TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 April 2015
Most of us Londoners, on a cold, grey day, or when the tube breaks down in sweltering heat, occasionally fantasise about moving to the country, where the air is fresher and the pace of life less hectic. But most of us stop at occasional fantasies, realising the difficulties in terms of jobs, acquiring new practical skills, money, etc etc. Liz Jones didn't. When her four-year marriage to Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal (tirades against whom fill the book) ended, she decided on a total life change. She bought a rescue racehorse called Lizzie, and in a great hurry (Lizzie was too difficult to put in livery for long, and it was too costly) sold up her Georgian townhouse and - via a major property firm - set out to search for a country home for them. Because she wanted Lizzie to have a lot of space, she would only look at properties with a great deal of land - which limited her region-wise. Nevertheless, her firm found her a Victorian farm on the edge of Exmoor National Park, and Jones duly moved. Whether or not she didn't have time to do a proper survey, or whether she was so desperate to move fast that she didn't investigate the property or the survey in detail I'm not sure - but for whatever reason, on arriving in her new home, she became convinced she'd made a big mistake, that she was living in a 'ruin', that she should have stayed in London. Nevertheless, she stuck it out in Exmoor and with her menagerie - her four cats, Lizzie, two other horses bought 'in case Lizzie gets lonely', Michael the rescue collie (who she found abandoned by the roadside) and various chickens and sheep acquired from local farmers, she tried to make her mark. It wasn't easy. Lizzie was so difficult that Liz Jones became almost entirely dependent on the services of equine behaviourist Nicola Bebb (who became her full-time employee and still works for her), Michael turned out to have a taste for savaging sheep, there were (as we are repeatedly told) no decent men around, and the cost of the animals - who by the end of the book are accumulating at an alarming rate as Jones begins to buy animals to cheer herself up (books and clothes are a bit cheaper!) escalated alarmingly. But something stopped Jones giving up entirely - perhaps her feeling of loyalty to her animals, perhaps her instinctive response to the beauty of her surroundings. Even now she's left Exmoor she continues to live 'the rural life' to a certain degree.
Until I read this book, I had a sneaking admiration for Liz Jones - for her quirky, often very intelligent editing of Marie Claire, for her honest admission of life's more miserable aspects (why I think a lot of women read her column), for her campaigning in the fashion business and for her undeniable intelligence as a writer (she's a hit and miss journalist, but at best she can be very good). True, I thought her book about her marriage was unfair to her husband (did we really need all the personal details about his hygiene?) and some of her friends - but it did have a nice dry wit, and Jones mocked herself as much as she mocked others. Her autobiography, though self-pitying, was also extremely readable, and very interesting in places. But - while I still admire Jones for her work with rescue animals, and think that some of her writing (particularly her descriptions of the Exmoor countryside) are very good, this book made me acutely uneasy.
First, there was Jones's sentimental attitude to the countryside. Nature is famously 'red in tooth and claw' even without man's involvement but Jones seems to take the opposite view - that the countryside would be a place of tranquillity and joy, with Mr and Mrs Sheep and Mr and Mrs Chicken and all the other livestock playing happy families, and even Mr and Mrs Fox converting to veganism if it was suggested to them, if only there were no farmers about. Her constant interference with the local farmers (ringing them up to complain about how they look after their livestock, throwing hysterics about any sort of shooting (there are ethical shooting organisations, Ms Jones) and claiming that anyone who eats meat, or keeps livestock for meat purposes, is akin to a murderer must have been maddening for the inhabitants of Exmoor, ditto her absolute disdain for any vet or animal welfare worker who doesn't tell her exactly what she wants to hear. I'm no horsewoman, and have only ever owned cats, not dogs, so can't testify to whether Ms Jones does the right thing by her animals, but I can't help wondering whether (despite her excellent intentions) she's really the best person to own hoards of rescue animals. For one thing, she clearly hasn't worked out the economics of it all - this is testified to in the grim final chapters where, in fits of depression, Jones takes to buying animal after animal (two hyperactive collie pups, several feral cats, a fourth horse) and then realises that she's so horrendously in debt that she can't even feed herself. She also doesn't seem to have the toughness needed to work with difficult or damaged animals. Lizzie sounds like a horse who'd need very specialised treatment - treatment that Jones, for all her kindness, is simply too nervy and inexperienced a horsewoman to provide. Collies are notoriously difficult to train, and Jones's method of either letting them do what they like (including going to the toilet on her floors) or trying to reason with them sounds like a recipe for disaster (indeed, a recent column by Jones related that her dogs had attacked one of her cats; and I shudder at her description of how Michael 'stopped savaging sheep because I had a serious chat to him' - really?). And is it really fair on four cats who've had their owner's entire attention for several years to bring in a huge menage of hyperactive dogs, feral cats plus several horses? Jones also ends up looking after chickens and sheep that she's not qualified to look after, purely because she believes any other owner would be 'cruel'. Fine if you're going to set up a proper animal rescue sanctuary with qualified helpers, but Jones's instinctive decisions - often based (though not always) on slightly sentimental idealisation of the animal kingdom, sound dangerous.
