One of fiction's battlers, Fay Weldon, was shaped by her early life in New Zealand. By BRONWYN SELL.
Fay Weldon is apprehensive about visiting New Zealand this month. "I'm rather dreading it," she says. "People are going to say it wasn't like that, this never happened or that never happened, or what do you mean, you got the dates wrong? Somehow it's their country and they want you to get it right, and you know if you haven't, they'll tell you.
"But it doesn't say anything awful about New Zealand, does it?"
What we are talking about on this chilly spring day in Hampstead is Auto Da Fay, Weldon's autobiography, and no, it doesn't say anything awful about New Zealand.
It's just that somewhere in New Zealand a girl called Beverley, whom everyone hated at school because she had cross-eyes and spots and was smelly, might have become a 70-something-year-old woman.
So might have one Alison Grey, whom Weldon fell in love with at Christchurch Girls' High School. And when they read Weldon's latest book, they may feel resentful that the classmate with the red ribbon and fair hair parted in the centre grew up and wrote about them from her, undoubtedly subjective, perspective.
Weldon, New Zealand conceived, British born, New Zealand raised, British settled, toying with the idea of one day moving back, sits at a long wooden table in her gracious brick house in north London, surrounded by art and books by Pepys, Freud, Waugh, Rushdie, Greene.
She is welcoming and frank. Her life, after all, has literally become an open book - and she laughs readily.
The house is cosy and modest, with the lived-in feel of unvacuumed carpets and a clutter of books, newspapers, handbags, key-rings and coffee cups. Beyond an impeccable garden and tall hedge, a dignified early evening silence has settled on the green-and-brick established streets of Hampstead.
Outwardly, there is little about the famous novelist or her surroundings that could be ascribed to New Zealand aside from a windbreaker jacket she swears by, emblazoned with the slogan: "100% Pure New Zealand".
Certainly there is not a trace of a New Zealand accent that was drilled well out of her on the boat aboard which she left the country abruptly in 1946 with her mother, Margaret, and sister, Jane, a team of three which Weldon describes as the survival unit.
"Oh my toe is frozen in the snow. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Mr Brown won renown, wore his britches upside-down. Move the face, open the mouth, don't keep your chin in your chest and speak up."
By the time the Rangitoto reached the British port of Tilbury, the 14-year-old colonial refugee had become English. She was immediately absorbed into the tumult of post-war England and her upbringing was cast aside. It simply didn't occur to anybody that you would have to acclimatise.
In New Zealand, Weldon had been an outsider, a homie. Arriving in London was like returning home. But, says Weldon, the New Zealandness is still there, hidden somewhere beneath the rounded vowels.
"There's this extraordinary practicality. New Zealand girls don't seem to put on airs. If there's a snowstorm, they'll just shovel the snow away. If anything unexpected happens, they can cope with it," she says.
"Then once you've dealt with it, you can afford to have an emotion about it. Whereas you find English girls sort of go to pieces, they don't know what to do. They think someone should come along and rescue them."
Weldon has needed it, that strength, particularly in the first 32 years of her life, those tackled in her autobiography.
The first upheaval of her life was a literal one. Her mother Margaret was three months pregnant during the 1931 Napier earthquake, during which Weldon's father Frank deserted the family for the first time. It took another 32 years for Weldon's life to settle.
But this is not the story of Fay Weldon the writer. She does not become Weldon until the third-to-last page. Life falls in cycles, she explains, tracing loops with her finger on to the unpolished wood. Hers falls into three, she says, drawing them. Auto Da Fay is No 1.
This story is of Franklin Birkinshaw, the bewildered younger daughter in a dysfunctional but loving family. (Her mother was so certain the baby would be a boy she didn't bother to think up a girl's name - and in numerology, the name was identical to William Shakespeare.) It is also the story of Fay Birkinshaw the confused teenager and lovelorn university student, Fay Davies the copywriter and unmarried mother, Fay Bateman the wife of a sadist. Fay the survivor.
Weldon has since become Fox, but that's another story - Fay Weldon part two, or maybe part three, depending on whether she decides her third marriage in 1995 ended a loop or began one.
Like her novels, Weldon's autobiography is wry and often dark. Suicide seems a natural cause of death for those around her, mental illness an inevitable state of mind, marriages don't last long and ghosts lurk weeping in the hallways. Her life is dominated by women. Most men are bit players, unflatteringly rendered. Weldon part one, in 366 pages.
Weldon part three is dressed down in a casual navy top, patterned trousers, sneakers, lank blond hair, almost apologetic smile. She has spent the day moving her now 95-year-old mother, Margaret, into a new rest home, at her mother's insistence.
Weldon considers Margaret the heroine of her life. Margaret raised her then-inseparable daughters, "Jane 'n' Fay", alone in Christchurch after their father headed to the North Island. She took them back to England as teenagers, and apart from one memorable slip when her marriage was falling apart and Margaret returned "home" to England leaving her daughters at only 4 and 5 with their father, she was as constant as men were fickle.
Starting then, when she rushed back home to Christchurch where Fay lay ill with polio, she repeatedly packed up her life to return to her adult daughters in times of strife. Margaret is about to become famous, but Weldon suspects she'll be more upset at the illustration on the book jacket than the words inside.
