What's the point in serving up this rather tasteless Cook book?

Mrs Cook should consider how she'd have felt if Robin had penned a savage attack on her various weirdnesses
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NO MAN is an island. From the second that Robinson Crusoe agreed to share his life with Man Friday there was a theoretical threat to his historical reputation. What were the chances that the marooned sailor would get back to civilisation, only to encounter a ghosted memoir from his erstwhile shack-sharer entitled Friday's Tale, detailing Crusoe's more exotic ways of coping with enforced celibacy? Crusoe was lucky, being a mostly fictional character. However, for the rest of us, total privacy ends as soon as one other person enters the front door. Someone, somewhere, always has, in the inelegant words of President Lyndon Johnson, your pecker in his or her pocket.

And I can tell you that your habits would not make pleasant reading. There's the way that you leer at that handsome GP when you think no one's looking, that time that you hit your oldest child out of real hatred, and, above all, your deceptions. Imagine all that - and much, much more - written down, published in a book and serialised in a Sunday newspaper. Remember that primary school nightmare about being found, naked, in the cloakroom, and everyone laughing at you?

Margaret Cook, of course, had Robin's pecker in her pocket, from whence she has now taken it and is parading it around town, the poor wilting object held in triumph above her head. It must be said that her book, A Slight and Delicate Creature, is hard reading for those who do not enjoy daytime television.

Indeed, Margaret's How to Cook Cook book does not even seem to have been very well researched.

She claims that he has had an alcohol problem, but colleagues who probably knew his drinking habits rather better than she did - since they saw more of him - deny this. I do think that, if spouses are going to write books about one another, they need to pay attention to these little details.

Easily the most interesting revelation in last Sunday's first published extract of A Slight and Delicate Creature is the po-faced account of the Cooks talking about the family finances. "At the end of our 1990 summer holiday," writes Margaret, without a hint of irony, "I sat him down for our usual reckoning-up, and the net result was that he owed me money." What? How can one half of a marriage, which has lasted two decades, be said to owe the other half money?

Books like this tend to end up saying far more about their authors than they realise. But, even so, are they defensible? Is the moral right to reveal your own private life tempered by a duty to the private lives of those you have shared intimacy with? Margaret Cook may like to consider how she would have felt had Robin Cook been minded to pen a savage attack on his former wife for her various weirdnesses (whatever they are). Would she have thought that to be acceptable behaviour?

And then there are the third parties (usually described as "innocent victims"). Someone writing a biography of a public figure whom I have known for some time recently approached me. Many of the things that I know about X I know because we had very close mutual friends (I should add here that X also knows many things about me; unfortunately no one is much interested). I spoke to one of these people, and she told me that what I might say could conceivably have a bad impact on her eldest daughter when it became public. So I said nothing.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you will recall, died because of Hamlet's quarrel with Claudius. In Margaret Cook's book someone called Carlos plays a similar role. A travel guide, Carlos was fingered by Mrs Cook as having had a post-Robin romance with her. Carlos, however, has denied that this ever happened. When this was put to Margaret by The Sunday Times she replied airily that "Carlos denied our affair because he is not supposed to fraternise with clients and would get into trouble from his company". Another Rosencrantz bites the dust.

By chance, tonight Hanif Kureishi is coming to do a reading at our local branch of Waterstone's. The book is Intimacy, a barely fictionalised account of how he left his partner, and the mother of his children, a year or so back. The Kureishi character in the book describes his spouse as a middle-class social climber, with bourgeois habits and an absence of self-knowledge. "She got herself into Cambridge," says the hero, "where she ensured that she knew the most luminous people. She is as deliberate in her friendships as in everything else." There is worse: "In bed she reads cookbooks." The woman's very capability, her common-sensical ubiquity, is used as a weapon against her. It is classic misogyny, of a type. And it is also a true portrait of a certain sort of modern woman.

Over in the States Philip Roth's latest novel, I Married a Communist, was seen partly as a settling of scores with his ex-wife. Claire Bloom, whom he left after 18 years together, had published an autobiography two years earlier entitled Leaving a Doll's House, in which she described how their relationship had fallen apart. Roth does not emerge well from Bloom's "true" story; nor is Bloom a noble character in Roth's fictional one.

Cannibalising real people who have placed their trust in you is not a new trick among novelists. One of the cruellest and funniest passages in Dickens is in Little Dorrit, when, after many years apart, Arthur Clennam meets his boyhood love, who once spurned him but is now both fat and silly. Since this meeting was closely based on a real event in Dickens's life, it is probable that the poor fat woman (and all her friends) got to read exactly what the novelist thought about her.

Art alone cannot morally justify, say, Kureishi over Cook (although Intimacy is well worth revisiting, now that the initial fuss is over). The truth is that we cannot learn very much about how people are if everything is private. No one would talk to Panorama about parenting problems; the specific could no longer be used to illustrate the general.

We do not have to serve the cause of journalism or art if we do not want to, or if to do so would mean betraying our friends or family. However, the fact is that we would know and understand much less if everyone were so scrupulous.

Once again we are balancing the good that may arise from knowledge against the ill that flows from disclosure. And it's here that Margaret Cook so badly fails the test.

Nothing in what she tells us universalises her experience. The book attempts little more than to be therapeutic to its author who is - when all is said and done - a pretty lousy writer. A sentence such as "At about that time Robin began to develop a problem, superficially stress-related, that made him less active in marital relations with me" belongs in an agony column - followed by the injunction to get out a bit more.