Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

Where revenge ought to be slow, artful and elegant, payback is sudden and terribly crude. And when it comes to popular forms of personal justice, one is either Electra, swearing long and subtle revenge for her father’s death, or Clytemnestra, who started the whole thing off by killing Agamemnon in a moment of saliva-curdling jealousy. Some people argue that the king’s wife wasn’t bothered about his bit on the side and that she murdered him because she was guilty about her own. But that’s not how it worked in the Greek family romance. Guilty people killed themselves and jealous people killed others. When Agamemnon returned from Troy with his parliamentary aide, who was naturally a bit younger than Her Indoors, the scene was immediately set for an upscale slumber party with knives.

The first thing to say about Chris Huhne is that he is not a natural Mycenaean. Agamemnon had bags of kingly authority and commanded the launch of a thousand ships. Huhne, on the other hand, was a hack on the Independent who later lost the Lib Dem leadership to Nick Clegg. (Apparently some postal votes didn’t turn up.) And so, going in search of someone with proper Greek chops and blood-dimmed eyes, we must be grateful to arrive at our Clytemnestra du jour, Mr Huhne’s ex-wife, Vasiliki Courmouzis, known to the nation, and the staff of Southwark Crown Court, as Vicky Pryce. A high-flying economist and mother of five, Ms Pryce was born in Athens and knows in her cold blood the very thrum of life’s soap operatics. She knows the tragedians’ subject, one might say, too well. There are people who have laser eyes, those who have an explosive sense of injury, but Vicky Pryce could pulp the Elgin Marbles with a single blink.

The other day, in a move that would have made Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus call suddenly for more papyrus, Ms Pryce announced to the court that she wanted to ‘expose’ Huhne’s ‘true character’. There is a design fault in the modern male that allows his true character to make itself felt only after he has cheated on his wife. Before that, he is steadfast, he is loyal to many causes, and a good father. You don’t believe me? Look again at the campaign literature Huhne used when fighting to be re-elected as the Member for Eastleigh. ‘Family matters to me so much,’ it said, under a photograph of him and Clytemnestra on their wedding day. ‘Where would we be without it?’

In court, is the short answer. Huhne obviously got more than he bargained for when he decided to dump Pryce. Of course, there’s dumping and there’s dumping, but it probably isn’t best, if one is ambitious for quick healing, to dump your wife during half-time of a World Cup match. It might have meant more had it been an England game, but Japan v. the Netherlands? To be fair, it wasn’t just this bad decision of Huhne’s that drove the former energy secretary’s wife mad. In direct contravention of How to Get Shot of Your Mad Wife, Level 101, he paraded his new squeeze, Carina, around the Party Conference. Pryce also alleges that the new woman in his life spread information about her in the press, making it appear that the breakdown of the marriage was all her fault. He also didn’t apologise. And he’s losing his looks.

Huhne did insufficient preparation. He didn’t marshal his arguments or demonstrate an acceptable command of the material. What he did, apparently, was take a volatile situation, a failed relationship, and push a woman to the point where her sense of injustice made her levitate. When people get into that state they cut up your suits. Or, nowadays, they become ‘soul-mates’ with the Sunday Times’s political editor. I must admit I don’t get British politicians: most of them are completely crap at politics. For instance: if you spend years with a woman who knows where the bodies are buried, be careful how you manage her disgust. Because as soon as you fuck her around she’s going to powder every room of your former life for fingerprints. Then, when you’re busy being stupid and ordering another bottle of champagne with your girlfriend and feeding fuck-off-o-grams to the press, she’s going to call the police in and hand them a spade and point to the exact spot.

And so it was that Ms Pryce did a mad thing. She revealed that her husband had passed his driving penalty points on to her several years before. It was mad for a number of reasons: the kamikaze nature of it, the fact that they would both be prosecuted. (Did it somewhere occur to her that this would bring them together again? Surely not.) But it was ethically mad, too. For those eight years, the incident hadn’t bothered her. But after his affair it was suddenly important to tell the world. Then the children were drafted in as lieutenants; suddenly they are given their roles. ‘You are the most ghastly man I have ever known,’ Huhne’s son texted. ‘You are such an autistic piece of shit. Don’t contact me again, you make me feel sick.’ ‘Don’t text me you fat piece of shit.’

Huhne handed his former wife a prize. He handed her a machine that can produce nothing but quick wins. Out of his carelessness she rises like a priestess of payback. She needn’t take any responsibility for the decay of their marriage. She need only point to his adultery and the way their son hates him. She need only weep in the witness box and speak of an abortion he ‘made’ her have in 1990 because of his career. This trial is no victory for women. It isn’t about a man’s bad behaviour – we know all about that, and it never ends – but about a woman who seeks publicly to destroy the things she loved, including her own sense of volition. Her defence in this case is one of ‘marital coercion’. But marriage is coercive in its bones and that suited her fine until her husband wanted to jump some new ones.

Yet Clytemnestras aren’t born, they’re made. Huhne should have known what time it is (not least because his mother, the actress Ann Murray, was the voice of the Speaking Clock) and he might have set out slowly to offer his family a seating plan for the new life. Instead he stoked his wife’s anger. Resentment can do odd things to intelligent people: it can make them want a victory much bigger than the occasion requires, they want a firestorm, and some part of them craves the whole family’s implosion so they can start again with people who smell refreshingly of other fires. Pryce is now said to be dating Denis MacShane, the former MP for Rotherham who resigned over expenses violations last year.