The illustration, of a young Weldon and her older sister Jane (ill-fated, like many of the characters) was painted in 1938 by Rita Angus, a friend of their father. The sisters wear identical red and white checked dresses with white collars, green cardigans and rosy cheeks. Jane's eyes are deep brown, Weldon's are huge and bright blue, almost turquoise.
Margaret despised its hint of caricature and hard edges and left the painting behind, in a dark corridor, when they packed for London. When a friend ran to the gangway with it, crying, "You left this, you left this", Margaret nearly dropped it overboard, but politeness prevailed, and she asked the friend to return it to Angus.
Weldon part three has the same eyes, although there is less of them to see now the sockets have caved in a little.
The sun has been fickle today, battling for space with black clouds. Now in the twilight the light is harsh, filtering through the new spring leaves on the trees outside to fill the creases in Weldon's face. She often presses her hands into her face as she thinks, sometimes resting on a cheek, sometimes covering and distorting her face.
This is the beginning of open season on Fay Weldon, who is more accustomed to creating the characters than being them. Weldon says she doesn't normally dwell on the past - the New Zealand "get on with it" trait again - but this month by virtue of her autobiography, she's reliving it, over and over, with endless media interviews and book tours.
She's still not quite sure why she wrote the book. "In a way, you wish you hadn't done it. You really wish you hadn't done it. Because, you know, it seems a silly sort of thing to do," she says. "I don't know, why do you write any book? You don't know, except it's there, so you write it. And it's too late then.
"I mean, I left lots out, I did." She laughs. "I could do another book on those years, on the bits you leave out."
Weldon writes in the book that a general pattern dominates most lives. That, like waves on an ocean, nothing happens and nothing happens and then all of a sudden everything happens.
In fact, there are few pages in Weldon's book in which nothing happens. She tumbles from crisis to crisis, but always manages to recover. Through the many violent swings between crises and peace in her early life, Weldon remembered the summers spent with her father in the Coromandel as the Golden Age.
"Red pohutukawa trees leaned down from the cliffs to meet the rocky sea-line, where cormorants shrieked and dived, past rough shacks where Maori, brown, beautiful, glistening, lived and fished, and on to Coromandel bay, and the ghost town of Coromandel itself. And even then, as a child, I knew how privileged I was to be in that place, at that time, in the Golden Age."
Weldon wonders whether one day she'll return to New Zealand for good. In the past she says, she was not torn between England and New Zealand because there was no way she could go home.
"And by the time I could afford it, I didn't have the time, or I didn't have that feeling any more."
Now, she says, she's torn. "London gets a bit funny, you know. And even email's made such a difference to New Zealand. Somehow, it's around the corner, really."
But her family would have to go with her. The family bond is strinkingly important. In later years (parts two and three) men took stronger, more positive roles. Weldon has four sons of whom she is immensely proud, finally found love with second husband Ron Weldon, and despite divorce and his death, found it again with Nick Fox, with whom she lives. The fate of her sister Jane, who withdrew into mental illness before dying young, is a source of obvious pain.
When Jane died, Weldon's analyst, Miss Rowlands, said she was like a walnut withered in its shell. Weldon thinks Jane had more of a life than that, and loved and lost and had children and wrote poetry, and sure, occasionally went mad, but was well acquainted with God. "I think she was a rose which fell off its stem in a storm, instead of waiting to grow old and blowsy and drift away like the rest of us."
Jane's is probably the ghost Weldon will never be able to exorcise, but she has seen too many others and, once the wave of publicity subsides, will happily return to fiction. She is now co-writing a book with an American woman. "It's turned into a novel about writing a novel - which seems to me will be a good way to explain the things you do." Not that fiction writing is something that can be taught, she says.
Weldon, who believes that writing comes from internal forces, not external ones, doesn't go in for writing workshops or creative writing courses. For her it seemed the natural path, once she got all that early stuff digested. Her parents and grandparents were nearly all writers, with the exception of her grandmother Nona, a pianist.
After 32 years Weldon had enough life experience to draw on. She had been a copywriter in London for years (famous for a slogan "Go to work on an egg" for the British egg marketing board, says every profile of her), and says writing novels was simply a case of drawing the words out and focusing on selling an idea, rather than a product.
The idea behind her autobiography is that life falls into patterns which repeat through the generations.
She stopped the book rather abruptly partly because she did not know how to continue. "I can already see it - it's a trilogy - which means I probably will end up writing it," she says, almost absent-mindedly, as if the thought of finishing the story has just occurred to her.
"The story just gets more difficult to tell because of the feelings of those involved, on the whole," she says.
"What happened then was all so long ago that, really, even the living are hardly going to mind it. But as it gets to the next stage, there are people's sensibilities to consider, and your own. But we'll see, we'll see."
* Fay Weldon will speak at a New Zealand Herald/Dymocks Literary lunch this month.
When: 12 noon, May 28
Where: Sheraton Hotel, Symonds St, Auckland City
Bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone Tracey on 366-2095
One of fiction's battlers, Fay Weldon, was shaped by her early life in New Zealand. By BRONWYN SELL.