Daily Mail, 12 February 2015
Shuffling self-consciously in his seat beside me at the cinema I sensed that my date was about to make his move. I wasn’t sure whether he’d do the awkward arm stretch behind my chair manoeuvre or ‘accidentally’ brush his thigh against mine. In the end he went for a more old-fashioned and romantic option and gently took my hand in his and gave it a squeeze.
It all sounds rather sweet, doesn’t it? But, rather than making my heart melt, the gesture made me cringe. Staring ahead at the screen, all I could think was ‘how soon can I extract my hand from his without appearing rude?’ In the end I waited a few seconds, subtly slipped my hand out of his grasp and edged myself away from him.
At 65, my date (I’ll call him Jerry) was a few years older than me. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend who thought we would be a good match. Jerry was a wealthy, highly successful, intelligent, divorced chap who worked in the film industry. He owned four homes around the world and, on paper at least, ticked every box going.
In the flesh, however, it was another story. He was slightly scruffy, with a scratchy-looking grey beard that made him look rather unkempt. He also suffered from a bad back which gave him an old man’s gait. The thought of being intimate with him repulsed me. After all, if he looked so unappealing in his clothes, what on earth would he look like naked? I tried to push aside mental images of grey chest hair, a sweaty bald patch and flabby stomach. No, there was no way I could ever sleep with this man. Not tonight, not ever.
In fact, if they were like this, I doubted whether I could ever sleep with any man my own age. Experience had shown I was better off with toyboys – so why had I swung to the other end of the age scale? Around this time last year I was thrust into the limelight after writing my candid memoir, Raven: My Year of Dating Dangerously. The book outlined my year of online dating which I’d undertaken in a quest to get over the breakdown of a recent long-term relationship. I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, just for some easy-going fun to assuage the loneliness and boredom of living on my own. And I certainly found it, with some 15 or so men (mostly under the age of 30) within a year. The whole experience was exhilarating and liberating.
Afterwards, many hundreds of people from around the world, both men and women, contacted me to say they’d enjoyed the book and admired me for being so honest about what is still a fairly taboo subject: relationships between older women and younger men. But along with the supporters came the angry mob who considered that I had not behaved with the decorum expected of a middle-class grandmother. One of the more unpleasant accusations was that my adventures with younger men had somehow turned me into ‘shop-soiled goods’ and that this would deter any ‘nice’ men out there and therefore any prospect of a fulfilling, long-term relationship. ‘Who’d take you on now?’ sneered one anonymous troll, while others gleefully informed me that my actions meant I could look forward to a sad and lonely old age. Many told me to grow up and date someone from my own age group.
While I could easily disregard the vitriolic views of strangers, many of whom I suspected were merely jealous or prudish, I did feel it would be sensible to put my experiences in perspective by dating some older men. After all, was it fair to give up on men of my generation? Surely they had charms and allure of their own?
And so it was that I found myself on a date with Jerry the ageing film producer. There was dinner first, and yes it was easy to converse with a man who ‘got’ the same things as me. Yet, as the conversation steered predictably down the safe avenues of favourite films and actors he’d worked with, my mind wandered back to those playful exchanges I’d enjoyed with one of my favourite younger chaps, during our wonderful sexy afternoons together. Aged 23, I called him ‘Pup’, and one of my favourite games was for me to quiz him: what year was President Kennedy shot? Name the drummer in the Beatles? He never could, bless him.
As I sat in that darkened cinema, feeling Jerry’s wrinkled hand clasp mine, I thought of Pup’s taut, football-training-toned body, and I knew this date would go no further. Outside, I quickly hailed a taxi and headed home. He got the message, and there was no second date.
I wondered afterwards whether I was being too fussy. Had my flings with younger guys led to my setting the bar unrealistically high? Of course a paunchy man fast approaching his 70th birthday will not compare favourably with a 23-year-old young stud.
But let’s turn the tables for a moment. If I was frumpy, overweight, with unkempt grey hair and dressed in sensible shoes and polyester slacks, would Jerry have even asked me out in the first place? No. So why on earth should I settle for an out-of-condition old codger like him just because society deems it appropriate for me? Especially not when I still feel vibrant and youthful enough to attract the hot young Pups of this world?
Still, there were times when the idea of a permanent partner seemed appealing. And knowing I wouldn’t get this with a much younger man, I decided to remain open to dates with men nearer my own age, who could sing along to the Rolling Stones. Maybe one of them might even arouse my interest in the same way the ones half their age had done. Finding willing candidates was easy enough. Ever since my book was published, I’d been inundated with correspondence from older men who wanted to meet me and prove they had just as much going for them as the young bucks had.
One such man was Daniel. A businessman in his mid-50s, he lived in the Home Counties and restored classic cars. We became Facebook friends. He was no matinee idol but looked presentable enough. We exchanged friendly messages and spoke on the phone. I agreed to let him take me to lunch. He picked me up in a vintage Jaguar. I was impressed.
We had a perfectly pleasant lunch in a picturesque spot along the Thames, but by the end of it I felt empty.
‘So, tell me about yourself,’ was the hackneyed prelude which had made my heart sink. But it was even worse listening to his own cosy anecdotes. Did I really want to know about that classic 1966 Mercedes SL he’d restored, or where his children went to school? No, I wanted the thrill of seeing a beautiful young man over the other side of the dinner table, laughing at my little anachronisms and making me giddy with excitement.
