‘I wish I could subdue the flesh that sadly troubles me…’ So the wonderful and not altogether regretfully still randy John Betjeman in his poem Senex. The autumnal tone manages to combine all the burgeoning and moist and ripe stuff with misty wistfulness. So it is with the ageing process.
On a good day, a man can experience his apotheosis in contemplation of a job well done. There is the home, the esteem of friends, the respect of the young. Male progeny bound about with the confidence of newly horned stags, wreathed in A* certificates. The girls are so achingly pretty (as well as brilliantly clever of course), that any proper father will long to kill the young men who cluster around them. At ones side the female companion of ones life is full of uxorious affection, satisfied with the knowledge that she is very definitely a handsome, even ‘still beautiful’ woman.
But as our happily mature couple stand in the October sunshine outside the Church after the Harvest Festival and watch the rest of the congregation swirl briefly like leaves in a millrace as they depart, do they not feel a cooler breeze of apprehension and impending loss?
Surely, the man’s eyes follow that tall slender girl with long straight hair as her designer jean clad buttocks segue down the path? And does not his wife’s smile become somehow warmer and more personal as she greets the young, fresh from a long yacht race and utterly charming boy to whom she had once taught piano? His buttocks too are admirable.
At least though, the advent of autumn has meant the girl isn’t wearing the sob-inducing shorts she affects in her summer visits to the village. Nor, now that the University calls, will the youth be glimpsed in his Lycra cycling gear as his powerful loins drive the machine along the High Street and his muscular torso gleams like an angel’s in the sunshine.
In an episode of Midsomer Murders – and this mise en scene must be one such, there is an inevitable denouement. All that segueing and semi-naked cycling hides tidal waves of frustrated lust, febrile desire and misdirected love. It is quite probable that an early victim will be found to be wearing women’s knickers. There will be a middle-aged woman clinging on to the leg of a departing younger lover. Luckily, this won’t be Inspector Barnaby’s wife, who is actually a genuinely very attractive woman and ineffably beyond reproach in the best possible sense. If it comes to marital crisis it will be Barnaby clinging to his wife’s leg. More often the abandoned one is a person who is what? ‘Raddled’ is too strong a word. ‘Been around the block’ is a phrase we used to employ and it serves well. There are so many similar expressions inferring that a good time has been had and a price paid. Women seem to suffer more than men for their sins, but ‘twas ever thus.
Lest we think this is all getting too cosily bourgeois and old-fashioned, remind yourselves that, as a general principle in porn films, the older the protagonists get, the sleazier the production. Bellies and tits sag and all the lines are showing and they are all not good. Like fruit in a Dutch painting everything is overripe. It’s the Harvest Festival when the Festival has left town. It’s Breughel. It’s what real people really like because they are really like that. Which is why EastEnders is so popular. This is about a people and a culture in the autumn of their life.
Of course, sex can still be good between consenting couples of the same advancing age, in the way BBQs can be good in the autumn. Things feel warm, so you get the equipment ready and when it is dusk the light is kind. There is a glow on and a soft bun and a piquant juiciness. Afterwards, you can relax with another glass or three of wine and watch the sun disappear below the horizon and think how good it was and how great it is to still be a competent player in the game.
Meanwhile, outside the church at least the male half of the couple is on the way to fantasy city. He remembers the girl had once told him at some wedding they had both attended that he was ‘a lot of fun.’ She had then held his arm and kissed him on the cheek, but close to the corner of his mouth. He has forgotten his own comment one evening over brandy and cigars and apropos some story about a deluded colleague: ‘there’s only one reason a young girl would be interested in men like us, money.’ ‘Or power’ someone else added. ‘Same thing’ he had replied. ‘What about women?’ Comes the challenging question. ‘Think about Joan Collins’ ‘Wouldn’t kick her out of bed at any age’ is greeted with a mixture of approving grunts and dissenting groans.
