Friday, June 24, 2005

Go To Work On This Book

Fay Weldon's punningly titled Auto Da Fay is an exceptionally fine autobiography. I do hope she writes a second volume that covers her life after she became famous.

I often skip the early chapters of autobiographies because it's the subject I'm interested in, not their great-grandfather and his passion for trout fishing. In this case I didn't, because Fay Weldon's account of her early life in New Zealand is fascinating and because some of her family mixed with that rather odd collection of early 20th century intellectuals that included H.G.Wells and Bernard Shaw.
The combination of sexual libertarianism and hypocrisy manifested by some of those people is breathtaking. They believed in the 'Life Force' which actually meant shagging like there was no tomorrow. H.G. Wells was thrown out of the Fabian Society for sleeping with so many of the other members' daughters. But this freedom did not extend to their wives who were expected to take illegitimate children into the family and bring them up as their own.
It reminds me of that oft-quoted remote tribe, one of whose rites of passage was for the teenage boys to perform oral sex on the men. The social anthropologists who recorded this made no value judgements. But many others have pointed out that male-dominated societies have a remarkable knack of dreaming up belief systems that just happen to give the men the maximum amount of sexual pleasure.

Weldon says that Bernard Shaw never slept with his wife, though whether he slept with other people's isn't stated. I've read elsewhere that Baden-Powell on his honeymoon slept alone in a sleeping bag on the hotel balcony. However, since he had children, he must have forced himself to do the deed at some point. Closed his eyes and thought of woggles, I shouldn't wonder.
Someone else who never slept with his wife was Fay Weldon's first husband. She married him for purely mercenary reasons because she was a single mother with no means of support. He was a respectable headmaster and pillar of the local masons. It's possible the poor man was put off sex as a child because his mother tied his hands together every night for six months after she caught him masturbating.

In this section of the book, Weldon switches to the third person to distance herself from the completely alien person that she became for a brief period of her life. It provides a fascinating, alternative perspective on respectable, middle class domestic life in the 1950s, in the same way that Joe Orton's Diaries give an alternative take on life in the sixties.

Weldon's husband at one point suggested that some of his friends could be invited round to attend to her sexual needs but she declined this offer. He also enthusiastically encouraged her in her plan to become a nightclub hostess and she duly went to work in a clip joint off Piccadilly. But she upset her co-workers by having sex for free instead of charging the clients.

In her later career as an advertising copywriter, Weldon is famous for her slogan 'Go To Work On An Egg.' Simple and memorable, it's a classic of the craft. And unlike many of today's examples the double meaning is instantly grasped and free of any obscure or sexual references.
But her proposal for a Smirnoff vodka campaign, that it 'makes you drunk faster', was a little too honest and never used.

Beautifully written, the book records a rather unconventional, disjointed life with unflinching honesty and her essential goodness and intelligence shines through every paragraph. If I followed the silly practice of the arts supplements in awarding stars, I'd unhesitatingly give it five.


At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip, Willie. I shall hunt down Ms Weldon's autobiog forthwith. I've enjoyed most of her novels; they can be wilfully peculiar at times, but she's never afraid to play with narrative form to get the effect she wants, and she has a firm grasp on the fundamentals of how people behave to one another (usually badly).

- Tony -

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Tony, that's a good description of her novels. This morning I was trying to think how I would describe them and I could only come up with 'idiosyncratic'. They also have that strange mystical element which you'll also find in her autobiography.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger cello said...

I am very fond of Fay Weldon. She is a slightly more accessible Iris Murdoch in some ways. I took great comfort, when pregnant, from her book "Puffball" which is all about the resilience of the foetus. As it turned out, the comfort was rather mis-placed; I have been pregnant five times with only one living child to show for it all.

The title of today's blog reminds me of Bernstein's "Candide", his musical based on Voltaire's innocent abroad. There is a very chirpy chorus about the Spanish Inquisition which starts "What a day/What a day/For an auto da fe."

Two things link "Candide" to you Willie; that particular chorus is the precursor to "Springtime for Hitler". And the libretto was written by Stephen Sondheim, in partnership with loads of others like Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker.

Also Willie, you must go and read the thread entitled "Four Last Songs" in the Music section of the Blue Cat Forum. James's friend Paul Pennyfeather is writing about Mahler and wondering why he suddenly got the urge to!

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I read 'Puffball' years ago and it proved an education in the mysteries of female fertility.

I'd forgotten that Sondheim had a hand in 'Candide'. I must write about the great man one day. Was once within two feet of him but too over-awed to speak.

Yes, a Funny Thing has Happened in the Forum. LOL
And double LOL with a side salad of broad beans and cous-cous.
Spooked? I nearly fell off my chair!

At 10:18 AM, Blogger cello said...

Yes, bloody funny.

Do you like Bernstein, and "Candide", Willie? It contains yet another candidate for the world's longest funeral. The words of the final song and chorus are;

"You've been a fool, but so have I,
So come and be my wife.
And let us try, before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good.
We do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow."

Which pretty much sums up what I feel about life.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I've never listened to Candide. As you're rapidly discovering, my ignorance of music is boundless.
Yes, great words.

At 9:53 PM, Anonymous George said...

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