Vicky Pryce and the curse of shared pain

There are few characters in public life who give the press, and presumably its readers, such sustained satisfaction and pleasure as the deserted wife. When things go well at the end of a high-profile marriage – that is, badly – the full misery and ghastliness of the situation can be played out like a wonderful soap opera over a period of months with the help of concerned commentators and journalists.

Sometimes the wife refuses to play the game. Jane Clark was maddeningly philosophical while her husband, Alan, was in full rut. Others with straying husbands follow the Mary Archer/ Norma Major approach, and resolve their problems in the old-fashioned, private way. Increasingly, though, the wife in a marriage that has very publicly gone wrong obliges by speaking out. It is the 21st century, and she is damned if she is going to stand by as her husband skips off with his new squeeze, occasionally muttering the usual clichés of regret.

It is always a terrible mistake. By a cruel paradox, the more a deserted wife resists victim status by speaking her mind, the more of a victim she appears. As Margaret Cook once showed, and Vicky Pryce is now demonstrating, the brief moment of satisfaction of press coverage is nothing beside the lasting harm it does, publicly to reputation and privately to the process of emotional repair.

In our own lives, we know that life is complex, and that few if any marriages conform to the villain-and-victim model of Victorian melodramas, but in coverage of public marriages old attitudes live on. People like to have reassuring prejudices reinforced: the randy husband, the suffering, self-sacrificing wife, the scheming other woman, the happy home destroyed by selfishness and lust.

When the wife speaks out, the fairytale version of events endures. However hurt and angry Pryce feels about the way her marriage to Chris Huhne ended, allowing herself to play the media game merely makes it worse. Anyone who has been through the end of a long-term marriage will know that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to keep the unhappiness to oneself. There comes a moment, though, when sharing the misery around does more harm than good.

There are always those who rather enjoy being part of the drama. In a Guardian interview this weekend, Pryce said: “I have friends who say if they were me they wouldn’t get up in the morning. And every morning, I think: ‘How am I going to get through the day?'” Could she not see that, like the “friends” who make her feel worse with their sympathy, an interviewer is an emotion-junkie. Pryce may have wanted to talk about her impressive career and plans, but the journalist is after the money-shot and, sure enough (“I am not sure her eyes are not filling”), she gets it.

Folk wisdom of the age dictates that expressed emotion brings relief, but the examples of Pryce and others tell a more awkward truth. Don’t share your pain. The best way to be strong and avoid being seen as a victim is to keep quiet, and get on with your life.

Big certainly, but is it art?

Those of us who find the conceptual art of Mark Wallinger, with its giant horses and gallery imitations of Brian Haw’s anti-Iraq display, just a touch gimmicky will probably not hurry out to buy a new study of his work, written by Martin Herbert. All the same, it includes reassuring news about some of the Wallinger projects which we have been spared.

A plan to put 10 huge white orbs around the Olympic Park was rejected, as was an “extraordinarily long” photograph of the Derby finish on the Heathrow Express. An artwork which involved dropping $15,000 into an American river was thought to be ecologically risky. The world’s tallest flagpole was not, after all, erected in South Shields. A vast heart-shaped balloon almost, but not quite, made it into the sky about Folkestone. The 50-metre high horse, planned for Ebbsfleet in Kent, has posed problems of structure and finance, its cost currently around £12m.

There is a pattern to this work. It is big, excessive, egocentric. Its scope is presumably intended to provide an ironic commentary on something or other, but there is also an arrogance at its centre: the artist wants to impose himself massively on everyday scenes. These monstrous installations undeniably sum up the mood of the moment – but not in a good way.

On the endless celebrity circuit

In his bizarre and compelling new book One on One, Craig Brown recounts 101 unlikely but true encounters of the famous, linking them together like a daisy-chain of celebrity meetings, beginning and ending with Adolf Hitler. So George Galloway meets Michael Barrymore who meets Diana, Princess of Wales, who meets Princess Grace of Monaco, and so on.

The effect of the book is to confirm the impression that the famous live in their own world in which differences of background and attitude are as nothing on the common ground of shared celebrity. To anyone reading the book, the news that Sir Salman Rushdie has recently been going out with Courtney Love, former lead singer of Hole, widow of Kurt Cobain and an impressively consistent bad girl in the worlds of rock and Hollywood, would seem only natural.

The question of who Courtney Love will next meet in the endless celebrity daisy-chain is trickier, particularly since she currently plans to take a business studies course at Oxford. Lord Sugar, perhaps, or Duncan Bannatyne.

Independent, 4 October 2011