A keen horseman with a new pair of green suede chaps is guaranteed to ride into the sunset

Jenny Diski

  • A Slight and Delicate Creature: The Memoirs of Margaret Cook
    Weidenfeld, 307 pp, £20.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 297 84293 5

The problem with Nancy Mitford, according to one of her sisters (the Communist? Possibly. The troublesome, giggly one who fancied Hitler? Not likely. The Duchess? Probably), is that she never came first with anyone. It’s doubtful if coming first is part of the human birth right, but it feels as if it is, both to those who do come first with someone, and those who don’t. Coming first is coterminous with being loved above all else – which is a definition of having a place to stand in the world – but to a weary eye, it seems a pretty unlikely proposition. Coming second is a more reasonable ambition, because only your own self can really be relied on to put you first. This is a discovery everyone makes sooner or later: if sooner you may end up a little bitter and twisted, but you will avoid great disappointment; if later you will almost certainly take to your word-processor and key in the story of your life. Historians in the present worry that historians in the future will be overwhelmed by the avalanche of primary sources lying around on floppy disks. History itself will be choked to death by information overload. Everyone has a story to tell and eventually, in a bid to come first with themselves and posterity, everyone will have committed their story in its unedited detail to paper. Among these mounds of autobiography will be Margaret Cook’s effort at self-valuation. It is a classic of the genre. Unlike most of these productions, Dr Cook’s memoir has been professionally published, but that is her consolation prize for having had the misfortune or bad judgment to be married for thirty years to the current Foreign Secretary.

Robin Cook most certainly comes second in his ex-wife’s memoirs. It is wishful thinking on the part of excitement-seekers to call the book an act of revenge: the main thing is the transformation of Margaret Cook from a woman barely noticed during a long marriage and summarily dismissed at the end of it (‘What would you do if I … committed suicide?’ ‘I should, of course, be sorry’), into a person with a life and achievements of her own. Had she carried the project through to its logical conclusion, and made no mention of Robin Cook at all, the book could have been a masterpiece of revenge literature, but that idea was scotched by the publishers and serialisers, who, true to human form, did not put Margaret Cook and her best interests first, offering money and fame only on condition that she dished some dirt on her more famous husband. Dr Cook, revealed as nothing if not a realist in her memoirs, obliged, but half-heartedly, and thereby missed the chance to exact the perfect retribution on her self-regarding husband by failing to ignore him altogether, and disappointed the hopes of the salacious (that is, me and probably you) by insisting on presenting herself as the more interesting of the two.

There is no point in reading Dr Cook’s book for insight into the politics and the personalities with whom Robin Cook was involved. She met Gordon Brown just after her marriage, but has ‘little remaining impression of Gordon, whom I have met only once or twice since then, and he seems, like many famous people who start their careers almost as child prodigies, to have suffered burn-out of his private personality. This may be an erroneous impression, fostered by years of Robin’s unconcealed antipathy.’ Cook’s other antipathies are noted, against Bob Cryer, John Prescott and Roy Hattersley: ‘Try as I may, I cannot remember what the agony was all about.’ His failed ambitions are mulled over. After John Smith’s death he considered his options and decided he did not have enough support. ‘I did not believe, frankly, that he was the right person for the job. There was a lot of very foolish talk in the press about his lack of good looks, but this would not have mattered if he had shown greater capacity for relating to people.’ The leader in waiting is a mystery to her. ‘I had never met Tony, and knew next to nothing about him; indeed, it was my perception that he’d popped up from nowhere with little to recommend him other than a pretty face.’ But everything, the devolution and unilateral disarmament debates, the formation of New Labour, the Falklands and the Gulf War, the winning back of power by Labour are all subsumed by her own family and career story, mere signs of the passing of time.

The fact that she cannot write has been mentioned a good deal in reviews, but it is the way in which she does write that is more interesting. The much-put-upon future historian wading through 50 million or so autobiographies will discover that there is a notion that writing is a requirement of the genre. Almost certainly, Dr Cook, who is a haematologist, writes up her patients’ notes in a plain and decent English, but sitting down to write a book, she knows she must have a style, and the style of choice – as if there were no choice – is the genteel archaic, over which, I am sure, she has taken infinite trouble. Heat is ‘unwonted’, people do not get out of cars and walk but are ‘decanted’ into lounges, letters are ‘missives’, ‘previous’ is ‘erstwhile’, ‘forthwith’ is ubiquitous, and no one is ever to be described as merely saying anything:

Did you cancel the papers?’ I ventured.

He exploded: ‘No, of course not, how –’

I interjected calmly: ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’

When the gentility collides with the wish to seem informed, informing and interesting, there is genuine delight for the reader:

I was also visited by wonderful dreams about flying which I later learned are said to be an indication of sexual desire. Whether or not this is true, the dreams were deliciously exciting, though having to stay airborne required much concentration … I’m regretful that I no longer have these dreams. Vague erotic fantasies, undirected to any particular person, and centred on excretory function formed another intensely private experience.

