Errant men and unethical women

Feminists are erudite on the rights of women, but nowhere is there a lecture on destroying a family
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The Independent Online

He says she looks like Keira Knightley. She is 22 and ambitious to be a journalist. He is twice as old, hard living, a chain smoker, treacherous, and physically not unlike a malodorous mop in need of chucking out. But he is also indisputably sharp, smart and a winning media brand. He is Rod Liddle, ex-editor of BBC Radio 4's flagship Today Programme, who has been very publicly outed as a lothario by his wife, Rachel Royce, a TV reporter and mother of their two small sons. They had been living together for more than a decade when they married in an extravagant wedding in Malaysia only six months back. According to Royce, Liddle flew back early from his honeymoon to catch up with his young lover, Alicia Monckton - a part-time receptionist - who Liddle now proclaims the true love of his life. His wife bitterly describes Ms Monckton as "a slapper", and the affair as a "classic philandering-husband-meets-muppet story".

He says she looks like Keira Knightley. She is 22 and ambitious to be a journalist. He is twice as old, hard living, a chain smoker, treacherous, and physically not unlike a malodorous mop in need of chucking out. But he is also indisputably sharp, smart and a winning media brand. He is Rod Liddle, ex-editor of BBC Radio 4's flagship Today Programme, who has been very publicly outed as a lothario by his wife, Rachel Royce, a TV reporter and mother of their two small sons. They had been living together for more than a decade when they married in an extravagant wedding in Malaysia only six months back. According to Royce, Liddle flew back early from his honeymoon to catch up with his young lover, Alicia Monckton - a part-time receptionist - who Liddle now proclaims the true love of his life. His wife bitterly describes Ms Monckton as "a slapper", and the affair as a "classic philandering-husband-meets-muppet story".

So the ageing man cheats on his wife and shacks up with a wide-eyed girlie. So what? Happens all the time. So why are we wasting our time on this latest "scandal", which is as common as EastEnders? Perhaps because this particular betrayal is so spectacularly grisly - why marry someone when you already have the next one lined up? - and because the married couple are slashing and burning their past lives on the pages of our newspapers. I understand that. Never wrong a writer was a maxim my faithless ex-husband had to learn the hard way.

But look beyond the unhealthy relish, the vengeance, the pain and wicked pleasure which such events produce, and you see some profound questions on the horizon. Each time we witness such public marital betrayals, a little more faith and trust washes away from society, from families, too, and the blood of love itself thins out. Those of us who feel confident that our marriages will last inevitably begin to fear that the people we are closest to are perfectly capable of delivering us to hell without a backward glance. Nobody can understand the agony of this unless they have been through it themselves, and I would not wish the experience on anyone, not even on the man who did it to me.

One thing is clear: although infidelity is as old as the skies, there is vastly more of it about today ; millions seem unable to live by any promise they make to their loved ones. Never before have we talked so much about love and sex and passion and families, and never have we so failed to live up to our words. With shame extinct and guilt moving in the same direction, adulterous men and women are liberated from any inconvenient contrition. Oh, they do sometimes nod in the direction of compassion, but nothing too excessive you understand. Liddle, for instance, says: "I'm ashamed of the hurt I have caused, but not ashamed of the relationship."

Nobody wants to go back to the Fifties when marriage really was for better or unimaginably worse, with both partners having to end their days trapped in relationships which held them in check and no more. The institutionalised inequality between men and women within such marriages was, and is, abhorrent. And no, the way out of this mess is not to go back to those days or those places with women believing they were born to serve the whims of men. Later this month comes the remake of The Stepford Wives which satirises this kind of female, and this week we see the British launch of a retrogressive manual from the USA (where else?) by a radio agony aunt, Laura Schlesinger. In her book The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, Schlesinger advises wives to supply their men with food and sex on demand to keep them away from the covetous band of replacement women who are hovering in ever greater numbers.

What tosh. The Keira Knightley look-alike is not, I bet, mugging up on back issues of Good Housekeeping to keep her liddle man happy. But there is undoubtedly much we have yet to work out about why we have this epidemic of adultery and divorce, and what we, as women, need to think about. The priestesses of feminism got furious with me when, a couple of years ago, I said I was trying to change within my marriage after reading a book on being a "surrendered" wife, again by an American writer, Laura Doyle. I realised there were many petty confrontations which were unnecessary, and that they corroded life so I would try and give them up. They included nagging, bouts and jostles, pushing to win every argument. Bad old habits have crept back in again, but such periodic self inspections are essential. Equal gender relationships should not mean no surrender on either side.

Men, too, have to give serious thought to what they want to be in this bewildering social landscape. Liddle says, "Men always want other women", and although I can't know what it is like to have one's entire being dominated by the twitches and spasms of uncontrollable manhood, is he content to be thus defined? Can such men comprehend the need to create a new masculinity and fatherhood where consistency and contentment matter more than lust?

But maybe we blame men altogether too much when such things happen. Why did Ms Royce marry her errant man - he had done this to her before - and why did she believe his excuses for so long? She is not an unskilled, undesirable woman. In truth, she is lovely and obviously gutsy and clever, but nevertheless turned too fragile and gullible in love and marriage.

And finally, when are mistresses going to ask themselves tougher questions about their actions? At least previous generations kept themselves back from taking over wholly, and lived discreetly in the background. Not at all easy I am sure, but more considerate than the modern mistress and lover. Miss Monckton didn't have, so soon, to turn up in the village where her lover's family lives. She didn't have to make it even harder for Ms Royce by sharing a cottage with Liddle next to his previous home. She allegedly watched impassively as the wife humiliated herself.

Voracious women who grew up in the Thatcher "me, me, me" era lack the most basic humane instincts in these situations. Feminists ignore their destructive impulses. I have quickly looked at the most recent books by Natasha Walter, Lynne Segal, and Estelle Freedman - respected feminist writers. They are erudite on the rights of women in divorce settlements, on equal financial status, on the mechanics of a shared life. But nowhere is there a brief lecture to women on the ethics of destroying a family.

We are right to take our girls to work to enthuse them about their future aspirations. But they also need to understand that if they grow up solely committed to their own desires, they could one day cause dreadful havoc for blameless others. Ex-cons and addicts go out into schools to tell their stories in the hope that their experiences will make a difference to the next generation. Women who were once mistresses, then became wives, and are then passed over for another new love, need perhaps to do the same, to teach our young lessons they are not getting anywhere else.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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