As he drove me home in his swish car, I thought of the Tube journeys I’d shared with my younger dates. I’d enjoyed them so much more.
We stayed in touch via email and he kept trying to pursue things further, but I knew there would be no point. He’d have liked me to be his girlfriend, but you can’t commit yourself to someone just because he is a nice person – even if he does have a cool car.
I’ve crossed paths with other older men too, in the past year or so – some I merely corresponded with, some I met in person. I’ve discovered how world-weary and bitter they can be, desperate to offload their emotional baggage on any female who will listen.
The chubby, balding civil servant in his early 50s who contacted me would not normally be someone I’d meet up with, but he messaged me in such a witty and eloquent way that I agreed to meet him for tea. His company amused me, so when he later invited me to his house so he could cook me dinner I accepted. But trapped in his tiny living room I began to feel stifled by his tales of woe.
‘I’ve never married, Monica,’ he confessed. ‘My longest relationship was barely a year. Why is that? Why am I so hopeless when it comes to women? What is it about me? Am I attractive?’
No, you’re not, I wanted to bark. Because you constantly whinge and whine the whole time. By the end of the evening, I felt more like his therapist than his date. It was a relief to escape back into the drizzly dark night and drive home.
Another older potential suitor was 63-year-old Martin. Thankfully, I learned enough about him on the phone to decide not to go for a drink with him. He was a champion whinger whose bitterness could have melted the phone line. During our get-to-know-you chat, he launched into a tirade against his ex-wife, claiming she was a terrible woman who’d betrayed him and abandoned their children. Then he started on his subsequent partner – she was a selfish, gold-digging alcoholic apparently. Eventually, he deigned to inquire about me and my life, but by then my brain was too numb for conversation.
I’ve got my own gripes about exes – who doesn’t? – but I wouldn’t dream of bad-mouthing them to a virtual stranger, let alone one I am trying to impress.
In my view, today’s middle-aged British men are rather lost at sea. They’re not great on grooming, mistakenly taking their lead from the young. I mean, designer stubble can look sexy on a cute 26-year-old but it makes a 62-year-old look like a dishevelled pensioner. My pet hate is the man in a trainspotter-style anorak, with a pot belly boldly protruding over his trouser belt. Dear-oh-dear. You wouldn’t get blokes like that in France or Italy.
Mature women nowadays are all too aware of the importance of taking care of the face, hair and body, and of dressing well in order to hold the interest of the opposite sex. Why don’t older men think the same rules apply to them? I feel sorry for any older woman holding out for a well-preserved, stylish, sexy George Clooney or Pierce Brosnan type, because I can assure you there ain’t a lot of them out there!
And it isn’t just about appearance, either. Older men don’t seem to know how to conduct themselves around women. They hail from an era when ‘men were men’ and they wore the trousers in a relationship. They were the provider, the defender. They made the moves, they called the shots. But that does not wash in a modern society filled with strong, independent women. The balance of power has shifted and this seems to confuse a lot of 55-plus men, even the successful ones. They don’t know whether they should pay for your dinner, or whether it’s OK to put an arm around your shoulder or compliment you on your legs. Men under 30 neither know nor care about such ‘rules’. Used to the notion of equality between the sexes, they are more spontaneous and natural. If they think you look sexy, they tell you. If they want to have sex they tell you. If they disagree with you they tell you.
Even so, there was one older man who almost made the grade. Philip, 59, is a clever, well-informed and courtly man who works in academia. We met at a social gathering and I found him very personable. Compared to the other older fellows, he was in pretty good shape too. He had read my memoir and was very complimentary about it and had gone on to read other books I had written, which, naturally, I found very flattering. I saw him for dinner a few times until it became apparent that he wanted to take things to the next level … the bedroom. But I didn’t – not least because he reminded me so much of an ex partner that it made me uneasy. The end of our dates became increasingly awkward, with me trying to slip away politely without any smooching. I would have liked to remain platonic friends with him because we clearly enjoyed each other’s company. But it came down to that old When Harry Met Sally thing. It’s not easy to be ‘just friends’ with someone of the opposite sex, if one of you wants more. Eventually he stopped messaging me.
Today I am no longer doing online or mobile phone dating and I haven’t yet found that perfect Mr My-Own-Age. So have I given up on men altogether? Taken holy orders? No.
Last summer I entered an enjoyable part-time relationship with an Irishman called Rory, a graphic designer who lives in Dublin. He wrote to me after seeing me on a late-night Irish chat show and we hit it off. Every few weeks he comes to London to see me, his ‘naughty secret’. At 38 he’s no youngster, but he’s still more than two decades younger than me. I see him as a fair compromise. He’s neither young enough to be my grandson nor old enough to look like my father. It will end at some point, probably when he meets his next serious girlfriend, but for now this arrangement will do me very nicely, thank you. Our tastes in films, music and books are at polar opposites, and we rarely agree about the issues of the day. But none of it matters because we laugh a lot and have a bloody good time.
Meanwhile I’m left wondering whether, if I had never experienced the sexiness and appeal of a man half my age, I could have settled for a pot-bellied, scratchy-bearded and dentally-challenged specimen. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure. Those cute, fit young guys I encountered during my wild year of online dating are forever etched in my mind. They have made it tricky for me to find older chaps attractive, and believe me, I have tried. So, it looks like I will go on getting my thrills from younger men – for as long as they get a thrill from being with me.