Weldon ever worry for her own sanity? ‘No, I never felt I was losing my mind. I was too practical. Yet other people worried. And I suppose I have worried myself about patterns of behaviour. Maybe I am just in denial.’ Smile. ‘When I was growing up, insanity was the great dark fear of the age. Speaking openly about madness was not fashionable. We were more superstitious about words. If you didn’t use them, they didn’t come true.’

It is often said of Fay Weldon that, in the 1970s, she was a leading light of the women’s liberation movement, though no one can quite remember why. A few years ago, when she had a book to promote – naturally – she caused a stir by saying that she had changed her mind about women, and men. They weren’t so bad after all? ‘Men became OK. My position was reasonable in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a patriarchy, and men did abuse their power and spend their time despising women. It was a dreadful and humiliating time to be a woman. You see it in extreme example in the Taliban – the basic male attitude was not that different. But as soon as women began to earn proper wages and could control their fertility through the pill it all changed. To blame men now seems to be foolish. Women now talk about men in the same language men used to talk about women. Their only defence is that men deserve it because they were so horrid to us in the past.’

Did her attitude to men also change because she is now happily married and she wasn’t then? ‘Yes, how could it not be?’ she asks airily. ‘Nevertheless, I think there is enough truth in my position for me to universalise it.’ Well, she’s never been afraid of doing that. ‘No, I haven’t.

I sometimes take extreme positions because I want to be argued with, to see whether my position is defensible. Instead, you often get dismissed with people saying, “Pish and tosh, who does she think she is?”‘

When debating on radio or television she can seem nonchalant to the point of woolliness, but also fearless. Is this an affectation? ‘In my personal life I shy from confrontation all the time. I can’t bear to have a cross word with anyone – which is rather foolish.’

But I have read that her husbands always complained she was too argumentative. ‘Yes, they did, they do. I don’t think I am, though. It seems to me I am just putting facts forward, and when people disagree with them, which they should do, then I moderate them.’

So is she just dressing up opinion as fact – which is a rather arrogant thing to do? ‘Entertaining,’ she corrects. ‘When I do get into trouble it’s because I have abandoned truth for the sake of a witty reply. I do talk more than most people so I am bound to have a higher percentage of foolish remarks, like poor George W Bush.’

Did her time working in advertising leave her feeling cynical, in the sense that she learnt how easy it is to get away with lying? ‘No, I believed every word of it. I’m very good at self-deception. I like the material world. I like the difference between one washing powder and another. I could enthuse about eggs because I thought they were rather wholesome beautiful things.’

There is something of the insouciant, easy-natured dilettante about Fay Weldon. She doesn’t believe in doing much research: if something feels right, she thinks, it probably is. When she worked as a television scriptwriter – for Upstairs, Downstairs among other things – she would submit a first draft, wait to be asked to make changes, do them, deliver them and when she was asked for yet more changes, as she knew she would be, she would deliver the first draft again: as that seemed somehow familiar, it would, she says, be accepted at once. She is moreover, by her own admission, in possession of low taste – very much a gold taps, kidney-shaped dressing-tables and country and western music person. In her autobiography she comes across as a strange mixture of laziness, decadence and frivolity, a capricious yet rackety intellectual who is easily bored. Is it a true account of her life?

‘We all delude ourself about ourselves. One paper [a mid-market tabloid] yesterday said I was “a heartless scheming bitch”. No, what was it? “A monster.” That’s OK. I can live with that. There is an element of total irresponsible frivolity to me. But that may just be my mother’s view of me.’

Her mother was her opposite, a serious woman? ‘Extremely!’

Would Fay Weldon like to be taken more seriously? ‘No, I wouldn’t survive. At all. So, really, my frivolity is a defence mechanism. My sister was the serious one. I was the youngest child who couldn’t do anything but charm and chatter on merrily.’

