Monthly Archives: July 2015

Notes from the Fallow Land: Reflections on dating (or not) in your late thirties

After a (mostly self-imposed) period of singledom, I’ve recently decided it’s time to get ‘out there’ again. The clues have been hard to ignore: for instance, I’ve taken to looking at random guys in the street, saying to myself (hopefully not out loud but I can’t be sure – I spend a lot of time on my own, and this happens) ‘ooh, he’s nice’ and immediately checking out his ring finger. Hmm.

But how and where to meet someone? These days, the internet seems to be the go-to place (as opposed to the Ritzy, as it was in my youth – simpler times). I’ve internet dated, on and off, for more than three years and I’m not here to argue for its merits or faults, although the facts that I’m still looking and that so many of these sites continue to do storming business probably tell you something.

A (male) friend of mine maintains that internet dating is great because you effectively get a tick-list up front: you already know your potential mate is an atheist / wants kids / likes sport before you even meet, so you’re unlikely to be confronted by a bible-bashing, baby-hating couch potato on the first date (unless they’re a pathological liar, of which dare I say there may be a few on t’interweb). It’s efficient, isn’t it? It saves everybody time. You know you’re 94.8% compatible before you’ve taken your first nervous bite of tapas.

But I can’t help observe that this ‘scientific’ approach is missing something: chemistry. One of the enormous charms of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is that it shows that even the most practical heart won’t be held to a tick-list. The heart wants the elusive butterflies, the logic-defying attraction that leads you to repeatedly fall for the same unsuitable…oh, wait…

Whatever the pros and cons, everyone seems to know at least one couple who met on and are now married (not that I want to get married – been there, got the cynicism). So it seemed worth another go.

Now, I am 39. Internet dating can be one-dimensional, even brutal, but it gives you a good idea of What Men Are Looking For. Do you know what 39-year-old men are Looking For? 29-year-olds. Okay, 33 at a push. I routinely find myself ‘too old’ for men my own age and older. This poses some interesting questions, the main one being: Why? Is it firmness of flesh they’re after, or freshness of ovaries? I don’t know (it could be both), and I suspect it’s not polite to ask.

The annoying thing is, if it’s about the ovaries, I kind of get their point. I have one lovely child and I was, until a little while ago, hoping to have another. Notwithstanding the remote possibility that I could meet someone very soon, fall madly in love and have a bun in the oven by Christmas, I’m coming to terms with the reality that it’s unlikely to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I count myself VERY fortunate to have one happy, healthy, awesome boy (frankly, I’m not sure he can be topped anyway). But 39 does seem to be an odd place to be, dating-wise.

The men online who ‘like’ me tend to be a lot older than me. Nothing wrong with that, I know a lot of age 50+ men who are attractive, kind and not demonstrably psychopathic (most of them are married, though) and I don’t want to stand accused of the same kind of ageism I’m complaining about. I just feel that when it comes to a relationship I might be best suited to a guy who ‘gets’ my cultural references. I’m not sure it could work out between us if he was in his thirties when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out. But more than the age thing, my ‘admirers’ tend to be odd: you can tell a lot from someone’s profile name; witness ‘Conan the Librarian’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Jonny Angelsnake’ (who lived 230 miles from me, so I’m not sure what kind of relationship he was envisaging. One mostly conducted via Skype?)

There are other ways to meet men, of course, or so everyone tells me. Even when you’re a single mum who doesn’t get out that much, and when I do get out, well, I’m having fun with my friends, I’m paying too much attention to them, hopefully, to be ‘on the prowl’ (not that they’d mind, I’m sure – on the odd occasion I have, erm, ‘met’ someone, they’ve found it quite entertaining). So speaking of friends, what about that option: get set up with someone your friends know?

This is a tricky business. People are often reluctant to set you up with their singleton mates, presumably because, being their friend, they know the reasons they’re single and they ain’t good. And even when they say, in a confused way, ‘oh, actually, X is really nice’, the whole thing, for a stalwart of the internet dating generation, is painfully slow. There are no ‘winks’ or ‘likes’, you have to rely on body language, and conversation, and the back-to-the-playground business of hounding your friends with ‘Did he mention me? Do you think he likes me? Was I hideously drunk at the barbeque, because I can’t remember any of the conversation around the firepit once the port and cheese came out?’ (Just me?)

The other ‘way’ is the way of pure chance. Ah, fate, karma, serendipity. Bizarrely, I have recently met two men at train stations. Maybe not so bizarre as I love the whole Trevor Howard-Celia Johnson romance of trains and train stations, so I’m probably subconsciously seeking out encounters in that environment.

The first, at Waterloo, began with being asked whether I was wearing flat shoes because I was pregnant, and then being chased with an apologetic bag of Maltesers, so the auspices were mixed, to be fair. But the storyteller in me was a little bit captivated by this unusual beginning so I thought it would be fun if it led to something. We exchanged numbers and several messages, and he said repeatedly that he wanted to take me out, then inexplicably fell off the face of the texting earth. Perhaps by ‘take me out’ he meant he wanted to kill me, in which case probably a lucky escape.

