You really shouldn't get married on St Valentine's Day, but back in 1983 that was my own bright idea. I take full responsibility for it, even though - for me at least - the Day of Love and Romance is now forever associated with a failed marriage. But I offer these excuses: it was my first (and so far only) wedding, I was in love, I believed in what I was about to do, and I wanted to make it a Very Special Day that could never be overlooked or forgotten. A special day for my new step-daughter A---, as well as for W--- and myself.
These were all good notions. I was disinclined to think of negative things, like it all going wrong, and a divorce following. My wife had been married once before, and you might say she'd had a much better idea of what might lie ahead. But if she had any misgivings she did not share them.
For the record, we had four good years before the cracks began to appear, then four more of slow decline before separation early in 1991. Divorce came in 1996: I was obliged to wait the full legal five years for it, my life on hold meanwhile. It was a despondent, downbeat end to high hopes at the start. But I won't criticise my ex-wife. She is far away now, living in new Zealand, and we may never meet again. I last saw and spoke with her in 2004.
On the other hand, I will freely criticise myself, and admit that marriage exposed my many incapacities. I will also assert that even if I couldn't manage the male role of husband very well, I did a willing, friendly and conscientious job as the parent of a teenage daughter. That said, A--- would have turned out well whatever I had done. She was a model child with a sensible head, and she kept her eye on what really mattered in life. Hats off to her.
We got married at the Morden Cottage register office in Morden Hall Park, near Wimbledon in south-west London. I haven't yet got round to scanning many of the pictures I was taking at the time (they were taken with transparency film) and so there isn't a handy shot of Morden Cottage - a rather romantic white-painted clapperboard mill house - but for some reason I do have a scanned shot of the park on a misty morning later in 1983, to give you an idea of the photo potential of the place:
I can't resist showing you two or three shots of that day thirty years ago. I know, you don't want to see any more pictures of me in a gender role that was actually a dead end. But this is my personal history, and it's a long time ago. This is also a key anniversary that in another world, another life, would be properly celebrated. This post is a kind of celebration.
14 February 1983 was a very cold, frosty day that threatened snow. I was all ready to depart from my flat, with loads of time to spare, when my family decended on me so that my then baby nephew M--- could have a necessary feed. In the end it was a rush to get there on time, and I didn't take a camera. But Dad did, and the photos below are his. The typed captions 'He had no chance to escape!' and
'Decorating the Guy' are also his, not mine. They suggest he was thinking of lambs going to the slaughter house - not my own feelings at
all at the time. His sense of humour perhaps.
In the upper shot I look relaxed and cheerful. But it was a snatched shot, taken only seconds before we had to go in for the ceremony conducted by the registrar. (Whose name was Mr Bird. I'm sure that generated some jokes among his many customers!) In the lower shot, you can see my brown Audi in the background, all decorated in the traditional manner with balloons. In the foreground, W---
(left) and A--- (right) are making certain that I look the part of a married man. The afternoon pub reception was at The Plough Inn between Worcester Park and New Malden. It was a lot of fun really. Eventually, after a good meal slightly spoilt (for me) by being told I mustn't consume a delicious-looking prawn cocktail in case I was allergic to seafood, it was time to drive off to Cornwall in the Audi. Another shot from Dad, this time without a pithy remark:
Our initial destination was Shaftesbury in Dorset. We were staying one night, the Wedding Night, at the Grosvenor Hotel in Shaftesbury. It was an old-fashioned place then, not the slick modern Hotel Grosvenor you see now. Here's what it looked like in 2003, much as I remember it for the honeymoon:
I remember a shivery late-evening stroll around the snowy streets of the town, the incredibly starry night sky, and a welcome warming nightcap at The Mitre pub in the Square, not far from the hotel. Next day, after a hearty cooked breakfast, we hit the road for a honeymoon in frozen Cornwall. We were staying at The Nook Hotel in Padstow, alias The Dower House, at the top end of the little town, in Fentonluna Lane near Prideaux Place. Here's a 2010 shot (when the place had long reverted to a private house) to give you an idea:
It was comfortable, but not terribly well-heated. It was brilliantly sunny in Cornwall, but so cold that there were sheets of ice on the beaches we visited. In 1983, Padstow had not yet been embraced by Rick Stein, and places to eat were very limited indeed, although one restaurant that still trades there, Rojano's, was open on some evenings. It struck me then that Cornwall out of season was much too quiet for city slickers! It's not greatly changed nowadays. Thank goodness, perhaps.
So much for the illustrated history of my Big Day thirty years ago. What is its legacy?
W--- introduced me to many new things, such as French cooking, the music of Sibelius, the flavour of Dry Martini, the pleasures and downsides of domestic life, her talented mother, her talented sisters, and their talented partners and children, so that I rubbed shoulders with writers, poets, lawyers, actors and actresses, and little bits of culture from France, Belgium and America. At its best it was a thoroughly jolly mêlée of rich food and flamboyant conversation. At its worst it was drunkenness and tears and a lot of bickering. I remained a low-key participant throughout. W--- let me try my hand at parenting, I think with fair success, even though I was much more a friend to A--- than a step-father, and I insisted that she never call me 'Dad'. That title was in my view reserved for A---'s natural father in New Zealand. I wasn't going to usurp his rightful place.
W--- also taught me that good intentions and high hopes, and love, are not enough. You must work hard and unremittingly at a marriage. Slack off, and it will slowly wither. It will die anyway, sooner or later, if you simply aren't compatable for the long haul. But effort achieves much.
Did we lose the will to refresh our marriage at some point? I think we did, but it would have come to grief sooner or later anyway. I simply wasn't right for W---, and in a way that I didn't understand at the time. The question I'd love to know is: did she spot my gender problem when I couldn't see it myself? Surely you don't live with someone for years without making observations and guesses? But I have not asked, and she has not said. A--- did tell me once, soon after I came out, that she'd discussed Lucy Melford with her Mum, and her response was apparently 'Really? Well, best of luck!' I hope that was true.