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Friday, May 27, 2022

I wrote the original miserable marriage memoir – and I have no regrets | Marriage

It’s 25 years since I accidentally turned a travel article for the Observer about a “romantic” weekend in Bruges into a niche journalistic genre – the misery travel memoir. The trip was scheduled a few days after my (spoiler alert!) soon-to-be-ex-husband had told me he was leaving me… and we went anyway. This tiny slice of misery-memoir histoire was entitled “By Waterloo Station I Sat Down and Wept”.

While the travel-article-as-anatomy-of-a-marital-breakdown sub-genre never really caught fire, the article went off to live its best life out in the journo-sphere. After reading it, I heard subsequently, plenty of people specifically booked Suite 50 at Die Swaene hotel in Bruges. For a year or so after its publication, I documented the fallout in my weekly Observer magazine column, before being commissioned to turn it all into a book, The Heart-Shaped Bullet (Picador, 1999).

After my husband was long gone and my “rebound” relationship collapsed during the writing of the book, I completely lost my own plot and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks – the abiding memory of which is watching Dana International winning Eurovision, which, oddly enough, hurtled me back towards relative sanity. However, the story I had hoped to furnish with a happy ending had taken a different, darker turn. As its editor, Ursula Doyle, wrote in a note to me on publication, “you broke down beautifully, Kate”.

Which was nice.

By the turn of the century, I aimed to get the “Girl Overboard” (as the magazine column was titled) out of the lifeboat and on to dry land. When I eventually left the Observer in 2010, having been the paper’s TV critic for the previous decade (and given birth to my sons, who turn 20 and 16 this year), I liked to think I’d done that.

In retrospect, in 1997 – when the nation’s collective stiff-upper-lip wobbled after the death of Princess Diana – there was barely a designated shelf of autobiographical hearts-on-tear-stained-sleeves in your local Waterstones; these days there’s likely to be an entire wall. Tonally, things have moved-on, too. The American writer Heather Havrilesky, whose Foreverland: On The Divine Tedium of Marriage has just been published, has simultaneously subverted the genre and raised the bar with her exposé of a marriage apparently still in full swing. That takes cojones.

While the headline on a New York Times article about Foreverland was quite restrained (“Heather Havrilesky Compares Her Husband to a Heap of Laundry”), an example of those weirdly po-faced staccato headers favoured by US papers was the New York Post’s “Wife calls Marriage ‘insane’, hates her husband: ‘Snoring heap of meat’.”

So, while I haven’t read her book, I like the sound of Havrilesky, who clearly has no qualms about both Showing and Telling. Which brings me neatly to the biggest contrast between my 1990s memoir and Heather’s 21st-century variety: the “hate mail” arrived at my Observer desk in an envelope with a stamp, densely scrawled and annotated in the margins, and occasionally in the proverbial green ink.

However, these letters were far outweighed by fan mail. Far nastier to me than readers were my journalistic peers, and because the online paper was in its infancy and my column wasn’t even toddling in cyberspace, there was no below-the-line weekly monstering. Life as a misery memoirista was entirely analogue – when I was a guest on Radio 4’s Today and Woman’s Hour and (peak fame!) Richard & Judy, obviously everybody could have hated what I said but I didn’t have to hear about it. And if I read something hurtful, I’d just head off for a fag and a good cry in the stairwell of the Observer’s Farringdon Road HQ.

On one memorable occasion, attempting to combine a cigarette break with discreet sobbing while reading Craig Brown’s latest Guardian column satirising my own, my colleague Andrew Rawnsley attempted to cheer me up, kindly observing that being lampooned by Craig Brown was something I would probably look back on as a career high. He was, of course, entirely correct – though arguably, at that precise moment, also a couple of decades ahead of me.

These days, if you don’t like Havrilesky’s hot-button take on modern marital discord, you don’t even have to bother reading her book to have an opinion. Instead, you can simply bypass facts or rationality and make it all about you, telling her exactly what you think of her, shoutily, on the socials. Plenty do.

Now, post-menopause, I could probably hack that, but I wouldn’t have coped very well with it in my early 30s. For me, that pain wasn’t performative – it was raw and real and baffling, and writing was the only way I knew how to contain it. I didn’t attempt to grandstand or even expect to be liked, I just did my best to tell the truth – “my truth” – and if anybody objected to that, I felt that it was mostly their business, not mine.

Mistakes, I made a few: I gave away too much of myself, mistaking keeping firm boundaries for self-preservation as a kind of withholding of the truth. I was wrong about that; I could have looked after both myself and some of the people close to me better than I did.

However, I have no major regrets. Nonetheless, the truth-telling stakes are higher now. In the 90s, being trolled meant Julie Burchill being snarky about you in a review in the Evening Standard, blushing while you read it on the Tube home. Now, for every fangirl showering a writer with empathetic broken hearts and clapping-hands emojis, there are just as many – possibly more –anonymous trolls wishing you dead. And if the release of your book had accidentally coincided with, for example, the arrival of a pandemic, or onset of an unexpected war… well, you might want to deploy the old “duck and cover” strategy.

As I discovered in the late 1990s, perceptions of publicly addressed pain have a pecking order. You don’t, for example, want to be caught writing of your emotional loneliness in your marital bed while other people are being blown out of theirs by something as grotesquely physical as a missile. By 2015, in an article that corralled Rachel Cusk (whose blistering memoir of her own marital split, Aftermath, I had been in a minority of writers to review kindly) alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ovid and Sylvia Plath, Blake Morrison wrote: “The confessional memoir is disreputable. Critics dismiss it as the equivalent of a selfie, a look-at-me snapshot, a glorified ego trip. Narcissism, they say, is inscribed in the very word ‘memoir’: me-moi.”

However, the writer of And When Did You Last See Your Father? went on to observe that “what confessional memoirs have in common is an intimacy we don’t normally expect – the reader is given privileged access to truths the author feels impelled to disclose, awkward or painful though they might be”.

This is the truth that makes a marital memoir, in particular, both compelling and capable of articulating the thoughts and feelings of those readers along for the ride.

When I recently remarked on the 25th anniversary of By Waterloo Station on Facebook, a friend articulated this beautifully: “I read this column and your book as my own, similarly brief marriage was disintegrating. You summed up exactly what I was feeling. It was an unbelievable experience for me. All these years later, I am still grateful you shared your story.”

Journalists largely live in the moment, never really expecting what they write to linger long in anyone’s memory – so, a quarter of a century after I sat down to meet my original deadline, it is an enormous privilege to know that By Waterloo Station… touched so many people. It certainly changed my life.

Read ‘By Waterloo Station I Sat Down and Wept’ at www.kathrynflett.substack.com

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