On thy withered Lips and dry,
Which like barren Furrows lye;
Brooding Kisses I will pour,
Shall thy youthful Heat restore.
Such kind Show’rs in Autumn fall,
And a second Spring recall:
Nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient Person of my Heart.
Rochester, A SONG of a Young LADY. To her Ancient Lover.
Even as a bright young thing, I was aware that I was not quite like the other girls. Being a bookish type, rather than falling on mother’s lap ‘like Niobe, all tears’, I explored libraries and literature, encyclopedias and erotica, the better to understand myself. There was a medical term for my condition, I learned; a Latin name. There were also names that were less – nice, let’s say: terms of abuse; whispered words you’d not want your parents to overhear. In my favour, there was also a strong cultural tradition supporting my inclination; even if many sexual and social commentators spoke out against it. I was cowardly enough not to mention it much, but I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty about it either.
No, I wasn’t a lesbian: I was a gerontophile, jail-bait, a daddy-fixated bad-girl, a gold-digger. Apparently.
You have to understand how it was. The eighties. Teenage me: all leggings and Flashdance sweatshirts, vintage tea-dresses, French novels and Private Eye. My authorised idols were the big-haired boy-men of pop – Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, Simply Red, and so on – but to me none of them seemed worth even a half-hearted squeal. Their over-tight trousers had an air of ‘protesting too much’, while their poet-shirts were nothing more than big girls’ blouses. Though they were theoretically mature enough to qualify as older men, their quiffy coiffures and heavy make-up suggested to me that they would remain perpetual teenagers, in love with their mirror. I felt, perhaps unkindly, and before I’d ever myself had any experience of men or boys, that I had already outgrown Simon le Bon-bon and his sugar-coated kind. I had set my sights higher. I wanted Cary Grant.
Now, to nip any burgeoning assumptions in the bud, and the devil take my manicure – I was not the child of a broken home or widowed mother. I was then and remain today very close to Dear Old Dad. Nor was I denied access to young men. It was purely a matter of aesthetics, in the same way that my taste always happened to run more to non-contemporary music and classic books. I found it odd, in fact, that more girls weren’t like me. I could never comprehend why, even on a purely fantasy level, anyone would pick the (surely limited) sweet nothings of a Jon Bon Jovi over a James Stewart. And no, I didn’t want him purely for his patter; but even at fourteen it was clear to me that a man with elegance and wit and a laughing eye was the best prospect for all kinds of amusement. But at fourteen, I would have to wait. When a few months ago I watched An Education, I was entirely racked with envy for the schoolgirl Lynn Barber: in rural Cornwall, candidates for mixing a cocktail, waltzing you into a swoon then taking you gently on a chaise longue were much thinner on the ground. I did the best I could, dating as far above my own age as possible from among the leather-jacketed town-boys, Young Farmers and apprentice fishermen who came my way. The first time I encountered my ideal man in the flesh was a quirky sixth-form English teacher, prematurely grey; whose neat, round arse I would leer after (to the incredulity of my friends) as he trotted ahead of us down corridors. Even today, I still find sleeveless sweaters imbued with erotic nostalgia. My teacher and I spent our coffee-breaks together passionately discussing philosophy and literature, but my clumsy attempts to take things further were resolutely ignored. He was the closest I would come to what I sought for another ten years.
When older man-younger woman couplings are discussed (as they frequently are, and usually in rabid and salacious tones) it is the men’s motives which are most thoroughly probed. Disgusting, dirty old pervert, the red-tops spit whenever an age-difference couple emerges (all the while printing bikini-shots of the luscious lovely in question and a clear subtext of ‘the lucky, lucky bastard’). In such cases, the women are considered to be childlike: passive but greedy, tricked into relations and relationships by the promise of gifts, cash and callow sophistication. The best they can hope for in terms of being accorded any agency in their own lives and loves is to be called manipulative.
