‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar’: Elizabeth Taylor’s description of the fabled romance

‘To begin at the beginning,’ intones Richard Burton with a voice like warm treacle at the start of the 1971 film Under Milk Wood. It’s hard to imagine an actor more obviously influenced by his own beginnings. The epigraph to this double biography is ‘The damp, dark prison of eternal love’, a line borrowed from Quentin Crisp. And if that’s an accurate assessment of Burton’s on-off-on-again relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it’s an even better summary of his childhood in Wales. Born Richard Walter Jenkins to a barmaid mother and a coal miner father (a ‘12-pints-a-day man’ who sometimes disappeared for weeks on end to drink and gamble), as

A diary of divorce

I’m living in the interstices between smokes. I fill the gaps ruminating, on the unretrievable past and the foreclosed future. I can’t concentrate enough for any one of my thousands of books to be a distraction. I wake up and count the hours until I’ll be tired enough to go back to sleep (or, on the weekends, until Match of the Day). My wife is gone. She’s gone for ever. Sometimes I hear the voices of reassurance. Be grateful for the time you had with her. I’m idealising our marriage. There are other fish in the sea. Thoughts which seem momentarily plausible. Until, as C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed, ‘then comes the sudden

Howard Jacobson superbly captures the terrible cost of becoming a writer

Howard Jacobson, who turns 80 this year, published his first novel aged 40. Since then he has produced roughly a book every two years, including The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker in 2010. Given that he was put on Earth to write, why the wait? This is the subject of Mother’s Boy, a tale of self-persecution in the form of a monologue which includes interjections from the ghosts of his parents and one chapter, recording a period in his twenties that he drifted through in a dream state, printed in a font resembling handwriting. ‘How’s the novel coming along?’ his father would routinely ask after Jacobson graduated from

How many people still send letters?

Borderland Few countries can have passed through as many kingdoms and empires as Ukraine — the ‘borderlands’. These are just a few of the political entities which have controlled parts or all of modern-day Ukraine before it became an independent nation in 1991: Scythian Kingdom; Roman Empire; Ostrogothic Kingdom; Bulgar Kingdom; Khazar Kingdom; Kievan Rus; Mongolia; Galicia-Volhynia; Poland; Lithuania; Ottoman Empire; Cossack Hetmanate; Austro-Hungarian Empire; Russia; Free Territory of Ukraine; Soviet Union. Schemes and scams The government hopes to raise £12 billion through the 1.25% rise in National Insurance contributions from April. How does this compare with money wrongfully claimed under Covid relief schemes? According to HMRC estimates: 8.7% of

Reassess every relationship you’ve ever had before it’s too late

‘Reading is a celebration of the mystery of ourselves,’ according to Elizabeth Strout, who writes to help readers understand themselves and other people. In Oh William!, Strout resurrects Lucy Barton, the enigmatic heroine of a previous novel, setting her on a mission to get to know William, her first husband. This is Strout’s third outing for Lucy, who also reappeared in Anything is Possible, a collection of interlinked stories about the residents of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s hometown. Now in her early sixties and newly widowed, Lucy is good friends with William, who is on wife number three — Estelle, a woman 22 years younger than him. ‘And that was no

Post-Brexit divorce is getting messy

The City has resigned itself to being locked out of the EU. The hauliers are adjusting to all the extra paperwork. Now it looks as if the lawyers will have to get used to no deal as well — and while that won’t do any serious long term damage to the profession’s booming global status, it now looks as if a lot of divorcing families will be collateral damage. Over the last month, it has become clear the EU plans to block the UK from joining the Lugano Convention, which helps settle in which jurisdiction disputes should be resolved. The reason is no great mystery to anyone. Brussels wants to make

The disappearing man: who was the real John Stonehouse?

