Fifty years after The Female Eunuch, the writer tells Valerie Grove about unsexy Clive James, her transgender war and scalping herself
Germaine Greer has been an Oldie heroine since The Oldie began. Richard Ingrams, who used to weep on her shoulder when his first marriage was falling apart, founded his new magazine in February 1992 and gave Germaine a column. It was called ‘From Stump Cross Roundabout’ – the Essex fastness she inhabited: a pair of millhouses in dull countryside with ‘not a single handsome room’. But she waxed rapturous about the vast East Anglian skies, which she’d been ‘too busy projecting myself’ to notice in her Cambridge days. ‘I am so full of joy,’ she wrote in the first Oldie, ‘I hardly dare move in case I spill some.’
I arrive under a pall of cloud just as she is wrestling with a new problem over the sale of The Mills. The three-year saga of this sale — its price cut to less than £1 million — could ‘suck the marrow out of the bones’, as she put it. The buyers wanted her out in a fortnight, and she hadn’t yet found a bungalow to rent. She might end up sleeping on a park bench. ‘Typical Greer problem,’ she said.
I recall (she doesn’t) where we first met. It was in the summer of love, 4th June 1967, at the Granta party at Cambridge: Michael Frayn, Clive James, Ted Hughes and so on. There stood La Greer, PhD, Shakespearean scholar and star of Footlights. Long, lean and drop-dead gorgeous in pre-Raphaelite curls and a mini-dress seemingly made of chain mail, she held forth, surrounded by awestruck men.
At 83, she has aged carelessly and without artifice. As she said in The Change (1991), the menopause liberated her from vanity. She scorns women who squander fortunes ‘fashioning themselves into ghastly simulacra of youthful bodies’. Accident-prone, she described in gruesome detail how she fell downstairs, scalping herself on her furniture, just as she was due to fly off on a speaking tour of Australia.
She uses a stick to walk from her workshop (its filing cabinets empty, since she sold her archive to Melbourne University for £1.8 million), past doves and geese, up the path to the creeper-covered house which already wears an unlived-in air. Handsome pieces of furniture – some Biedermeier; quite valuable – have been promised to friends.
Her assistant Lorraine offered coffee, which she would fetch from the café in the village.
‘Don’t you have a kitchen here any more?’ I asked.
‘I haven’t bought coffee for about ten years,’ said Germaine. ‘Can’t be arsed.’
Really? I associate her with high standards of hospitality as of horticulture. She used to bestride her meticulously organised orchards like Vita Sackville-West. She was ‘Rose Blight’, Private Eye’s gardening columnist, a walking Stearn’s dictionary of plant names from Alchemilla to Zygopetalum. ‘What I’d like,’ she said now, ‘is a bottle of prosecco and a straw.’
What luck! With uncanny prescience I had a bottle of chilled prosecco in my bag, which The Oldie’s photographer later served with a flourish, in flutes.
I had also brought my copy of The Female Eunuch, signed ‘Carry on!’ in Greer’s bold hand at the launch party over 50 years ago – in October 1970 – organised by her fellow Melbourne convent girl Carmen Callil. Tucked inside the book were the notes for my review for the Evening Standard. I was 24 and a child bride. ‘Wives downtrodden, lonely. Men’s loathing, women’s guilt. Terms of contempt: skirt, tail,’ I wrote. ‘Women must value themselves more highly.’ Alongside these jottings is a list of things to do that weekend along with my review. ‘Vacuum,’ it says. ‘Clean fridge. Kitchen floor.’
‘Well, someone has to do it,’ says Germaine. ‘What nobody wants is to have to do it all the time.’ As she has, having been without a cleaner since March.
The Female Eunuch, in print for half a century, offered women no solutions to having it all. That wasn’t its aim. Dr Greer was no equality feminist: ‘To have women merely doing what men do would achieve nothing.’ (She herself would never aspire to drive a bus or command an army.) The goal was to make us think. Its standout theme, ‘Women have very little idea of how much men hate them’, still applies: two women are murdered by a partner every week.
The book’s opening assertion, ‘The sex of a person is attested by every cell in his body,’ was a foretaste of her clash with the transgender lobby (The Oldie made her Iconoclast of the Year in 2016).
She never intended to become embroiled in this (and her Cambridge college, Newnham, denied her a Fellowship because of it). ‘You can’t cut your dick off and call yourself a woman: you are a mutilated man,’ she says, but this is ‘an opinion, not a prohibition’.
April Ashley is our sister, she wrote in Eunuch, surgically fashioned into ‘a masquerade of femininity’. ‘Let them suck on that,’ she says now. She won’t change a word. ‘It’s out there. It was of its time. I’m not going to doctor it now.’
She has never succumbed to social media and why should she? She gets quite enough publicity (and trolling) without it. ‘I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have Facebook and I have no idea what is the point of that vomitorium the Twittersphere.’ Go ahead, call her mad: she’s used to it (see her collection entitled The Madwoman’s Underclothes).
Far from being de-platformed, she remains in constant demand, always greeted by prolonged applause. If anyone stands up and says, ‘I don’t agree,’ she zips back, ‘Good! I don’t want you to agree with me. Go on disagreeing!’
She never tempers her words out of consideration for sensitivities and perhaps this is a key: when I mention Greta Thunberg, she says, ‘Well, little Greta is autistic … and I am beginning to suspect there is a stripe of autism down my back.’ She adds, ‘My mother thought other people didn’t exist.’