But worse than this is the book's utter bitchiness. 'How One Single Girl Got Married' was rude about people, but in a rather dry, humorous way, and Jones did write fondly of friends and family. But here, everyone's up to be savaged - apart from Emily at the delicatessen (who Jones admires for her beauty), the invaluable Nicola and her family and, for the most part, Jones herself, who's portrayed as a poor little victim. Her past friends are all heartless traitors - when one of her remaining friends gets pregnant and comes to visit for the weekend, Jones becomes cold and antagonistic, convinced that her friend will become 'selfish and boring' when she becomes a mother. Her ex-husband is abused on paper in every way possible, portrayed both as a hopeless, heartless philanderer and as a poor, weak man who can't survive without her. The neighbours are all horrible: either upper-class snobs or country bumpkins like Jones's gardener (who she sneeringly refers to as 'Brain'). The vets are all incompetent, the farmers brutes, the men who try to date Jones weird obsessives. Jones hates them all. After a while, you simply feel you can't win. Jones moans for ages about not having a boyfriend, then claims that if a man was still unmarried by his late 30s he'd be a freak anyway. She goes on and on about hating her appearance, but when her ex tells her she looks younger than previously, she spits with rage that he hasn't paid more of a compliment: 'many 19 year olds aren't in as good shape as me!'. She seems to measure everything she does by how the inane Carrie (Sex and the City) and Bridget Jones did things - which inevitably means she's heading for failure. The men who do try to chat her up are 'weird' or do the wrong thing within about five minutes by not treating her to expensive dinners, costly presents etc. Even her animals let her down by savaging her chairs, biting her, depositing mice on the bed. After a while her endless wailing about her own misery and her tirades of abuse get very tedious.
And - most importantly, I doubt the truth of some of the book. According to Jones's later memoir, she had one - and for a while two - sisters staying near her on Exmoor for much of her time there. Why then does she never mention them and go on about being totally alone? And in another scene she talks about how as a sixth-former she played Olivia in Twelfth Night and nearly auditioned for RADA, while in Exmoor she's typecast as 'the ancient Mrs P' in a local drama. According to her previous and later memoirs, Liz did hardly any acting as a sixth-former, and played 'the ancient Mrs P' as one of her few sixth-form dramatic roles. These obvious whoppers do make me wonder how much of this book is literally true.
There are things to recommend this book - some of Jones's lovely descriptions of the countryside, some of the information on rescue animals, and even some of her thoughts about her past and about remaking her life. But for the most part the angry tirades reminded me of nothing so much as a bizarre modern retelling of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens in which the once hugely generous (but intimacy-shunning) title role retreats to the wilderness to hurl abuse at everyone, requesting that on his grave be put the words 'Here lies Timon, Who Alive All Men did Hate'. How appropriate that Jones, like Timon, ended up with massive money problems! I hope she learns that mankind isn't so bad after all at some stage - it might help her enjoy life a little more.