Our hero doesn’t know what his wife thinks. She has her own ideas about what goes on in a post-menopausal dreamscape. Much of the time it is a transitory passing of images and recollections prompted by the boy on the bicycle. Is there mature fruit here to be whipped into a frenzied souffle? Well, it is possible. Meanwhile, she is fond of her husband as of an old dog. His occasional forays, snuffling into her lap or lying over her licking her ear are bearable and even perfectly pleasant. Especially when she thinks of him as the guardian of her financial security and the sire of her children, three of them anyway.
Self-evidently, the onset of winter brings relief from the constant stimulus or rebuke of naked flesh. One is left alone with ones private thoughts and The Erotic Review, thank heavens. The occasional pretty girl or boy encountered on a chance will only have their faces to entice you. Ones partner will be a familiar and loved visage smiling from the decollete of a pleasant but functional piece of night attire from Boden. This indicates the place of sex in the style scheme of things.
Even in an era of apparent continual sexual arousal some diminuendo in the challenge of lust at full volume is welcome. Much in the way there can be too many MacDonalds or Gordon Ramsay Restaurants to cope with. There are points in any seductive proposition when we can say ‘thanks but no thanks babe.’ Or, if a woman ‘you’re very sweet’. There is one big difference though for our couple outside the church. Your man, should he have the opportunity to make a decision, knows deep down the invitation will not be much related to his charm and least of all to his physical appeal. A woman (unless possessed of or offering access to wealth and power) will know more certainly that it is indeed her charm, which gains her the compliments, whatever her own estimate of her physical qualities. In the real world of middle England, physically appreciated she may also deservedly be. But she also knows she does not truly compete with the young totty of her sailing boy’s generation: except perhaps in the matter of technique.
It is a curious phenomenon that the older woman is (or in a pre-PC era was) granted considerable social respect and latitude in the matter of the sexual education of young men. La Souffle au Coeur took this to the most erotic and delicate extreme in its portrayal of the love affair between an elegant woman and her adolescent son. Older men attempting the same thing with young girls have always been rather frowned on. Even among their peers any jealousy is mediated by a sense of imminent schadenfreude. It is a convention of the pornographic novel of course that the virgin is debauched by an older man – preferably wicked uncle, but the narrative often includes an older female as his accomplice. There are uncomfortable shades of paedophilia in such contes but in truth they merely subvert the natural longing of age for youth. It was probably American Beauty which best encapsulated such hopeless and hapless affections.
When a psychiatric nurse I was struck by a particular phenomenon of my geriatric charges’ behaviour. The men loved taking their clothes off and walking around naked. Old women on the other hand confined themselves to releasing all the scatological lore they had accumulated over a lifetime of being women. Men were taught from babyhood that it was our cocks that were the source of our power and admiration. So we show them off at every opportunity – sometimes inopportunely. In our mad dotage it is the only thing left to show. Women have had to deal with the dilemma of the beauty and the shame of their bodies. Worse, that beauty is described and defined for them by their biology and also by their sisters in society. This is a competition for power. Once redundant the biology has no power. Grandma knows that it isn’t her tits but her tongue that will sustain her. Katherine Hepburn in Lion in Winter most certainly defined that skill. It was she too who with Henry Fonda made On Golden Pond such an elegaic portrayal of the lifelong conflict that binds men and women.
On an encouraging note, I read that for men, regular orgasms (no prescription is given as to how they must be achieved), are a good preventive against prostate ailments. Ideally, and failing any more demanding rumpy-pumpy, one might use this to blandish the old girl into a blow- or handjob on a more frequent basis. Absent these reliefs, as in the case of Ms Smith v. Mr Smith, one can plead medical necessity when challenged with the DVD receipt or internet download charge. Whether it would work in the case of say, frotteurism on public transport is dubious. An older man would probably get a sympathetic response from an elderly male magistrate if he confessed to rubbing a semi-erect member (albeit cloth clad) into the thigh of a call-centre worker. But the general climate of judgement is likely to be against him unless he wants to plead madness and I wouldn’t recommend that.
There may come a time in our lives when we say ‘we’re too old for that sort of thing’. Meantime, we should all raise a glass to dear J. Betjeman and his famous response to the question ‘do you have any regrets?’
“Yes, I haven’t had enough sex.”