The second ‘brief encounter’ began on the way home from London to Farnham (not on the same night as Malteser Man – I’m not that prolific) and ended with him saying (twice) that he ‘hoped’ he’d see me again. But he didn’t take my number, and in a town of roughly 40,000 inhabitants this seems to be leaving an awful lot to chance. A friend suggested I start hanging around outside the train station at night, but I’m pretty sure there’s a name for women like that, besides which, my heart sank a little bit when I told him I’d just come from watching To Kill A Mockingbird at the Barbican and he replied ‘that was a book as well, wasn’t it?’ That single comment may be the reason I didn’t ask for his number.

Which brings me to my last point: maybe I’m single because I’m too choosy. This might be true; the possibility is infinitely more comforting than the alternative (that I am fundamentally un-fanciable and the best I can hope for is a Conan Angelsnake amalgam) and, whilst I believe in compromise in relationships, this is one characteristic I’m not willing to change.

Because after all, who wants to be with someone who isn’t choosy? Who wants to be in a relationship and know that the other party is mainly thinking ‘well, you’ll do’? A very good, wise friend of mine once said that in a couple, both people should wake up every day thinking ‘wow, I’ve done well here’ and I believe that. I won’t settle for anything less.

I’d rather be on my own. I’m pretty good at it.

But sometimes, just sometimes, late in the evening, when I’m settled on the sofa…it would be nice to have someone to put the bins out.


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The Myth of the Nymphet: Why I Wrote a Book about a Pupil-Teacher Relationship

When people find out what Precocious is about, or when they read it, the first question they ask is usually: ‘is it true?’ By which they mean, of course, ‘did it happen to you?’

There’s more than a hint of the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ in the question. The topic of pupil-teacher affairs is one people usually find intriguing, and some find salacious. Two otherwise intelligent, sensitive, grown men have looked at the book and attempted to ‘flick forward to the sexy bits’…to which I usually reply that if you find the idea of a 28-year-old man having sex with a barely-15-year-old girl exciting, you should probably have a look at yourself.

I’ve been writing this book for some years and I always found it hard to explain ‘why’ I wrote it. Then earlier this year, judge Joanna Greenberg QC inadvertently articulated my reasons far better than I could.

In December 2014, Religious Studies teacher Stuart Kerner was found guilty of two counts of sexual activity with a child by a person in a position of trust. He had sex with a pupil who was 16 at the time (he was 42). Sentencing him in January, Greenberg gave him a suspended prison term on the basis that ‘it was she who groomed you, (and) you gave into temptation’.

This leads us to the nymphet myth. It has echoes of Lolita and Humbert Humbert’s protestation that ‘it was she who seduced me’. While many of us, recognising Humbert as perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator, don’t take this comment at face value, it seems some do: Robert McCrum, writing about Lolita in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels, says, ‘Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent.’ Erm. Why drug her, then?

I know that teenage girls are sexual beings. I was one. I know hormones abound, I know girls mature quickly and often don’t find boys their own age appealing. Sexual experimentation at that age is not only natural, I’d argue it’s essential – but ideally it should be with a partner who is also doing exactly that: experimenting. Otherwise there’s a massive power imbalance, between experimentation and experience.

There are those who argue with reference to the Kerner case that 16 is the age of consent, therefore this was two adults having consensual sex and Kerner was only criminalised because he was a teacher. But the distinction is important: there is already a power imbalance inherent in the student-teacher relationship, and no amount of ‘stalking’ or ‘grooming’ on the part of the girl can redress this.

That’s what Precocious is about, really: power. When we imbue victims of abuse (and that is what these ‘Lolitas’ are) with power, we also encumber them with guilt. We’re saying they’re complicit in their own abuse.

It’s not about physical readiness to have sex. It’s not about how old the girl (or boy, let’s not forget it does happen the other way around – funny though, when it does, it’s often again the woman who’s vilified) is or how old she acts. It’s about emotional readiness. How many 16-year-old girls are emotionally ready for a sexual relationship with a 42-year-old (married) man?

I’m also learning, as I’m currently training as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, how formative those early sexual experiences are, and how they can affect all areas of later life, impacting not just on the sex life but on wider areas of self-esteem, confidence, trust.

So when people ask me why I wrote Precocious, is it important to go over the rumours that were rife at my school (they abound at most schools, I suspect)? The instances of pupil-teacher friendships I know for a fact went further than propriety should allow? My own youthful obsessions with older men? It sort of doesn’t matter if it’s my story or not – the point is, it’s someone’s story. It’s too many people’s story.


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When I Grow Up

Brilliant post by Lou Morgan on the all-too-common impostor syndrome…

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