Along with her inner erotic life, we are given complete details of her struggles to study for and pass ten O levels (correction: ‘I had become very specialist now, studying only physics, chemistry and biology in preparation for A and S levels: and some maths in order to do additional maths O level – my 11th – that year’), A levels, piano grades, medical exams, postgraduate qualifications, as well as subsequent promotion efforts. Other achievements are recalled, such as the dirndl skirt in check gingham she sewed in 1953 and the subsequent red gingham rabbit she made (having finished her skirt before anyone else), which won first prize in the local arts and crafts show (children’s class).

This may be more than you want to know about the young Margaret Cook, but perhaps the nature of autobiography is precisely to tell you more than you want to know about another person with whom you are not presently infatuated. For reasons that doubtless have more to do with my childhood than my professional integrity, I feel obliged to read every word of any book I review, but though I doggedly and probably neurotically followed Dr Cook through all her youthful adventures, I confess to skipping pages and pages devoted to the various horses she owned and her anguish at their individual experiences of croup or colic or whatever it is that horses suffer from. We all have our limits.

I did, however, note, and now pass on to you, her tremendous early success with men. Chapter 10 is entitled, as it has to be, ‘And so to Bed’. When she begins an affair with her drama teacher, she gives boy friend Edward his ‘marching orders’. It was brutal and without warning and she felt bad about it, but ‘one cannot dissemble under these circumstances.’ In fact one can but it wouldn’t be nearly so gratifying. At Edinburgh University ‘I had dates with 18 different fellows in my first term alone.’ She was, you see, popular; she had a choice, lots of choices, she did not have to marry the sombre and arrogant young red-haired man who was secretary of the debating society when she became its publicity convenor. When at last Robin saunters into view – and the reader’s heart leaps with relief – she reiterates: ‘I continued to have a succession of boyfriends; as soon as one liaison ended someone else was waiting in the wings.’ The wise reader draws a deep breath and understands that she must wait just a little longer for Margaret to feel quite validated enough to get cracking on the subject of her future husband.

It all began during a clinch in a taxi after what must have been an unusually erotically charged debate on the motion ‘That the world owes less to Marx and Lenin than to Marks and Spencer.’ We are told of the clinch, of the rerouting of the taxi to his place, of the ease of conversation and finally matters come to a head. ‘When you touch a person it can completely change your perception of him. Messages are imparted and received well below cerebral level. My sensorium went into overdrive that night, accepting and welcoming my alter ego.’ Translated into the first sexual encounter between young Margaret and the even younger Robin (he was 18 months her junior, but he had read most of Dickens by the time he was ten), this, too, might be more than you want to know, or to visualise, but as if aware of her readers’ potential discomfort she excuses us: ‘But now I shall ask my reader to withdraw discreetly from the room, and turn the light off, please.’ This reader very nearly broke her mind’s ankle over the coffee things left thoughtlessly on the floor, so rapidly was she absenting herself from what Margaret describes as the Cooks’ sacrosanct moment. The bit where the fairy tales end came fairly rapidly. After a few days spent mostly in bed, with Robin apparently admiring her French tan, he announced that he was falling in love with her. Immediately after this he wanted her to have his baby, and then, just two weeks into the romance (possibly with an eye to the inadvisability of having a love-child blight any future political career), he asked her to marry him. She said she’d think about it. He looked crestfallen. She said yes. And they did not live happily every after.

Let’s get the aesthetics out of the way. Dr Cook has enough good taste not to dwell on her husband’s looks, but not so much as to ignore the subject completely. She believes she must have been responding to a question of his about his appearance when she told him: ‘You’re not classically handsome, but by no means ugly.’ Though appearance was not uppermost in her mind when it came to men, she ‘did not like obese men and preferred to look upon an elegant and graceful form; which, it must be said, Robin did not have. But he had interesting green eyes and a fair complexion.’ She is, in fact, a mistress of diminishment, skilled in the art of damning with faint praise. She worried about the way her ‘rather colourful love-life contrasted with his … he had had so little opportunity to sow his wild oats, and I felt there was a distinct risk that he would seek to do it later, particularly as he, competitive in this as in virtually everything, also felt at a disadvantage.’ Although he ‘lacked the qualities required to make friends easily … some people liked to associate with him because his intelligence and dominance had a certain magnetism; this was one feature that attracted me’.