And, as we have seen, contradict herself without blushing. She will make reckless assertions only to laugh them off later and she has no real consistency of thought: she used to be a freethinker, but as of two years ago she is a regular churchgoer (C of E); she was once very pro-therapy, now she is very anti; for a long time she believed passionately in ghosts, now she dismisses them as mere projections; she still considers herself to be an old-fashioned socialist yet, by her pronouncements on the purity of advertising and her endless quest for book sales, it is obvious she has now reconstructed herself as a capitalist. ‘Of course,’ she says, another conversational trope. ‘Of course people are contradictory. I see no real virtue in consistency.’

An English teacher, a friend of a friend, once said she had a shallow personality: was he on to something? ‘No. Absolutely not. On the contrary. I think it was because I would just sit and smile sweetly under attack. I wouldn’t burst into tears or react. So they would just dismiss me.’ Does that make her manipulative? ‘Yes of course. I hope so.’ She purses her plump lips. ‘No. No, I do not try to manipulate or blackmail or put thoughts into people’s heads. No. I think I’d get on much better if I did. But I can’t concentrate for long enough. My mind keeps reverting to fiction.’

She coils her beads on the table again. ‘I think women who didn’t have father figures are bad at flirting and being manipulative because they never learned to use their fathers to do their mothers down. I was no good at competing. At the sign of any competition I left.’

As a child she once accused another child of throwing sweets at her and wept until a nurse came to comfort her. ‘I knew it was an accident but preferred to be miserable, for the sheer drama of it. Later in life I’d treat lovers and husbands this way. Taking offence and suffering – knowing in my heart that they aren’t to blame, that I just wanted a drama, my turn to be victim.’

Is she difficult to live with? ‘I do often go into a world of my own and my children do complain of that and bang the table and shout: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”‘

In 1996 her son Tom, then 27, was caught in possession of 15,000 Ecstasy tablets in Amsterdam. He was given a three-year prison sentence. Did she feel responsible? ‘Of course, I wonder whether I should have done this or that, but I didn’t and I couldn’t, and actually it worked out well. It did him a power of good. Prison works in Holland. They thought he was a genius. He started to paint and learn computer graphics, and came out and slipped benignly back into society. But, of course, you worry.’

She believes it is impossible to be a good writer and a good mother at the same time. ‘It is. Of course it is. And I would always be a good writer. I sometimes sent my children out in odd socks.’ She smiles. ‘Being a good mother is often a matter of public display. The Jungian view is that the child is born perfect and it is the mother who determines its character and, if it goes wrong, then it is the mother’s fault. This is a terrible burden and I can understand why the birth-rate among professional classes has fallen. Who would embark on such a task?’

Her novels tend to be dark satires on the battle of the sexes. There are few sympathetic men in them, indeed most of her male characters are callous and idle. ‘I started writing because I felt a female view of the world should be registered. I couldn’t relate to any of the heroines written by men: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and so on. I had not the slightest understanding of what Madame Bovary was about. I just thought, “Why couldn’t she have gone on having lovers?” I always thought there was something wrong with me, but it was the writers. Then I got good at writing novels and felt I had a duty to carry on. The fact that I am still trying to get it right more than 30 years later amounts to a failure, I suppose. But everything you do is a failure, in as much as it wasn’t what you set out to do.’

It is an unexpected comment, not least because this is a not a woman burdened by self-doubt. Perhaps it is a part of her ‘truth therapy’, perhaps it is just another example of her charming, frivolous mendacity. After all, she gives the appearance of candour but she clearly inhabits, as she puts it, ‘a world of her own’ – a fiction writer’s world.

It is time for the unserious Fay Weldon to visit her serious mother, who lives in a retirement home nearby. Her mother doesn’t come out of the autobiography in a particularly favourable light, I point out. Has she been given a copy of it to read yet? The author mouths the word, ‘No.’ A ghost of a smile. ‘Not yet. I’ve been rather putting it off.”‘