November 1974 was the month to disappear. On the 7th, Lord Lucan went missing, and a fortnight later John Stonehouse MP dis-appeared from a beach in Miami. Lucan was never found, so remains prominent in our national mythology. Nothing endures like a mystery. Stonehouse, on the other hand, was discovered in Melbourne six weeks later, living under an assumed name. His vanishing trick, so carefully rehearsed, had unravelled — partly due to Lucan, as it happened. Having been alerted to a suspicious Briton by a beady bank clerk, the Australian police thought he might be Lucan. Their first act after arresting their suspect was to lift his trouser leg to

Abandoned by Paul Theroux: the diary of a sad ex-wife who sadly can’t write

When I interviewed Paul Theroux 21 years ago at his home in Hawaii, there were already rumours that his ex-wife Anne had written a book about him. In fact their son Marcel said in an interview that she had sent Paul the manuscript. Theroux denied it to me, and said breezily that he wished Anne would write a book, because then she’d have greater respect for the work involved. And: I don’t see that if she wrote a book it’s going to be an attack on me. I don’t think it’ll be ‘I discovered his lies’. So it doesn’t worry me. I’m sure she’d show it to me, but it

How to avoid a lockdown divorce

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, the coronavirus pandemic now provides us with the ideal conditions to test whether the opposite is equally true: does being cooped up together in a small space for a long period of time also do the same? I think we all know the answer to that one. It will come as no surprise to any married couple – happy or otherwise – that the Chinese city of Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, has seen a large spike in divorce cases after couples escaped from a month’s quarantine. So, as millions of families across Britain embark on weeks, and possibly even

Detailed and devastating: Marriage Story reviewed

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a drama about the breakdown of a marriage and it is, at times, devastatingly painful. ‘Divorce,’ says a lawyer at one point, ‘is like a death without a body.’ It’s certainly not the most fun you’ll ever have at the cinema — although it is witty and there are some brilliantly comic lines — but you will see something riveting, detailed, authentic and excellent. Plus it also marks the return of Scarlett Johansson as an interesting actress — remember Lost in Translation? — rather than the one who hangs out with Iron Man and Thor and just does sexy kicks. I’d even forgotten she could

Divorce’s faultless history

The Christian church ordained that marriage, a sacrament imparting divine grace, was for life. In 1857, the state enacted its first generally applicable divorce law, to be triggered only by sexual misdemeanours. Liberalisation slowly followed,and now ‘no fault’ divorce is being proposed in England. We edge closer to pre-Christian practice. To generalise: in both Greek and Roman worlds, marriage was essentially an understanding between two families, with fathers on both sides agreeing to and sealing the deal (that does not mean the couple’s view was irrelevant), and the bride being given a dowry by her father. The state had no official stake in the relationship. It did not keep records

The Spectator’s Notes | 11 April 2019

In his famous speech to both Houses of Parliament in March 1960, General De Gaulle praised Britain: ‘Although, since 1940, you have gone through the hardest vicissitudes in your history, only four statesmen [Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan] have guided your affairs in these extraordinary years. Thus, lacking meticulously worked-out constitutional texts, but by virtue of an unchallengeable general consent, you find the means on each occasion to ensure the efficient functioning of democracy.’ De Gaulle admired us and disliked us, and concluded that we threatened France if we joined the EEC. So he blocked our entry. He was right about us, wrong about the effect of our joining. By

Dear Mary | 4 April 2019

Q. A woman I’ve known for years is getting divorced and rings me every day to talk about it. I have closer friends with ongoing problems and, though I do care, I don’t have the emotional energy or time to deal with her problem as well. I work and she never has, so she can’t really understand how tired I am. Your advice? — Name and address withheld A. Confide that you are finding it difficult, both at work and at home, to talk on the telephone without being overheard. Explain that this is inhibiting your ability to empathise and strategise with her. Suggest that instead she begins to communicate

Conflicted genius

Boxing writers sometimes try to make comparisons across weight groups. They used to say, for example, that Floyd Mayweather was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Saul Bellow for many years has had the reputation of the best page-for-page writer. Every paragraph has something that arrests you: an image, an insight, a line of dialogue, or a moral dilemma. This is the kind of thing: ‘My brother picked me up by the trustful affections as one would lift up a rabbit by the ears.’ The sentences flow, both natural and vivid. Bellow can capture the moment’s peace of a commercial traveller, sitting in the garden of his lover’s rented

Why is no one sticking up for marriage?