Just as it is rarely considered that there could be intellectual parity in the older man-younger woman coupling – when in fact one of the reasons I myself continued to date upwards was in the hope of finding a man for whom I did not have to fake ignorance of the crossword solutions – so the younger woman’s impulse is never described as being sexually-motivated. It is always assumed that you have made the trade off of a hot young man’s body and pumping hard sex for the older man’s companionship and financial security. (May I remind you that there are plenty of out of shape, lack-lustre eighteen year-olds out there? That even the most rippling rock-hard musculature is no guarantee of a rock-hard cock? – let alone any prowess as a lover or satisfactory endowment? And also that there are plenty of poor older men? Thank you.)
If the old goat in question is unarguably, even to the narrowed spiteful gaze of prejudice, fit and handsome, the younger woman is still advised against. It will never last! Bel Mooney, self-professed ‘cougar’, balefully growls: ‘I know one woman married to an older man who became all too aware of the age difference and found the signs of ageing in her husband very unattractive – and left him. And not so long ago, in my advice column in the Mail, I published a letter from a reader who made the same complaint.’ It is not just the tabloids who take this attitude: Dr. Thomas Stuttaford in the Sunday Times warns that ‘ageing can’t be disguised for ever’. For there is nothing that the naysayers like more than gasping horrified rants about sagging male bodies pressed up to nubile girlish flesh. I must protest, though, that it is perfectly possible to find an older lover genuinely sexy. More sexy than any younger counterpart you can imagine. The best lovers I have had have all been more than seventeen years my senior, and not one has ever had a moment’s need for Viagra. I have never had a disappointing tryst, nor ever gazed at a lover naked in daylight and thought anything other than how I wanted that body on top of me right now. My husband, at sixty-two, has a far better physique than the late-thirties lover with whom I cohabited during the PhD years of my mid-twenties.
I am not the only woman in my circle who feels this way: one very close friend had a passionate long-term relationship with a married seventy-something, from whom she received no money, influence or security; only love. Sometimes I wonder if the revulsion that some sexual commentators express when discussing this topic comes from their own inadequacies, their own fears of death, of ageing, of real honest unbuffed-and-waxed human physicality. The questions they ask are only prying voyeurism disguised as well-meant advice – ‘how will you cope when he is old and needs caring for?’ You try to form a stuttering answer, demonstrating your commitment come what may, but in fact you are no better placed nor any more duty-bound to consider and answer them than a pair of twenty-somethings would be. No-one asks them unnecessary questions – ‘how will you cope when one of you becomes paralysed from the waist down following a car-crash?’ We can none of us at any age make assumptions about what the future holds. Perhaps we should all consider how things might change if our lover were for some reason suddenly to depend on us – but the truth is that no amount of fantasy-world forward-planning will tell you how you’d really feel and really act. All you can do, as with anything in life, is hope you’ll behave with grace and kindness throughout all the ups and downs any relationship with another human being is prone to.
I emphatically reject the clichés of the ‘May-December’ romance. No-one would ever have dared use them of Bogart and Baccall. I am not silly or perverse; but I will concede to ‘fussy’. I have certain standards. I have never required an authority figure or a sugar-daddy, and I was never going to be anyone’s acolyte. I did insist to myself however from an early age that I deserved someone who I could find truly attractive and interesting. I’ve rarely considered a lover’s chronological statistics particularly relevant, though. When I fell in love with my husband, we neither of us guessed that the age difference was as much as twenty-four years, nor were we put off when we found out. I do not need people to think that he is ‘well-preserved’ or young-looking for me to find him gorgeous. I have never once been taken for father and daughter when out with any of my lovers. Nor, though some of my husband’s female friends had reservations about me until we met in person, has anyone ever had an evening’s conversation with me and been able to accuse me of being a gold-digging bimbo. I simply felt I deserved someone with similar reading habits, cultural milestones, sexual habits and passionate inclinations; who would challenge and bring out the best in me – and, reader, I married him.