Jilly Cooper

How To Stay Married

to Leo

Introduction to revised edition

MORE THAN FORTY years ago, I dined next to Godfrey Smith, the gloriously convivial editor of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine, and regaled him with tales about the screaming domestic chaos of my first months of marriage. I explained that because we made love all night and I spent all day, except for a scurrying shopping lunch, at the office, then rushed home to wash, iron, clean the flat, cook and eat supper, make love all night, go to the office — a pattern that was repeated until one died of exhaustion and our flat was so dirty I found a fungus growing under the sink.

On one occasion, I told Godfrey, my red silk scarf strayed into the washing machine at the launderette, so my husband Leo’s shirts came out streaked like the dawn and he claimed he was the only member of the rugger fifteen with a rose-pink jockstrap. Our attempts at DIY were just as disastrous, as we stripped off the damp course in the drawing room, then found we’d papered our cat to the wall like the Canterville Ghost. Godfrey laughed a lot and commissioned a piece called ‘A Young Wife’s Tale’, which appeared in the Sunday Times colour mag.

My poor mother was subsequently besieged by telephone calls from her friends: ‘Darling, what’s a jockstrap?’

Shortly after I had the miraculous break of a column in the Sunday Times, which lasted thirteen and a half years. At the same time a publishing friend asked me to write a little book called How to Stay Married.

I was so unbelievably flattered that even though I’d only been married seven years, I said yes, and was soon merrily laying down the law on everything from sex on the honeymoon to setting up house, from in-laws to infidelity. With a deadline of three months, however, as well as my new weekly column to write, a six-month-old baby to look after and a newish house in Fulham to try to run, my poor neglected Leo got very short shrift and grumbled the book should be called How to Get Divorced.

He was, in fact, a huge help with the writing and, as can be seen by his photograph on the jacket, was the handsome hero of the book, which amazingly was published on time in October 1969 and even received some kind reviews.

Forty-two years later, when I blithely suggested reprinting How to Stay Married to coincide with our approaching golden wedding, my gallant publishers — to whom I have been happily hitched for almost as long — suggested I write a new foreword (or backward) from a fifty-year perspective. This entailed re- reading How to Stay Married for the first time since it was published, whereupon I nearly died of horror. What a smug, opinionated proselytising little know-all I was then. For a start, I announced sternly that men detested seeing women slaving in the house, so their wives must arrange to work from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. so they could rush home and clean, iron and cook before their husband returned.

‘If you amuse a man in bed,’ I went on, ‘he’s not likely to bother about the mountain of dust underneath it,’ or even more hubristically, ‘be unlikely to stray.’

How could I have insisted that ‘a woman should be grateful her husband wants her,’ and suggested that if a wife refuses her husband sex then she has only herself to blame if he’s unfaithful. Ouch, ouch! Amending this bit is one of the only changes I have made to the text.

More shamingly, I have never practised what I preached, advocating total honesty about money being essential in marriage, and that ‘couples should always know what the other is spending’. And that from a wife who regularly smuggled new clothes into her wardrobe, ripping off the price tag, lying: ‘This old thing.’

‘No wife has the right to go to seed,’ I thundered, when I myself become a positive hayfield when I’m trying to finish a book, not washing my hair for days, hairy ankles sprouting out from ragged tracksuit bottoms. Yet not a word did I add urging husbands to exert self-control to avoid a beer belly.

Back in 1969, of course, men were expected to be masterful: ‘If a man is married to a slut,’ I pronounced fiercely, he must remonstrate with her, adding that ‘women like a firm hand.’

‘They’d probably prefer a farm hand,’ observed Leo, when he read that bit.

My recommendations were all so dogmatic. One moment I was warning wives at the pain of divorce not to run out of toothpaste or loo paper, the next telling them how to detect if their husband was having an affair: ‘If you both come home from work and the cat isn’t hungry.’ There was hardly anything about wives pursuing a career. If she needed a little money, I suggested, why not make paper flowers, or frame pictures?

Oh dear, oh dear. In mitigation, I suppose I was writing in a different age, when women’s lib had hardly been heard of. No one had dreamed up New Men or paternity leave, and two-career marriages were a rarity, particularly if the couple had children. My own youthful ambition had been to marry a man I’d fallen madly in love with, who’d whisk me away from the squalor of the typing pool. My role model was my beautiful mother, who looked after my father and us children so well because she never went out to work. My father, the breadwinner, because he called the shots, was surreptitiously nicknamed ‘Monsieur Bossy’ by my brother and me.

And yet despite the arrogance and the bossiness, I think there is good sense in much of How to Stay Married. What, I wonder, is the secret of a good marriage? Separate towns if you both snore, goes the old joke. Separate razors certainly. Today, probably separate remote controls.

My secret was to marry a really sweet man, who as I said back in 1969, had been married before. Thus after a cataclysmic row when I was tearfully packing my bags, he would reassure me that such tempests were normal in marriage and would blow over. Then he would make me laugh by saying we mustn’t let Michael, our black cat, be the victim of a broken home.

Throughout our marriage he’s constantly been funny.

‘What does Jilly wear in bed?’ asked one journalist, to which Leo replied, ‘Dogs mostly,’ and that when he reached over in the night for something furry, he would often get bitten.

Marriage, I’ve always believed, is kept alive by bed-springs creaking as much from helpless laughter as from sex. On our honeymoon we passed a large sign saying: ‘Bear left for Norwich’, and had this vision of some purposeful grizzly setting out on his travels. Soon the bear had spawned a whole family of other imaginary bears, about whom we made up silly private jokes and talked through them, as we always talk through our animals:

‘You love that dog more than me,’ Leo will say.

‘I don’t, I don’t, he’s just nicer to me sometimes.’

When we had been married forty years, in 2001, although reeling from the hammer blow of Leo being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, we celebrated our ruby wedding with a very jolly party. In a speech, displaying far more humility than I ever did in How to Stay Married, I compared marriage to two people rowing across a vast ocean in a tiny boat, sometimes revelling in blue skies and lovely sunsets, sometimes rocked by storms so violent we’d nearly capsized, but somehow we’d battled on.

So many people gave us red or crimson roses, that we made a special ruby wedding flower bed in our garden. Ten years later as our golden wedding draws near, the roses are blooming, if a little battered, and the bed is invaded by wild flowers, happily including speedwell.

We have now reached a stage in our marriage when we worry much less about screwing than unscrewing the top on the Sancerre bottle or the glucosamine pills. We are utterly defeated by technology, but one of the plusses of six gorgeous grandchildren is they can turn on the DVD, use Google, send emails, change channels on wireless and television and record programmes for us.

Several hours a day are spent searching for credit cards, paper knives and spectacles, or a glass of wine left in an alcove in another room. The other day, we spent an acrimonious half-hour missing Downton Abbey as we searched frantically for the remote control, only to find Leo was sitting on it.

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