As the years roll on, Margaret Cook puts up with her husband’s tantrums, his remoteness, his absences, mostly in the name of the sacredness of the family. When he first admits to an affair in 1987, he asks for five others to be taken into consideration (whether he is cleansing his soul or boasting is not clear), but Margaret is most outraged that he chooses to tell her at the moment when her heart was ‘breaking’ because of her horse, which earlier that day had broken its leg and been put down. This has a ring of truth about it: Margaret’s heart is for her horses, Robin’s for his political career. Least taxing for both of them, you suspect, are emotional entanglements. His long affair with his secretary, Gaynor, was tolerated by Margaret, who moved him out of her bed (largely on health grounds) but maintained public and familial relations with him. Apart from those febrile first two weeks, passion is not the subject of the Cooks’ marriage. She feels hard done by not so much for being rejected by her loved one, as in the method and the timing of her ousting. She had had only a single visit to Chevening as the wife of the Foreign Secretary before the marriage came to an end. ‘It might be deemed appropriate, or even artistic, to protest that I wish I had never visited Chevening, since I was only to enjoy it for one solitary weekend.’ Not being artistic (or appropriate), she concedes: ‘I am not ashamed to admit that of course I regretted the loss of those privileges that came to me as wife of the Foreign Secretary, though they were way down the scale of afflictions.’

The marriage is brought to an end by New Labour, rather than by husband or wife. With the threat of exposure by the News of the World, mobile phones go berserk as the Cooks arrive at Heathrow for a three-week riding holiday in Montana (she’d bought him new green suede chaps for the occasion). Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair instruct Cook to end his marriage there and then. The consensus is that he must not do a Parkinson and dump the mistress in an incredible attempt to prove loyalty to the old wife. New Labour dictates New Marriage, with the dumping of the wife and the marrying of the mistress. In the current corridors of power, heterosexual love conquers all, or at least averts a needless resignation. According to Margaret, they were merely trying to save the Foreign Secretary’s bacon. She remembered what he said when he first confessed the affair with Gaynor: ‘It’s been going on for two years now. It’s very foolish and I’ve wanted to end it many times, but she just won’t let me.’ When the affair continued, she saw that Gaynor ‘could make life very unpleasant if he treated her badly. Possibly there had been threats.’

The former Mrs Cook received a letter of condolence from Tony Blair for her distress in being caught up in a media storm, but he did not mention his sorrow at the break-up of her marriage. Her response was a furious letter back to Blair, who was in Tuscany, and this elicited an anxious phone call from Peter Mandelson trying to smooth things out. The main plan seemed to be to stop Margaret talking to the press. The spin doctors might as well have tried to stop the earth from turning on its axis. Margaret had begun to sense her power. Robin was being difficult about giving her the house in the divorce settlement. It occurred to her that there were ‘one or two things’ she wanted to say publicly. She granted an interview to the Sunday Times about the hours required of a senior doctor and how they might have contributed to the split in her marriage. She intended, she says, only to bring up the matter of medical policy. Cook conceded his share of the house.

She had got a taste for self-expression, however, and wrote a letter to the Scotsman about the intense time-pressures on politicians, which ‘drive a person from his natural pace’, and ‘coupled with the addiction to praise and acclaim, do induce a form of madness’. Robin suddenly visited Margaret and wondered if she had finished writing to the press and she confirmed that she had no more plans to do so. But power, as she perceived, is addictive. ‘Conscious of the considerable personal satisfaction I gained from positive reactions to my brief forays into the press, I sat down and penned a letter to the Times,’ this time on the subject of avoiding the suffering of children at the break-up of a marriage, and how theirs had not suffered, even though Robin now had less input into their upbringing. It was, she deemed, hardly controversial and yet, once the other papers had picked the letter up and turned it into headlines, Robin was on the phone to announce that he had put a gagging clause into the terms of the divorce. The subsequent conversation she had with Linda McDougall, in which she spoke freely and poured out her woes, was, she was sure, supposed to be off the record. But the writing came thick and fast: a piece for the Sunday Times on the commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies and a novel about her early medical experiences. Unfortunately ‘the article didn’t immediately appear, and my novel didn’t seem to find much favour.’ Further interviews, however, rendered Robin apoplectic. ‘Do you want to destroy me?’ he cried, over the phone. ‘When he calmed down a bit, he said that he would have to talk of his forthcoming marriage in glowing terms to the press. I said, say what you wish of Gaynor. But just make sure you cast no unpleasant asides on me. He said with feeling: “I would be happy if I never had to see or hear or think about you, ever again!”’ An agreement was signed in which she promised to remain silent, but she so much enjoyed writing that she did a couple of diary pieces for the Scottish Sunday Times and at last, feeling that Robin had survived the worst, she felt free to do what she wanted ‘beyond anything else’ and wrote her autobiography. ‘I am sorry if it will cause discomfort to certain people, some of whom I would prefer to spare. But for once I have done a thing entirely for myself.’

A woman I know poured the contents of a large tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup on the threshold of her ex-husband and his new wife’s brand new house with its brand new carpets one night when they were out. She found it, she says, deeply gratifying. But Margaret Cook has gone further, beyond the passing pleasures of revenge, to real recuperation, discovering that, if no one else will, she can put herself first. She has done so, and will quite likely go on doing so, at great and self-satisfying length.