I've just watched Tuesday evening's BBC4 programme Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance on iPlayer, the first of a three-part mini-series. (They are all mini nowadays! But that's another topic). What better after breakfast, to start the day with? It was something I watched with mixed feelings.
I have been married myself, in 1983, on St Valentine's Day - which was my own romantic idea - when I was aged 30, in a period not yet covered by this first programme. But strangely much of it applied, because I grew up having absorbed all that my parents had said about their own marriage immediately after the Second World War, and had seen their example before my eyes all of my life. They of course had learned their own standards and behaviour in the 1920s from parents and others who had before them been brought up according to Victorian ideas of what was right and proper, notions that had been very slow to change, and in living conditions that were far removed from today's.
My marriage did not succeed. Like the relationships that came before it, and those that followed, it was doomed to failure.
It began well enough, after a pleasant courtship of almost a year, but if I had not been nudged into popping the question in late 1982, nothing would have happened, and we would have drifted apart. (And how then might my life have gone?) My marriage was (I still think) a positive, enriching experience for the first four years, when homebuilding and enjoying the novel role of parent filled it up. After that, it slowly declined as my wife and I found we had much less in common than we hoped. Arguments and differences simmered as we strove to keep it all from A---, my step-daughter. Her departure to New Zealand for a year after her A Level exams was the coup de grace. The cement was gone. Within months we were permanently separated. That was in 1991. Divorce had to wait until the law allowed. My wife made me put my life on hold for the full five years then needed for a divorce on grounds of incompatability, where one partner (not me) was unwilling to end the marriage. I got my Decree Absolute in 1996. I have never remarried, even though I did often think about it during my years with M---. But it was definitely a case of once bitten, forever shy.
Marriage was a step too far for me. However, in the 1990s, and later, it was still the conventional thing to do, the Big Moment to plan for, especially if children were on the scene. And if there were children, marriage safeguarded their interests, ensuring (if it all went wrong) at least a home while they were of school age. So it was the Responsible Thing To Do.
And it might well go wrong. Even when I married in 1983, I was aware that the odds were against it lasting a lifetime, and that I was risking unhappiness. But I had the high hopes of the inexperienced, and a determination to make a proper go of it. Thirty years later, I am completely disillusioned, not just from my own experience, but from how it has been for so many others who have related their stories to me. But I'm not in the slightest degree bitter or regretful about this. In fact I feel as if I survived a kind of cathartic wartime experience, and emerged emotionally and financially battered, but still alive and kicking.
Currently I'm back to that state again, after my long quasi-marriage to M---. The same sensation of being shipwrecked, struggling to the shore, relieved to have no broken bones or serious cuts; picking through whatever the storm has washed up onto the beach; finding that I'll be all right if I set to, and get a hut made, and a fire going, and make a knife, and fashion a bow and arrow, and cobble together some fishing tackle, and fashion a cloak and skirt to hide my nakedness. And a necklace of sea shells and pebbles. Robina Crusoe. Just me and the desert island in the sun. Just me and a hut full of salvaged comforts. Just me and the sea, and the wind, and the wide beautiful sky, and the brilliant stars at night, and the cry of seabirds, and memories to ponder, and tunes to hum, and words to sing, and plans to explore the island and discover its secrets. All on my own. A metaphor for my real future life.
But this isn't how my parents' generation looked at their lives. So far as I can see, they were sexually innocent, subject to parental and official authority, and constrained by many social conventions. Marriage was built up to be the chief ambition within everyone's reach. As essential as finding a job. With children as inevitable and natural as rain. No solitary desert isand independence for them. Some men might pursue a career, and devote themselves to that for years, but most wanted a sweetheart, a wife, a home they could call their own, and kiddies to complete it. Something to work for, to give point to the daily toil. And my parents' generation believed in total commitment to each other, for better or worse. Often worse, of course, but they were prepared to make the best of it. They had their well-defined roles, and if it all worked out the reward for the effort and the compromises was trusted companionship for sixty years and more. Not to be sniffed at.
My Mum and Dad seemed so united. So devoted to each other. So sexless too. I couldn't imagine them ever having passionate moments in bed. It didn't square with the snores coming from their bedroom when I began to speculate on how and when I came to be conceived. For I was born six years after they got married - quite a long time afterwards for those days - and nothing much was ever said about those six years. There were a few photographs, taken on the beach somewhere. Hardly any other momentoes. Both had a decent job. They had a house, rented at first, then purchased. But how did they fill those years? Dad was working on an extension to his autobiography when he died in 2009. In the first weeks afterwards, I looked though his manuscript for clues. But I didn't learn much, and I'm still not ready to revisit it.
I gathered that there may have been problems. I know Mum's mum, a diabetic, died quite young in 1948. I know this made Mum's brother, who loved his mum and was devastated by her death, emigrate to Australia. He ran away. This left Mum without any close family. And Dad had none. So they were very reliant on each other. I know that Dad had some awkward edges that Mum, a strong-willed woman who was prepared to speak her mind, succeeded in smoothing away, though at what cost to Dad I couldn't say, and can never now find out. I suspect that things did not go well at times. I remember that Dad smoked (which Mum was strongly against), and liked his beer (he admitted to me that he'd once been severely scolded by Mum when he came home from the office worse for booze, and had to promise never to do it again). Even so, they must have shared a bed with the usual consequences. Why then did six years pass before I was born? I have speculated on a string of miscarriages before I came along. But it's beyond knowing now.
However it was, they stayed together and ended up with all that they could have hoped for. Dad in a very good job. Mum the domestic queen in a nice house. Two trophy children to be proud of, at least until they got to their teens.
I wonder what Mum and Dad thought when I announced my marriage? They said only conventional things at the time. I think they really wanted a wedding for me like they had had. A white wedding in a church, with proper vows, made to a pretty young thing who would bear children to dote over. Not to an older woman with a twelve-year old child, and not after I'd just failed some important Civil Service exams. It must have seemed unwise, done at the wrong moment, rushed. My parents were never usually slow in telling me what they thought of my ideas and ambitions, but they said nothing, and let it go ahead. It wouldn't of course have mattered if they had ventured an opinion against my marrying. I had begun to assert myself. I had begun in fact to renounce convention and embrace the unknown and unsafe. I would have stubbornly gone ahead if they'd disapproved.
And what did they think when it folded, some years later? They did not say to me, 'We knew this would happen. We could have told you so.' They said nothing; nothing at all for many, many years.
And, if still alive, what would they say now, with the dust settling on my long relationship with M---? From my point of view, nothing useful. I wouldn't want to hear, yet again, how they would have stuck it out, and found a way. I'd want some frankness about their own marriage. And an admission that human beings are very imperfect, and find it difficult to get on with each other without tears and frustration, and the subjugation of one to the other. For there is always one partner who - subtly or not - has the whip hand. I think they had scars to prove it. Invisible ones. As I have.
Even if I could experience a second marriage that was somehow benign and truly equal, I'd not be free. And I will not give up my freedom. So not again, thank you.