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The death of laughter

If you were stranded on a desert island, Ruth Leon would be the perfect companion.

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

But What Comes After Ruth Leon

Constable, pp.256, 16.99

If you were stranded on a desert island, Ruth Leon would be the perfect companion. She is plucky, resourceful, funny, bright and indomitable: you can see just why the late theatre critic Sheridan Morley fell in love with her. And indeed he did find himself alone with her, on the mental-health equivalent of a desert island, when an otherwise fairly mild stroke seemed to ossify his pre-existing depression. For four years he spent as many hours a day as he could asleep. When he was awake he was either weeping or complaining. I lost count of how many times the word ‘whining’ appears in this book.

By her own admission, Leon does not carry ‘the Mother Teresa gene’. While she fought tooth and nail to obtain the best medical care for her husband and valiantly wrote his articles for him, so he would not lose his work, she also found him exasperating. Looking after him left her exhausted and resentful. She hopes that this account of her husband’s last years and her part in them may be of use to other reluctant carers.

Running alongside her husband’s ills and her cavils are alternate chapters which amount to a sort of autobiography, or at least an autobiography of her friendship, affair with and ultimate marriage to Morley. They met when he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, were friends throughout their first marriages and only married in their early fifties. Before that, Leon had been living in New York, where she worked as a theatre critic and writer on cabaret and the Great American Songbook. One day, some 30 years after they first met, Morley turned up and announced he’d always loved her and now wanted to marry. She tried to stave him off, but he seems to have been an adept at getting what he wanted.  She loved him and they worked in the same world, both relishing theatre reviewing’s midnight deadlines and enjoying juggling the writing of books with arts journalism and broadcasting. Above all, they made each other laugh. The death of their shared laughter was, to her, the cruellest blow his illness inflicted.

So this is really two books in one. The trouble is that illness doesn’t make a good story: indeed, one of the worst things about depressive illness is the ghastly monotony of it. It takes Morley many hours to face getting dressed. More often than not, he gropes his way back to bed. When roused he hectors, and when he’s worn out from hectoring he crumples into self-pity.

At the end of the book Leon resolves ‘to ensure that his name would be celebrated long after he died because that would matter to him’. But her description of his sad final years could by no stretch of the imagination form any part of such a tribute. Sheridan Morley is diminished by this book, not celebrated. 

I blame Leon’s editors, whoever they may be. It seems to me that the account of her husband’s illness would have made a very fine campaigning feature article; her unfitness as a carer would have made another, very funny, such piece. A news- paper editor would have jumped on sentences such as: ‘So I dragged him from quack to quack, shrink to shrink, but also from fine doctor to fine doctor with massive reputations.’ What a book editor should have done was encourage Leon to write more about her own life; not just the parts where it intersects with Morley’s. I’d have liked to know more about her girlhood as the daughter of West End clothes-shop owners, and how such a girl came to find herself in the very heart of the theatre world, on both sides of the Atlantic. She has hundreds of friends, famous and otherwise, who barely get a mention. She admits to writing at speed, but a sympathetic editor should have encouraged her to slow down.

Years ago, when I was virtually incapable of leaving my bed while suffering from anxiety and depression, I used to look forward to Sheridan Morley’s Friday night arts programme. His voice was so soothing, so enthusiastic: it seemed to manifest the safety and manners of a former age. As it turns out, he was so depressed himself that each episode required colossal effort. But, if Ruth Leon’s book has a message, it is that the show must go on.

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