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Uncommon Arrangements

I read yesterday of the sad loss of Hilary (Hilly) Kilmarnock, mother of Martin Amis and wife of the late Kingsley Amis. I knew nothing of Hilly’s story, but was moved to learn how, years after she Kingsley and divorced, Kingsley, unsuited to life on his own, was welcomed into the home of Hilly and her husband, Lord Kilmarnock. The arrangement was that Kingsley would pay the bills in return for bed and board, but it was Hilly who cared for him until his death in 1995. It strikes me that this, and not fleeting physical attraction, is what love really is.

It put me in mind of a wonderful book by Katie Roiphe called Uncommon Arrangements, describing seven marriages in literary London 1910 -1939, among them those of H G and Jane Wells, Vanessa and Clive Bell and Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin.  Each unconventional by the standards of the day, the relationships we are permitted to eavesdrop on were sometimes practical, sometimes daring, sometimes heartbreaking for the party who made the compromises and kept the stiff upper lip. Some of the parties who claimed publicly, ‘Yes, we’re all terribly happy,’ were extremely naive in how accepting of the situation their long-suffering partner was, and what the impact was on the children involved, whose feelings took a far lower priority than their need to have a full and satisfying sex life.

Yesterday, the London Evening Standard carried an article about a man brought up by a pair of Wimbledon Swingers (I’m sure that the workings of the Wimbledon Babysitting Circle passed many of us by), now living in France in an ‘uncommon arrangement’ of his own, where both his and his wife’s lovers are welcomed into the family home. (It could never happen in England he says. Read the book, Christian: it was happening in the Twenties.) “Children have to know about love-making very early on,” he says, justifying not only assorted lovers, but also open displays of erotic literature and sex toys (I had a horrible image of his wife’s hand-carved dildos – from tree roots no less – being put away in the toy box with the Lego bricks and pink plastic Peppa Pig characters)  “because that is what life is centred around.” In your house, possibly. I’m aware of other households where, after children arrive, life centres around their needs rather than those of the adults.

But whilst I didn’t agree with all of the sentiments expressed, I did have some sympathy for his view that, if relationships do not adapt, the divorce lawyers win, while people become disposable. “Well-brought up people, they just walk out on their families. They cannot face communication.”

Hilly Kilmarnock appears to have been one of those remarkable people whose love adapted and that, even after divorce, the people involved were not disposable. Eventually we work out who is important to us. In between, there is life.