The end of a rather dreary summer and the approaching autumn has made me remember the marvellous September Song by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill where, in old age, memories are recalled with fond acceptance. I’m fortunate in that my publishing memoir, Fulfilment & Betrayal, is still in print and what my wavering memory has forgotten, my words can be recalled. I thought it might be fun to recall one or two old events, so here’s the first – my meeting with Germaine Greer when my book Women was published in 1987:
‘Germaine Greer had her main chance ahead of the field when the Observer commissioned her to interview me before the other reviewers got started on pouring scorn on the whole undertaking and lighting the fuse to try to blast me and the book into oblivion. She kicked off with a definition of vanity publishing and how it had become the preserve of writers unable to find a publisher. Then she described the book, although she only had a proof copy, and its lapis lazuli cover. She mentioned the number of women interviewed and how the book was being puffed in glossy magazines with a studio portrait of its author, whose ‘effrontery is balanced only by his charm, which many (men) find oleaginous’.
‘The day I went to interview him, I had a badly blistered mouth, four broken teeth and one leg hugely swollen and leaking from an insect bite. The dog-like gaze of the brown eyes gave no hint that I looked anything but adorable.
‘The interview was hard-hitting, laden with sarcasm and not a little bitchiness, peppered with words like ‘bullshit’ and such observations as, ‘Attallah’s elephantine innocence surrounded him like a scented fog.’ Germaine was provocative at every turn as she tried to make me lose my composure and put up some platitudes that she could then shoot out of the air like clay pigeons. In fact I enjoyed the encounter; I had the sense that she was somehow struggling within herself to cast aside her brashness in favour of a more sympathetic approach. The chemistry between us turned out to be less conducive to hostility than expected and neither of us minded the cut and thrust of the exchange. At the close of the interview she said: ‘It’s nice to think that rich women are working out a new dance in which the woman isn’t always travelling backwards, but that hasn’t altered the fact that most women are not even on the floor. To the women living in misery in this country, your book is a mockery.’
‘But the book itself isn’t against these women,’ I challenged her. ‘No. It is innocent of their very existence. In Australia we used to have a system where you bored a hole through a book and hung it on a string in the lavatory. You’d read a page, rip it off and wipe your behind on it. 1,200 double sheets for £15. Looked at that way, Women’s not such bad value.’‘According to Greer, my reaction to this remark was to laugh disarmingly, ‘widening the brown eyes’. ‘OK, OK. But do you think the book’s a fiasco? Really?’‘Yep. But you’ll probably get away with it.’
‘The idea of Germaine Greer using my book to wipe her behind gave me a measure of comfort. It is not every day that a book embodying the thoughts and aspirations of 289 women is used to cleanse the lower regions of the body of a feminist icon. I felt I was in good company.
‘A month after the contentious but curiously affectionate article appeared in the Observer magazine, I happened to find myself sitting next to Germaine at a luncheon hosted by the editor of ‘Londoner’s Diary’ in the Standard. Whether this placement was accidental or a deliberate tactic to liven up matters I do not know. I decided to take it all in my stride and refused to betray any embarrassment. Germaine, in fact, seemed more on edge than I was, but she adopted the policy of attack as the best form of defence and opened the conversation by saying she had listened to BBC radio’s Any Questions programme, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, when I was on the panel. To her utter surprise she had heard me say that, if I were to be a woman, I would choose to be Mrs Thatcher. Quite aside from her obvious disapproval of my choice, she said that if only I could be less flippant and give the matter more serious consideration, I would surely realize, in my misguided confusion, that being Mrs Thatcher must mean having to sleep with Denis. Perish the thought! I was reduced to speechlessness and had to admit Germaine had got the better of me on this occasion.’