The mystery that remains is her absurd ‘marriage’ – lasting three weekends – to Paul du Feu, who posed naked for a coy Cosmo gatefold in 1972. ‘He married me because he hated me,’ she replies. ‘You know who he married after me, don’t you – Maya Angelou. He was a very submissive husband to Maya. I think he wanted a dominatrix. But that’s not what I do, contrary to popular belief.’
She did try to bear a child. At 37, in 1976, she told me all about it. There was ‘a flotilla’ of men in her life – one was Martin Amis. What with her having only one ovary, constantly travelling and the most eligible father being in America, it was difficult: ‘Trying to get pregnant is like playing billiards in the Sahara with the pockets in the ocean.’
She’s been a godmother 14 times. I doubt she’d have been a contented mother: she once said all the mothers she knew were ‘the walking wounded’. ‘Babies are so adorable. But that little body that used to fit you so well,’ she says, hugging herself, ‘turns into an Anglepoise.’
Often in the 1970s she was squired by handsome Old Etonians – who compete over which she said was best in bed.
Among them were Jonathan Aitken and The Oldie’s apparently well-endowed Memorial Service correspondent James Hughes-Onslow. ‘But I was also enmeshed with Willie Shawcross at the same time,’ she now recalls. She added, days later, ‘I’ve thought of another Etonian: Heathcote Williams’ (the late poet and visionary). Their appeal, she explained, was their way with words.
‘They were taught to write the best English: with clarity, without mannerisms or posturing.’
Giving an after-lunch speech once, she invited each table to submit one question. ‘The very first I opened said, “What’s Clive James like in bed?” ’
But James was not among her acknowledged lovers, from Fellini to Paul Crocodile Dundee Hogan.
On BBC2’s Friday Night, Saturday Morning in 1982, she appeared with James, reminding him of how they met at Sydney University, when he cut a fine figure. ‘You’d just done your Nasho [National Service], you still had hair, you were so fit,’ she reminded him. ‘But just … not sexy.’
When they did cabarets together, James fell in love with her, she says: ‘In his archives are songs he wrote for me.’ (Me too! I have a folder of songs written for me, a few years later. James, we agree, was always falling in love with people.)
She’s been watching daytime TV in lockdown, ‘in a state of simmering rage’. Why do TV hostesses wear four-inch stilettos ‘just to sit on a sofa!’? But she loves the bedside manner of Dr Amir Khan on GPs: Behind Closed Doors.
She urged me to try this programme on Channel 5. I saw one young man suffering from a tight foreskin when he masturbates, and an older chap with scrotal itching.
No wonder she is such an authority on matters genital and gynaecological, and on medical malpractice.
‘There is very little we don’t know about Germaine,’ Dr Anthony Clare said, when she sat in his Psychiatrist’s Chair. He knew about how she lost her virginity, her rape, her abortions and miscarriages, her naked posing – including her famous anti-porn gesture of displaying her anus for Suck magazine in 1972. Was there a private Greer at all? ‘Probably not.’
She is her own woman, blithely sui generis. Of course she won’t sign up to the #MeToo movement, even if Helena Kennedy reproaches her as a fallen idol: ‘Germaine, I am so disappointed in you.’
Greer joins no clubs or sisterhoods. Of course she found the Big Brother house intolerable – but, with the fee and the articles she wrote, the show brought in £100,000 for her rainforest in Queensland, which remains her passion.
I asked her once why she’d left the ‘Recreations’ space blank in Who’s Who. She replied, ‘I don’t have hobbies. I do everything with all my might and main.’
This includes absorbing facts and seeming omniscient. I know: we were once fellow panellists, with Stephen Fry and Sebastian Faulks, on a staged University Challenge, dons v alumni (I was the token dunce). She warned us years ago that ‘We’re more likely to be destroyed by a pandemic than to populate another planet.’ She knows how to combat moths in cashmere with tiny, parasitic trichogramma wasps, and how to propagate mosses to preserve the biodiversity of her rainforest.
She can veer totally off-piste: ‘Women have destroyed our political system, in my view.’ She launches into a diatribe against ‘the shambles of Theresa May’s miserable time in office: women sitting around cackling and squawking, wearing those earrings with huge lumps on them, looking like temple donkeys in Kerala – and poor old Theresa tiptoeing through that cornfield’. Exhilarating – but too complicated to decode.
The sight of a cut-out cat on her windowsill prompted me to mention that my cat, Bosie, aged 16, missing presumed dead for the past nine weeks, had suddenly snaked through the catflap at midnight the night before. I’d scooped him up and fed him but he instantly vanished again. ‘My cat Digger is like that,’ said Greer. ‘He’s my cat the way so many men have been my man. Never know where he is, or when I’ll see him again. He’ll turn up when all other avenues have been exhausted. Story of my life.’
To see Greer at her glamorous, brilliant best, take a look at Town Bloody Hall, the 1971 debate in which she made mincemeat of Norman Mailer with his ‘picayune’ brain. There’s a clip in Clare Beavan’s 2018 TV documentary, Germaine Bloody Greer.
People constantly seek her comments – on Mrs America, Bridget Jones and Meghan Markle, who she predicted would bolt. A TV company invited her to examine ‘power couples’, one couple being Sir Elton John and David Furnish.
‘Their two sons were born to two women, but David Furnish is the “mother” on their birth certificates,’ she says indignantly. ‘How did we give that title up? Are we going to have a world where families can be all-male?’
Well said. Carry on, Germaine!