Books: Her wifely ministrations

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A Slight and Delicate Creature: The Memoirs of Margaret Cook

Weidenfeld pounds 20

There is a colour photograph on the back cover of this book of Robin and Margaret Cook in brightly patterned shirts, grinning into the camera. Above their heads, a violinist smiles benignly, as if bestowing a blessing on the happy couple. "Hungarian serenade for the silver wedding", reads the caption, referring to a trip the Cooks made to that country in 1994. "Like all our holidays it was packed with incident," Mrs Cook records, recalling a misunderstanding over fares on the Budapest metro. "On more than one occasion we were enticed into wine cellars to sample locally made wine, which was excellent."

Packed with incident indeed! On an earlier holiday, when their two sons were still at school, all four Cooks went riding in the New Forest. One of the children fell off his pony and neither parent was able to assist, distracted by the task of trying to control their own mettlesome mounts. "I'm afraid," admits the author, "the Cook family did not cover themselves with glory that day." But they persevered and the elder Cooks eventually became competent riders who even attempted the occasional jump, a progression memorialised in a photograph of "Phyllis and me going well across country" in 1990. Phyllis, just to keep the record straight in view of the lurid revelations which have already appeared elsewhere, is a horse.

So what did you expect? The high points of Mrs Cook's narrative, so to speak - her accounts of her husband's infidelities and the night she found him passed out on the floor clutching a brandy bottle - have already been rehearsed elsewhere. Long before the book was published last Monday, we knew that the Foreign Secretary had unfeelingly dumped his wife of 28 years in a VIP lounge at Heathrow - they were about to depart on a riding holiday in the United States- after receiving a telephone call from the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell. Mr Cook's affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan, was about to be exposed in The News of the World and he took a hasty decision to abandon his wife for his mistress, leaving Mrs Cook shocked and distraught.

Instead of boarding a plane, the unhappy couple returned to Mr Cook's official London residence. A painful discussion followed, during which "he wanted to talk through why I still loved him". Mrs Cook's understandably

furious reaction was that "if he expected me to talk eloquently of the breadth and depth of my love at that juncture, he was sadly mistaken". Refusing to abandon her pride, she decided against falling on her knees and begging him to stay. "Even then, though I loved him, I despised much about him; and he knew it," she explains in an anguished prologue.

It is not hard to conclude, at this early stage of the book, that the couple were at cross purposes as they seem to have been for much of this strange, very nearly inexplicable union. It seems likely that Mr Cook, far from wanting his soon-to-be-ex-wife to grovel, was trying to discover why someone who disliked him so much would even consider allowing the marriage to continue.

Of course Mrs Cook's account of their life together is skewed by hindsight, by the knowledge of that final, very public wound that he inflicted upon her. But her memoirs paint a vivid picture of a relationship in which two people, one ambitious, anguished and intellectual, the other conventional and over- controlled, hardly ever talked about anything - giving rise to the seething brew of resentment, rage and envy which has spilled over into this bilious book.

The early chapters, which record Mrs Cook's scholastic exploits as artlessly as one of those circular letters which fall out of Christmas cards - "musical developments this year were Grade V, which I passed with distinction" - shade into an uncomfortable narrative in which self-justification vies with ghastly vignettes from a doomed marriage. On holiday, it was their custom to reckon up on paper the various amounts each had spent, and settle the difference with a cheque. On one occasion, Mrs Cook left the arithmetic to her husband, "aware that the balance of cash was in his favour. I wrote out the cheque; but something niggled away at the back of my mind. I returned to the sheet on which he had done his rough reckonings, and discovered that he'd mixed up sums that I owed with sums that should be shared". When she pointed out that oversight, "he showed no remorse". Perhaps Mr Cook was wondering, as he bleakly studied his sums, why he hadn't simply married his bank manager.

Mrs Cook rails against his husband's ambition, his dedication to his career, his habit of intervening when she was correcting some misdemeanour on the part of the children - "making my process of upbring more difficult", in her revealing phrase. Her vocabulary is coy, especially when it comes to sex, and full of inept circumlocutions ("he wanted my wifely ministrations"). She is hugely impressed by famous people, recording in one particularly excruciating passage that "space does not allow for the raptures of a lady describing the purchase of clothes and accessories" for a banquet on the royal yacht Britannia at which she was to meet the Queen. A more likely spouse for a left-wing politician is hard to imagine, unless the Cooks - despite the impression conveyed by this book - were once very much in love.

The mystery is why they stayed together for so long, a question which does not receive an adequate response in these memoirs. Mrs Cook's prose lacks both insight and fluency, ensuring that punters are likely to skip large chunks of her narrative and search instead for the juicy bits. The unexpected effect of ploughing through all 300 pages, on this reader at least, was to feel some sympathy with Mr Cook. What his ex-wife has produced is a cautionary tale for separating spouses - when you leave, don't forget to take the holiday snaps with you - and a compelling argument in favour of divorce.