Instant Expert's Kit - Fay Weldon

What has our favourite feminist mouthed off about now? She revealed this week that she worked for MI6's "Information Research Department" in 1952, writing anti-Polish propaganda for the media. She recalls the "frisson of excitement" as she was asked to turn her back when spies walked past.

Nothing like high security, is there? Is she supposed to be talking about this?

Writers have never taken intelligence too seriously - though they all seem to have worked for the spooks. Christopher Marlowe was sent on top-level missions to France and Flanders for Elizabeth I in the early 1590s; Daniel Defoe established an appalling reputation for treachery, before acting as England's main spy during the Act of Union in 1707. Even the boyish Arthur Ransome had an extraordinary career for MI6 in Russia, from 1913-18, and ended up eloping with Trotsky's secretary. In 1928 Somerset Maugham published Ashenden, a collection of stories so accurate that Churchill ordered the destruction of 14 of them, while Russian intelligence immediately set up a special unit to read British spy novels for clues.

Was Weldon always destined to join these rather shifty ranks?

By all accounts, the most outspoken thing she ever said until her thirties was "Go to work on an egg", when she worked for advertisers Ogilvy, Benson and Mather (with Salman Rushdie, as it happens). But, if you choose to see them, the roots of her feminism were already evident. Aged 14 when the war ended, she moved into an all-female environment with her mother, grandmother and sister. She was accepted for a place at St Andrew's University only because her real first name - Franklin - led them to think she was a boy.

So what happened?

Already an established writer and successful in advertising, she was invited on to a TV programme to discuss the breaking up of the Miss World event in 1968 by militant American feminists. Her virulent, on-air support of the US "viragos" earned her the reputation of being a "mad, bad and dangerous to know" proponent of women's lib. Her novels often feature female characters crushed by an oppressive patriarchal society - though some of her heroines in the end carry out vicious vendettas against their menfolk. In her famous second novel, Down Among the Women (1971), she declared: "Men are irrelevant." Still, hers was not an exclusively anti-male line: Weldon portrayed women as bad and men as worse.

And she's maintained her position at the vanguard of British feminism, has she?

Not exactly. Many believe that, like the heroine of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1984), she has completely altered her appearance in recent years - both ideologically and physically. She has had plastic surgery - "Why side with the enemy?" she asks, in reference to nature - and has cheerfully come out as a Harvey Nichols habituee. She also has advocated "masculinism" - compassion for men - but only for those males losing out in the complex new sexual and social order. Most recently she was accused of "apostasy" by Polly Toynbee after she called for rape to be deglamorised. (In fact, her main point was that she would rather be raped than murdered.) The rumpus was typical of Weldon, whose pronouncements can be relied upon to irritate just about anyone.

Duncan Parrish

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!