By former WGGB Wessex Chair Martin Day
Former WGGB member Fay Weldon, who died on 4 January, will be mourned by all who knew her and loved her – or felt they knew her through encounter with her diverse work. To try to summarise her life – a one-off, larger than life, a risk-taker – is to prompt clichés that Fay herself might not have minded: to her, nothing mattered more than entertaining, than the power of story, even if one has a more laudable objective in mind. In that sense, she was a writers’ writer: to the end, she was hard-working, business-minded, and at least as interested in the nuts and bolts of writing as the “art”.
For Fay, everything was grist to the mill. A little over two years ago, her private life became a newspaper story once again, splashed across the front page of the Daily Mail. To say that she lived like a character from one of her novels (or should that be the other way round?) is another cliché, but only because it is true.
Born in Birmingham, but brought up in New Zealand, Fay returned to the UK, aged 15, just after the Second World War. After studying at St Andrews, she moved to London in the early 1950s, working first for the Foreign Office (she had to leave because she was pregnant) and then in advertising. (A rejected slogan, “Vodka gets you drunker quicker”, shows an early directness and humour.) She began writing for radio and television in 1963, producing plays for ITV and BBC and writing three episodes of Upstairs Downstairs, including the first in 1971. In the end, she wrote over 70 scripts for television alone, including a wonderful adaptation of Pride & Prejudice in 1980.
Her first novel was published in 1967 and was followed by over 30 others. She was happy to work in any medium that would pay her – and famously indulged in product placement in her 2000 novel, The Bulgari Connection. Her novels ranged from family saga to dystopian science fiction, and many were adapted for television and film (most famously The Life and Loves of a She-Devil in 1986, but also The Cloning of Joanna May, Growing Rich, which she adapted herself, and Puffball, adapted by her son Dan). She also wrote non-fiction, journalism and, in 2018, a ‘Handbook for the Rejected Writer’, Why Will No-one Publish My Novel?
As well as being shortlisted for the Booker (for Praxis, in 1978) and chairing its judging committee in 1983, Fay was a juror at the 46th Berlin International Film Festival in 1986. In 2006 she became Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University and six years later she began a long association with Bath Spa University, only “retiring” (or, rather, being awarded Emeritus status) in 2021. That is where I first met Fay, in 2017. Seminars with Fay were a highlight of my time studying at Bath Spa: they weren’t always easy, but Fay was dogged and dedicated in her defence of writing that she liked, would read anything and everything submitted to her, and was always more interested in building up than knocking down. I was delighted when she was appointed as my manuscript tutor and I sometimes think she believed more in the novel I was writing than I did. I am sure that everyone who learnt from her will have their own treasured memories of Fay’s insight, encouragement and sheer bloody-mindedness. We had to keep reminding ourselves that Fay was (then) in her mid-80s, given that she was still lecturing, still hosting fabulous parties, still writing and publishing book after book.
When she retired from Bath Spa, she said, modestly, that she hoped she had made a difference, however small. It was one of the privileges of my life to be able to tell her that, yes, she had.
You can read Martin Day’s full obituary on his blog.
Martin is pictured above (right) with Fay Weldon at the Yeovil Literary Festival in 2018.