Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal: Me & Missus Jones

For years his columnist wife derided him in print for moping at home 'writing a novel'. Now he tells Hermione Eyre about their extraordinary relationship and how he had the last laugh
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The Independent Online

It was fortunate that Thomas and Jane Carlyle married one another, said Lord Tennyson, since any other arrangement would have made four people unhappy, not just two. The same could be said of the marriage of Liz Jones, confessional columnist extraordinaire, and Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, bad-boy novelist.

First she sustained a weekly column with his marital failings. These were so comprehensive - he binge eats, he nearly squashes the cats in bed, he lies around all day, he spends all her money, he emits cabbagey smells, he spent their wedding night with his mates - that even strangers at his yoga class would tell him what a terrible husband he was. Then Jones immortalised it all in a book (with some extra details thrown in, such as the fact that her husband brushes his tongue).

But there has now been "a power shift", as Dhaliwal put it when I met him for breakfast at Zetter, a bistro in Clerkenwell, London. The shit husband has become the shit-hot novelist. No longer Mr Liz Jones but a literary sensation in his own right.

For years, Liz put up with him moping at home "writing a novel". This was not in fact a euphemism for napping: Dhaliwal has produced a book that has become one of the most controversial, hotly tipped reads this year. Full of unpalatable views on race and sex, it's clearly modelled on Michel Houellebecq. The cover features a thrusting female nipple, in case you were in any doubt that it's bad-lad lit.

Like most first novels, it's faintly autobiographical. The protagonist is called Puppy: Liz has referred to Nirpal in her columns as a young "pup". And Puppy has an uptight, skeletal girlfriend who keeps him in luxury, writes for women's mags and has a Matthew Hilton sofa. Ring any bells?

"She's not a direct portrait of Liz," he says, stirring his coffee vigorously. "She's an inversion or a subversion. Anyway, it's fiction so no one can pin me down on it." Hm. I can't work out if Jones and Dhaliwal are playing with one another, bickering on a grand scale, or if they're actually out to draw blood.

They're still together, but only just - they spent Christmas apart after he admitted infidelity (he got busted by a text message, "Beckham-style"). Is it a game, then, or is it war? "I'd say it's somewhere between the two," he says, smiling reluctantly. "It's certainly sport, but a vigorous contact one." Injuries are sustained? "Yeah. It's not always comfortable. Reading her stuff made me very cross. Cross inside. But then in a way, it also freed me up in my own writing. It taught me not to worry about people's opinions of me. If people think the worst, I don't care."

People may very well think the worst after they read his novel, which is full of misanthropy ("I was grateful I wasn't ugly; I didn't have to strive for wealth to avoid a life of substandard sexual partners") and racial stereotyping ("in adolescence a lot of blacks, encouraged by the anomic rantings of rap music, adopt a sordid boorish persona ..."). It's quite, er, brave, I tell him. "It's hardly protecting Iraqis from firebombs, is it?" Unflinching, then. "It's all true. Everything in it I have taken from things I've said or heard said. There were times when I did think: 'You just can't say that'." Dhaliwal's eyes, seen through his famously long eyelashes (both his book and his wife's mention them approvingly) glint with excitement. "So I said it."

Were you ever worried it might start a riot? "Ha! I'd love to write a book that was influential enough to start a riot."

For all his provocation, Dhaliwal is fundamentally conservative. He is immensely proud of the British constitution. "In this country, we have the most sophisticated, humane society the world has ever seen. You go to India and you see a country taking the most courageous steps to emulate what we have here: constitutional democracy and freedom of expression and the rule of law. People come here for the freedoms that this country allows them, not just for the economic benefits."

"White PC liberals wanting to look all hip" are the enemy. They pander, he thinks, to dangerous religious extremists. "We shouldn't be held hostage by these people who want to drag us back to medievalism."

Dhaliwal was born in Greenford to Punjabi immigrants (father second-, mother first-generation). He's a non-practising Sikh, state-schooled and a graduate of Nottingham University - his first experience, he says, of social mobility and mingling with the white middle class. "On one occasion at university, I heard my voice on a tape and I was shocked. You sound so common, I thought, you should have elocution lessons. But what was amusing was that while I was there, the popularity of the Mockney accent really took off. The mountain came to Mohammed."

He chuckles. It's becoming clear to me why Liz stays with him. He may never have bought her flowers, apart from an orchid in an ugly pot paid for on Liz's credit card, but he's good company. "And I've always pulled my weight more than that column suggests. I've done all the cooking. Liz is a woman who spent 20 years being anorexic. She can't cook to save her life."

Another score settled, another opportunity for Liz to write a column in riposte. Their relationship, viewed from the outside, looks more like a media meal-ticket than a marriage. But face to face with Dhaliwal, I realise that he's actually touchingly earnest. Has he ever done something in order to see how it gets written up? "No! That would be well weird."

Dhaliwal's chances at a healthy relationship were, you could say, compromised from the beginning. He grew up in a "very fractured" family, where his parents, brought together in an arranged marriage, were "basically strangers living under the same roof".

"I've seen that phenomenon in many arranged marriages of that generation. It's not uncommon. The saccharine myth about the lovely Asian hearth where everybody sits around eating lovely food and cuddling one another ... it doesn't work like that." When he was 11, his father went bankrupt and descended into manic depression; Nirpal then became "this horrible teen - vicious, selfish ... I drove my mum up the wall".

Does this explain why marriage was never going to be easy for him? Did his parents' behaviour teach him to sulk for days? Maybe I should leave such questions to his therapist, who after a few months of sessions has made him feel "more happy and relaxed than ever before. I'm a great believer in therapy."

It's ironic, really, that Nirpal is in therapy, when it's Liz who is normally seen as needing help. Her column is regularly described as "bonkers" and "neurotic". But he confides to me: "She's not that mad, you know. She couldn't be such a great writer if she was."

THE MAN...

Born Greenford, west London, in 1974. Educated locally (four As at A level); degree in English and American literature from Nottingham University. Holiday jobs include stacking shelves and cleaning aeroplanes at Heathrow airport. Met Liz Jones in 2000, when she was the editor of Marie Claire and he was working as a radio journalist for the BBC; he was sent to interview her. They married in 2002 at Babington House... at her expense.

... HIS BOOK

"The best debut I have ever read. Sexy, shocking and touched with genius"

Julie Burchill

"As a dirty-minded description of multicultural London now, it'll really take some beating"

David Sexton

"Michel Houellebecq-light"

Sam Wollaston

"In any other profession, this couple would be regarded with embarrassment and pity. In the literary world, they are shining paragons of how authors should make a name for themselves"

Terence Blacker

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