Iit’s been 25 years since I accidentally shot a travel article for the Observer of a “romantic” weekend in Bruges in a niche journalistic genre – travel memoirs on misery. The trip was planned a few days after my (spoiler alert!) future ex-husband told me he was leaving me… and we went anyway. This little slice of misery-memory story was titled “At Waterloo station I sat down and cried”.
While the travel article subgenre as the anatomy of a marital breakdown never really caught fire, the article has gone on to live its best life in the journalistic sphere. After reading it, I heard afterwards that many people had specifically booked Suite 50 at the Die Swaene Hotel in Bruges. For about a year after it was published, I documented the fallout in my weekly Observer magazine column, before being commissioned to make a book out of it, The heart-shaped ball (Picador, 1999).
After my husband was long gone and my “rebound” relationship fell apart while the book was being written, I completely lost my own plot and ended up in a mental hospital for a few weeks – the memory of which eternal is seeing Dana International win Eurovision, which, oddly enough, brought me back to relative sanity. However, the story I had hoped to provide with a happy ending had taken a different, darker turn. As her editor, Ursula Doyle, wrote to me in a note upon publication, “you cracked beautifullyKate”.
Which was good.
Around the turn of the century, my goal was to get the “girl overboard” (as the magazine column was titled) out of the lifeboat and onto dry land. When I finally left the Observer in 2010, after being the newspaper’s TV critic for the previous decade (and giving birth to my sons, who will be 20 and 16 this year), I liked to think I had done that.
Looking back, in 1997 – when the nation’s collective upper lip wavered after the death of Princess Diana – there was barely a designated shelf of autobiographical hearts on tear-stained sleeves in your local Waterstones; nowadays there will probably be an entire wall. Tonally, things have evolved as well. American writer Heather Havrilesky, whose Foreverland: On the Divine Boredom of Marriage just released, both subverted the genre and raised the bar with its expose of a seemingly still-booming marriage. Who takes cojones.
While the title of a New York Times article on eternal country was quite sober (“Heather Havrilesky compares her husband to a pile of laundry”), an example of those oddly po-faced staccato headers favored by American newspapers was the New York Post“Wife Calls Marriage ‘Crazy’, Hates Husband: ‘Snores a Pile of Meat’.”
So, while I haven’t read his book, I like the sound of Havrilesky, who clearly has no qualms at the time and Story. Which brings me neatly to the biggest contrast between my 1990s memoir and Heather’s 21st century variety: “hate mail” came to my Observer office in an envelope with a stamp, densely scrawled and annotated in the margins, and sometimes in the proverbial green ink.
However, these letters were largely overtaken by fan mail. Far meaner to me than the readers were my fellow journalists, and because the online newspaper was in its infancy and my column wasn’t even scampering through cyberspace, there were no weekly freaks in below the line. life like misery memoirist was entirely analogue – when I was a guest on Radio 4 Today and woman’s hour and (maximum fame!) Richard & Judy, obviously everyone could have hated what I said but I didn’t have to hear about it. And if I read something hurtful, I’d just leave for a smoke and a good scream in the stairwell of the Observeris Farringdon Road HQ.
On a memorable occasion, try to combine a cigarette break with quiet sobbing while reading Craig Brown’s latest book Guardian column satirizing mine, my colleague Andrew Rawnsley attempted to cheer me up, gently observing that being ridiculed by Craig Brown was something I would probably consider a career high. He was, of course, absolutely right – although probably, at that very moment, also a few decades before me.
These days, if you don’t like Havrilesky’s hot spot on modern marital discord, you don’t even have to read his book to have an opinion. Instead, you can just bypass facts or rationality and focus on you, tell her exactly what you think of her, by shouting, on social networks. Many things to do.
Now, post menopause, I could probably hack that, but I wouldn’t have done very well in my early thirties. For me, this pain was not performative – it was raw, real and disconcerting, and writing was the only way I knew to contain it. I wasn’t trying to promote or even expect to be liked, I just did my best to speak the truth – “my truth” – and if anyone objected, I felt that it was mostly his business, not mine.
Mistakes, I’ve made a few: I’ve given too much of myself, confusing maintaining firm boundaries for self-preservation with some sort of withholding of truth. I was wrong about that; I could have taken care of myself and some people close to me better than I did.
However, I have no major regrets. Nonetheless, the stakes for truth are higher now. In the 90s, being trolled meant that Julie Burchill was sarcastic about you in a review of the evening standard, blushing while reading it on the Tube home. Now, for every fangirl who showers a writer with empathetic broken hearts and cheering emojis, there are just as many — maybe more — anonymous trolls who wish you death. And if your book’s release accidentally coincided with, say, the arrival of a pandemic or the start of an unexpected war… well, you might want to deploy the old “duck and cover” strategy.
As I discovered in the late 1990s, publicly addressed perceptions of pain have a pecking order. You don’t want, for example, to be caught writing your emotional loneliness in your marital bed while other people are blown out of theirs by something as grotesquely physical as a missile. In 2015, in an article bringing together Rachel Cusk (whose scathing memoir of her own marital breakdown, Consequences, I had been in a minority of writers to criticize kindly) alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ovide and Sylvia Plath, Blake Morrison wrote: “The confessional memoir is not to be recommended. Critics dismiss it as the equivalent of a selfie, a snapshot of looking at myself, a glorified ego trip. Narcissism, it is said, is inscribed in the very word “memory”: me-me.
However, the author of And when did you last see your father? went on to observe that “what confessional memoirs have in common is an intimacy not normally expected – the reader has privileged access to the truths the author feels compelled to reveal, no matter how inconvenient or painful -they”.
It’s the truth that makes a marital memoir, in particular, both compelling and able to articulate the thoughts and feelings of those readers along the way.
When I recently marked the 25th anniversary of Via Waterloo station on Facebook, a friend put it beautifully: “I read this column and your book as my own equally brief marriage was falling apart. You summed up exactly how I felt. It was an incredible experience for me. All these years later, I’m still grateful that you shared your story.
Journalists largely live in the moment, never really expecting what they write to stay long in anyone’s memory – so a quarter of a century after I sat down to respect my original deadline, it is a great privilege to know that By Waterloo station… touched so many people. It certainly changed my life.
Read “At Waterloo station I sat down and cried” on www.kathrynflett.substack.com