I took part in a debate organised by the Times this week about reform of our divorce laws. Well, I say a ‘debate’. There wasn’t much of that. Not much in the way of dissent. The four other panellists, who included a government minister, all wished to liberalise our divorce laws. And it was chaired with great impartiality by Sir James Lawrence Munby, who was until recently the president of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales. He made a stirring ten-minute speech on why we need to liberalise the divorce laws. Yes, it was like one of those exquisitely balanced Newsnight debates, then. The audience

Lily Allen: No Shame

Grade: B+ Here we go again, then, I thought — another gobbet of self-referential, breast-beating respec’ me bro sputum against a backdrop of the usual overproduced r&b pop schlock. What used to be called ‘indie’ singer-songwriters are always moaning about how utterly useless they are, taking Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ as a kind of self-flagellating worldview. Chart singer-songwriters, meanwhile, can’t stop telling everyone how absolutely bloody marvellous they are, despite being traduced, which fits right in with the extraordinary narcissism of our current youth culture, its bovine #MeToo grandstanding and exquisite sensitivities. I don’t mind Allen, despite her irritating sub-adolescent Corbynista politics. At her best she makes light summery pop to which

A year full of birds

Deborah Levy draws her epigraph for The Cost of Living from Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities: ‘You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.’ Practicalities (1987) is a series of interviews Duras gave to a young friend with all the questions left out and the interview format effaced. Levy’s book is, similarly, one side of an intense conversation about life, love, power, home-making and writing. Her interlocutors, many of them dead but still living through their words and work, include Simone de Beauvoir, Louise Bourgeois, Emily Dickinson, Barbara Hepworth and Elena Ferrante. Levy is a playwright and novelist whose Swimming Home (2012) and Hot Milk (2016) were shortlisted for the

However you look at it, divorce is a disaster

I went to Relate once, the counselling service formerly known as the National Marriage Guidance Council. I wasn’t married at the time — this was about 25 years ago — but in a long-term relationship. Or at least it was long-term for me at the time. My girlfriend went with me and I rather hoped they might say to her: ‘Stop shagging that man called Raymond, you little whore.’ But they didn’t at all. They kind of noted the existence of Raymond in what seemed to be a slightly approving manner, and suggested it was probably for the best if we all moved on, separately, away from each other. Relate

Puppy love

There have been times since the break-up when I’ve felt so low I’ve opened a bottle of Shiraz and spent the whole night flicking through my mobile-phone photos of the two of us: the sunsets we watched; the meals we shared. I’d remember long walks on the beach and longer mornings in bed. How you’d crawl up over the duvet and wake me by licking my head. Leaving the boyfriend was surprisingly easy but oh, the agony of losing the dog! My sweet double doodle (that’s a labra-doodle, goldendoodle cross). ‘Yes, she is pretty isn’t she?’ I’d say to the strangers who accosted us. ‘She’s 18 months old and she’s

Something nasty in the woodshed

I’ve diagnosed myself with early onset cottage-itis. It’s not supposed to happen for another decade, but at 29 I dream of just the smallest bolthole in the country: a bothy, a gatehouse, a folly below the ha-ha in someone else’s stately home. A shepherd’s hut in tasteful shades of prime ministerial greige. Liberated from the city I would be a nicer, calmer, more industrious person. I would write my magnum opus and be self-sufficient in rhubarb crumble. Every morning when the drills start on the cycle super-highway that will speed the passage of Deliveroo couriers through west London, I put my head in my hands and will myself into a