Captain Claret: 'I'm glad my husband was an alcoholic'

Her late husband Nicholas, the co-founder of 'Private Eye', was a notorious drinker and womaniser. But, says the food writer Elisabeth Luard, marrying him was a fast-track to happiness and a successful career
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I'm afraid I've left you a little short of cash," said my husband just before he left the planet, four years ago. "Can you manage?" This was typical of Nicholas, the man I had been married to for 40 years, and who now lay dying. Errant, thoroughly unreliable, financially reckless and with an over-fondness for the bottle (which was largely the reason behind his illness – the aftermath of a liver transplant). It's hardly a description of the traditionally perfect husband, is it? Yet, for me, that's just what Nicholas was.

"Any relation to Nicholas Luard?" Stephen Fry once asked me, as we were recording The Food Quiz on Radio 4. "Only by marriage," I said."Satirical royalty!" cried Stephen.

Nicholas had earnt his admiration: in the 1960s he founded The Establishment Club with Peter Cook, which bankrolled a struggling Private Eye. I knew that the Eye was struggling – I kept the magazine's accounts – and that was how we met.

There was nothing easy about our marriage. I was 21 when we were wed, the groom just five years older. Too young, too green, four children who followed too fast – but Nicholas could recite the works of Chaucer in the language in which they were written, and I, shortchanged of anything but the most rudimentary education, was hungry to learn the things he knew.

My own childhood – father killed in the war, mother married again, not much room at the inn – had taught me that if a door swings, kick it; there might be something interesting on the other side. Though a far more pressing reason to kick a door than curiosity is paying the bills, especially if you're married to a writer who misses deadlines, and there's a form of writer's block that feeds on claret. A necessity to be the one with a reliable income was just one of the wonderful things to come from my marriage to Nicholas.

When he was not in the mood for writing, which, as he had so many other interests, was often, I had no choice but to look for ways to earn a living myself. My first gainful employment, when bills got pressing, was as a natural-history painter. I had put in a year or two at art school and could reproduce birds and flowers in saleable form.

It's hard to think you can be a writer when you're married to a writer and, for a long time, it hadn't occurred to me, but writing about cookery came unusually easily – and the opportunity came because of Nicholas. He was a novelist, a travel writer, was involved in politics; he knew everyone. And when his friend Simon Courtauld, deputy editor of The Spectator, took over as editor of The Field, he remembered I could cook. "Do you think you could write a column?" he said. "How often and how much?" was all I asked. Never mind if I could do it. We needed the money.

I didn't imagine it would turn into a career I'd adore, nor be the thing that would lead to a publishing deal and a series of books that I had enormous amounts of fun writing and researching, often with Nicholas in tow.

I had always loved to cook – which is a problem when you're married to a drinker. Drinkers don't eat. They pick. And when they're off the sauce (it happens when things get rough) they eat chocolate, chew toffees and drink fizzy stuff from cans. Which made it all the more surprising when Nicholas said he'd come along on research trips for my first cookbook – the book that established my name as a food writer, European Peasant Cookery.

The trip was to be a long swing by road, starting in Vienna, heading down through the Balkans to Turkey, up again through Romania and Bulgaria, then on through Scandinavia. "Carry your bags, Miss?" said Nicholas, rolling out the map. It was a brave decision since, as I pointed out, the places along the route would be unlikely to yield anything but drink by thimbleful, and even that was likely to be home-brewed gut-rot. "No matter," said Nicholas. And came along for the ride.

For all the chaos it created, Nicholas's love of unpredictable adventure provided some wonderful memories. Whatever Nicholas wanted to do, he did. And since most of what he got up to was trying to change the world and was always so interesting, I let him get on with it even when it involved skiving, chasing women and running marathons without training. I never complained. Well, I didn't ask questions. Why? Because he was such a wonderful companion.

As for his fondness for the claret, I did occasionally try to stop that. "You can't do anything about it," Nicholas would say, yanking the cork from yet another bottle. "Watch me," I'd sometimes say, pouring the contents down the sink. No easy choice when finances are tight and a man can simply make his way to the off-licence – though when you live, as we did (and I still do) in the wilds of Wales, time can be bought – at least till the next morning.

Nicholas also wrote whatever he wanted. Research – well, let's just say that when naming an Italian character in a novel, he called him Olivetti. The books he set in Africa were a different kettle of spaghetti – they needed real research. A job which fell to me. And I loved it. I adore libraries and saw the task as an exciting opportunity to wangle a Fellowship of the Royal Geographic in Nicholas's name in order to carry out the research. Once, when preparing for a trip across the Kalahari, I found myself in temporary possession of Livingstone's trunk – hand-written diaries, boots, hat; how wonderful is that?

It wasn't only cerebral enhancement that my husband's shortcomings provided me with. When things got bad in the liver department and Nicholas was in and out of hospital, for the first time in my life I joined a gym. "Have a lovely time, sweetheart," said Nicholas with a cheery wave as he disappeared into A&E. I took the advice literally. On the way home each night from hospital-visiting, I escaped the world of ruined bodies and joined whatever exercise class was on the list – Pilates, kick-boxing, whatever. The attraction was partly human contact but the result was that, for the first time in years, I felt as if I once again had a body and brain working in tandem.

The man I married was as attractive, clever and successful as anyone can be. He was also a man who died of drink. But it was wonderful fun while lasted. Some of the time, anyway. And his legacy, bless his little cotton socks, is still bankable.

'My Life as a Wife: Love, Liquor and What To do About the Other Women', by Elisabeth Luard, is published by Timewell Press on 4 September in hardback at £16.99

On sober reflection: How to stay sane when living with an alcoholic

1. Remember that it's not your fault

If a person wants to drink, they will

2. It's not a disease either

If it was, you'd have caught it

3. Power up

Take up weight-lifting. You'll need it. Nursing requires strong arms

4. Hang on to the car keys

This is essential when travelling away from home with your addict

5. If travelling without your addict,save up and hire someone to come andpaint the house while you're away

At least there's a chance that there'll be someone there to call the ambulance

6. Eat breakfast

Your addict certainly won't, but you do have to look after yourself. Scrambled eggs, kippers, sausages, bacon... An espresso a day keeps the doctor away

7. Keep separate bank accounts

Get a job. Any job. Hide the money for the gas man in a teapot. EL