Natasha Walter's Notebook: What it was like being married to a black hole

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Jane Hawking has just published her account of life as Stephen Hawking's wife, in a book inappropriately titled Music to Move the Stars. Just as Margaret Cook's memoir set off readers' horror at what Robin Cook got away with for so long, so this memoir makes you wonder why Jane kept up her miserable marriage for nearly 30 years. It wasn't Stephen Hawking's disability that made the marriage so uncomfortable, according to Jane; it was his character. He expected her to provide physical care round the clock; in return, she says, he often didn't bother to give her any politeness, let alone love or tenderness.

The worst passages of the book are those where she simply observes how little communication she managed to have with him, even when he was physically able to talk. He used to withdraw completely from her for days at a time - quite a feat given that she would be dressing him, washing him and putting him on the lavatory. "I could not tell whether it was oblivion or indifference to my need for communication that sealed him off with such impenetrably hermetic effect, and for me those periods were sheer torture," she says. In a wild parody of the classic breakfast scene played out by scores of so-called normal husbands and wives, he would apparently set up a newspaper as a barrier to his family's conversation - even while Jane was feeding him breakfast.

"The upright newspaper was a barrier that the laden spoon had to surmount when feeding him his substantial breakfast of pills, laxative, boiled eggs, pork chops, rice and tea," she recalls.

Tales like Jane Hawking's may have a good effect on their readers. It's partly because women have stayed silent for so long that generations of men have seen nothing wrong with behaving like Stephen allegedly did, refusing to talk to their wives and still expecting total submission from them, or, like Robin Cook, believing that they could have affairs and still pressure their wives into sex on any occasion. The tales of their disgruntled ex-wives stand as a grim testament to the toll that many men's domination has taken, and still does take, on many women's private lives. And in that way they may be a spur to change.

But there is a point where frankness, so prized by our culture, shades into exhibitionism. There is something nasty about watching people who complain about the media's "hysterically prurient obsession with the private lives of the famous", shattering their own privacy and dignity, leaving no part of their intimate lives unexamined. We didn't ask Jane Hawking to tell us what it was like to have sex with her disabled husband, and yet she insists on telling us. "I had reason to fear that the effort involved in sexual activity might kill Stephen in my arms, even though of necessity it was unadventurous, and he was and always had been the passive partner because of muscular weakness. My side of the experience was so empty and frightening."

At least Jane Hawking had the excuse that she wanted to put the record straight on a famous marriage that had already received much odd speculation. Other writers who shatter their families' privacy have much less reason for inviting us into their bedrooms. The readers of certain other newspapers have, over the last few days, been treated to the most bizarre spectacle of two journalists writing bitter articles about the ins and outs of their mutual divorce.

The process started in this newspaper, with a column called Beloved and Bonk, and has now reached the point of long refutations and counter- refutations in The Guardian and the Daily Mail by Nicola Davies and her ex-husband, all written in the same miserable style. In this maze of intimate hatred, there is nothing to be learnt - the partners are equals, neither one is a genius, neither one is suffering from a terminal illness, neither has mastered a great writing style - and nothing to be enjoyed. When did we accede to the idea that our newspapers should be filled with such stuff?

A couple of days ago I took part in a BBC radio discussion on the current situation in Afghanistan, where women are still being denied education or paid work, are living in houses with blacked-out windows, and are being beaten for venturing out of their houses showing an inch of flesh. Yet, as is usual for such discussions, we were quickly sidetracked from the interesting question of what could be done about the situation, into a less fertile debate about whether such things were only to be expected in Islamic countries. One of the participants argued the familiar line that Afghanistan was not really very peculiar, and that women could never expect to have any rights in a Muslim country.

Nobody would be happier than I to see all the edifices of religious belief - Muslim, Jewish, Christian - come crashing down. Still, the way that so many commentators tend to see Islam as one monolith is strangely ignorant, partly made possible by the fact that the ways women live in different Muslim countries are often pretty hidden. This is not only in vicious situations like that of Afghanistan, but also in more open countries such as Iran. So we have to grab ways in when we can. The recent prizewinning film, The Apple, was a great example. And in a couple of weeks' time Channel 4 is screening a documentary that gives unequalled access to a few ordinary women's lives in Iran (Divorce Iranian Style, 28 August).

It's a fly-on-the-wall film from a family court in Tehran, and though that sounds dry as dust, it's riveting. As I watched the film, I was surprised to find myself more than once on the verge of tears. There's a fierce clash in the film, between the values of the young women who are trying to get their divorces and the values of the men they have married. No one can doubt the barriers that they face, but equally no one can doubt that these are women with dreams and hope who are gradually building up their own sense of independence

So we see Ziba, a 16-year-old-woman, married off at 15 to a man she didn't love and with whom she had nothing in common. You'd expect her to be a sad, scared young girl; instead she has the presence and certainty of an Iranian Maggie Tulliver. There is one single moment, when her husband gives in and she turns to the judge to say, "We agree to a divorce by mutual consent", when her bright, dark eyes look straight into the camera. It swoops in for a lyrical close-up, and you can almost feel her heart miss a beat with happiness.

But the most memorable figure in the film is a seven-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the female court officials. In one candid scene, when the court is cleared for the day, the little girl jumps up to the judge's desk, pulls on a little woollen hat, and play-acts his role. "Silence!" she demands. "Now," she says to an imaginary plaintiff. "Your wife has done nothing wrong. You hit her. Why don't you respect her? This is very bad!" Although, as things stand in Iran, that girl could not grow up to be a judge, you can already see her dreams reaching out to a more equal and freer future. And that one scene gives off a great blast of hope.

The way people choose their holidays tends to divide pretty neatly into those who want noise and bustle and other people, and those who want silence and solitude. If you want the latter, you choose carefully - you go away at odd times, or you find odd places to go to. But if you want the former, things are more straightforward - you choose, say, a Tuscan beach in August. And there you'll get all the pleasures of the madding crowd - the sunbeds lined up so close that you can't read a word of Hannibal for the joy of listening in to half a dozen family arguments at once; the crowded waves where few people bother to swim, but jewelled Italian matrons walk up and down in the shallows; the young women appearing in a different bikini every hour, ignoring their families to chat breathily into their mobile telephones.

Tony Blair wants to look like an ordinary middle-class family man, the kind of guy who doesn't mind mixing with the crowds and standing in a queue to buy his kids ice-creams. So he's chosen to holiday in Tuscany in August. But he can't really stand to be very close to the crowds any more. The recent picture of his car driving in solitary state down the bus lane of the M25 in the rush hour was proof enough that this Prime Minister is fed up with pretending to be one of us. So not only are he and his family taking over a newly refurbished villa with a private beach, but his entourage have even decided that the beaches on either side of his, three miles in all, should be cleared.

That way, Blair gets to look like an ordinary chap, choosing the same holiday destination as half of his former neighbours in Islington, but he also manages to fashion a splendid retreat where his family can sit alone, staring out over an empty sea. A sorry state for the people's premier.

See The Week in Books, page 10