Terence Blacker: How we love to wallow in other people's misery

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The Independent Online

Everybody loves a good divorce. Once it was only the tawdry gossip columns which, with gleeful regret, reported a famous marriage was in trouble and then watched as a couple who had once been in love set about destroying one another. Now divorce-watching is an internationally popular pastime.

There have been some top-level contests recently. McCartney vs Mills was a great show although an unsporting secretiveness surrounded the final settlement, depriving it of that all-important final money-shot. Chrissie Brinkley and her fourth husband are dishing the dirt splendidly in New York. A growing sense of anticipation surrounds the rumour of a possible Madonna vs Guy Ritchie bout, although any split is denied by the couple.

But at present, at the top of the divorce ratings and looking as if it can only get better, there is the war between John Cleese and Alyce Faye Eichelberger Cleese. This weekend , that veteran name-dropper Michael Winner devoted his entire Sunday Times column to an oddly unpleasant account of a holiday in Lugano with his old pal Cleese, containing seemingly cheerily imparted information about the attitude of his "rather grim" wife since the marriage broke down.

This kind of divorce porn reflects all that is ugly in the culture around us. It battens on personal misery, insecurity and hatred. It allows the massed choir of public opinion-makers to hold forth on matters of morality. It almost always blames and demeans the woman in the relationship. Money and property are a central preoccupation. It comforts ordinary people with the idea that the rich and the famous can make a ghastly mess of their lives too.

In high-profile cases of marriage meltdown, the media acts like an unscrupulous divorce lawyer, ratcheting up resentment on both sides to its own cynical advantage. But, as John Cleese has been proving, would-be divorcees are often themselves happy to play the publicity game. In doing so, they unwittingly provide a lesson in how not to behave in these situations.

For any normal person, divorce is a devastating, wrenching tragedy, the uprooting of an oak in the personal landscape. Marriage counsellors like to argue that guilt should play no part in it; that, of course, is nonsense. A failed marriage is precisely that, and the failure is of an unavoidably intimate kind. Something which embarked in hope has fallen apart in sadness and recrimination. Children are bewildered and hurt, friends divided.

Those who have a sense of shame at the end of a marriage are right. They are admitting a shared personal responsibility. Husbands or wives who go out of their way, as John Cleese seems to do with the help of Michael Winner, to cast blame on the other party merely emphasis their own mean-spiritedness. Two marriages down and the third on its way, he still describes himself as "naïve". There are nasty jokes about his wife's approach to money and allegations about her attitude towards one of Cleese's daughters. "It was almost as if John had to make a choice," Winner confides to his readers. "As our mutual friend Sir Michael Caine observed, 'Blood is thicker than water'." How very wise these mutual friends can be. Then, for good measure, there are stories about an earlier marriage. When the second Mrs Cleese took down some stickers advertising Harrow Leisure which John had put on his Bentley, he knew the marriage was over.

What is it about those who present themselves as experts on relationships? Why do they not realise that sometimes it is not good to talk – repression, which Cleese famously complained about in A Fish Called Wanda, sometimes has much to recommend it. He is the co-author of Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It – perhaps some kind of divorce manual is on the way. In this area at least, he would seem to be compatible with his wife, who co-wrote How to Manage Your Mother and yet told a reporter that Cleese's mother "hated me... She was utterly selfish and, probably, John will be one day."

Enough. It is uncomfortable looking into someone else's marriage, however eager those within it may be to expose it to the world. There is surely a case for obliging those heading for divorce to be subject to the laws of sub judice, as in other legal cases. Every public insult makes settlement more difficult. Every poison dart infects not only the present and the future but, most disastrously of all, the past. Marital misery can be retroactive, destroying once-happy memories.

Poor old Mr and Mrs Cleese will be going through enough hell over the next few months without the press, the shrinks and the lawyers making it worse. Divorce is an intimate and personal business. The more private it is, the less pain and misery there will be for the unhappy couple, and those close to them.

terblacker@aol.com

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