The old devils

At the age of 80, Lord Young of Dartington has become a father again, only months after marrying his 37-year-old third wife. Jeremy Hamand examines the rising trend of late fatherhood and marriages between old men and young women, while Lesley Gerard speaks to six couples who have confounded friends and relatives. Photographs by Zed Nelson

Jacob, says the Book of Genesis, loved Joseph "more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age". Three millennia on, children born to older fathers are still special. The Bible goes out of its way to stress the advanced age of the fathers of other leaders, among them Isaac, born when Abraham was 100; Esau and Jacob, born when Isaac was 60; and John the Baptist, born when his father Zacharias was an "old man".

In our day, late fatherhood has become more frequent as women postpone child-bearing and men remarry younger wives. Improved life expectancy means that fathers over 50 or 60 have a much better chance of seeing their children grow up than they did 100 years ago. Historically, in fact, young fatherhood was not especially common: a father's average age at the birth of his last child - 28 in 1950 - was 37 a century earlier.

More than 50,000 children are born in Britain every year to fathers over 40, though most of these are in their early forties. What's extraordinary is the number of children born to fathers over 60. The figure has risen by 45 per cent in the past ten years, and reached a total of nearly 700 in 1994.

Admittedly, very old fathers are, and always have been, a rarity. Experts, indeed, expect most men over 70 to be infertile, and statistics bear them out: only 16 births to fathers over 70 were registered in England and Wales in 1994. After a prostate operation, many men are functionally infertile because of a lack of fluid in their ejaculate - another hazard for the potential older father.

Some women choose older fathers for their children because they are likely to be more stable, more appreciative, and better off than men in their twenties and thirties. Their experience in having had children before is often a help to their partners. And in our society, in which masculinity is partly defined in terms of power and prestige, older men who have money, titles, fame or property undoubtedly have a certain cachet.

Many men who become fathers later in life are certainly rich and famous. Charles Chaplin was over 70 when the last of his eight children was born. Cary Grant, Rod Steiger, Anthony Quinn, Yves Montand, Pablo Casals, Pablo Picasso and Andres Segovia all became fathers after the age of 60. And at the age of 70, art critic Toni del Renzio became the world's oldest father of test-tube quads. But not all older fathers are rich or well known: only last year, a bricklayer in his nineties became a father.

Many older men enjoy fatherhood more than they did when they were younger. In middle or old age, they escape the distractions that younger fathers have; they are at home more often - perhaps all the time - and their lives are given a new focus and purpose by the all-consuming presence of their young offspring.

There is something in the commonplace that children keep you young. Small children, with their beauty, energy, curiosity and constant demands for attention, are a powerful antidote to the sloth and depression many men suffer in retirement. Unlike grandchildren - who bring pleasure but little responsibility - sons and daughters require constant involvement in their feeding, clothing, education and leisure. Through them, the older father makes friends with younger adults, parents of his children's school friends and friends of his younger partner, and feels renewed achievement as his children develop.

Many older men today feel that they missed out, because of their generation, on this close involvement. They belong to an age when the only male role was that of breadwinner. They now feel marginalised if they cannot be active in parenting, and, in our world of declining male authority, they realise that one advantage - perhaps the only one! - which they still have over women is their extended fertility.

Yet often they face hostility, from family or friends, who attribute "gold-digger" motives to their young partners, or from women resentful of the enduring sex appeal of older men when they themselves have been deserted for a younger woman. Some people feel disgust at the idea of old men being sexually active. Others suggest that older men make inadequate fathers, who embarrass their offspring.

But is it irresponsible or unethical for an older man to embark on late fatherhood in the knowledge that he will almost certainly die before the child is grown up? That decision must surely be the mother's - as it always used to be when men went off to war. Love, and the desire to bear a man's child, are powerful emotions. Increasingly, women bring up children on their own; many never see the fathers of these children. Is the death of a loved partner and father so very much worse than desertion, which affects huge numbers of children in our society? As fertility expert Professor Ian Craft, who has helped many older couples to have children, points out, "Life is a privilege, and very few people regret being born."

Of course, many of these children do worry about their father's approaching death. But, providing they have a close relationship with their father, few will resent his age, and in any case, to younger children, insofar as they think about age at all, all parents are "old".

John Mortimer writes in his autobiography of the preciousness of the child born in later life: "The child of middle age so greatly loved because you can see much more clearly the time limit set on your time together". And Keith Botsford, an Independent journalist, has written in similarly moving terms of his youngest child, born when he was 60: "The love I bear him is that much greater for being a late gift, and for my knowing that it will continue to illuminate me, should I live that long, when my oldest are seeing their first grandchildren into this world. I suspect his brothers and sisters feel a certain awe: that he is so young and yet enjoys such a long past and such a long future."

Jeremy Hamand is the author of 'Father Over Forty', published by Optima

Brian, 58, and Wendy, 29

Brian Booth, from Oldham, retired from his job as an industrial worker two years ago, after suffering a major heart attack. On 24 January this year, his 29-year-old wife, Wendy, gave birth to triplets, after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment.

Now, seven weeks after the birth of Katie, Jessica and Jason, the couple look ecstatic but exhausted. "We'll have to get this suite cleaned," says Brian, gesturing apologetically at the velour sofa. "They keep sicking up. The whole house must smell of baby sick."

He already has two daughters aged 35 and 29 from his first marriage, when he was 21, which ended in divorce after 25 years. "We didn't have anything in common towards the end," he says of his first wife. "She said I was immature, and perhaps I was. The first thing I did when we split up was go and buy a motorbike."

He no longer sees the daughters from his first marriage. "The eldest and I have lost touch. I don't know where she lives. The youngest is a lovely girl, but she never comes to visit. I think she's embarrassed because I've got such a young second wife. She's never seen the triplets, unless she saw their picture in the local newspaper."

Brian had been divorced and living alone for two years when he met Wendy, who was then 18, at the home of a friend. "I saw this beautiful blonde, with a fabulous figure," he recalls. "It was love at first sight. I thought, 'I must have that woman.'"

He asked her out, and she refused. "She must have thought I was a dirty old man. But I couldn't give up. I kept visiting the house where she was staying. In the end, I wore her down and she agreed to come to a bikers' club with me."

"I was surprised to find I had a good time," Wendy says. "He was different from boyfriends I had had because he had manners, opened doors for

me, and asked my opinion. I wasn't used to that."

Four months later, they slept together, and she moved in. "I was nervous of telling my parents: my mother is 53, my father 54 - younger than Brian. Most of all, I worried that my grandparents would disapprove. But my mother simply said, 'You're old enough to make your own mistakes', and my grandparents were surprisingly liberal. They said, 'If you have a chance at happiness, go for it.'"

In August 1986, a year before they married, Wendy had a miscarriage. Hospital tests revealed that Brian had a low sperm count. But the couple were refused funding for IVF treatment (where the eggs are removed from the womb, fertilised and replaced) because of Brian's age. The marriage hit a crisis. "Brian told me we should split up," she says now. "He told me to go and find a younger man who could father a baby. It was the worst thing he had ever said to me. At a point when we needed each other, he pushed me away. I felt totally rejected."

Brian became a public nuisance at the local hospital as he repeated his demands for IVF treatment. "I staged sit-ins in hospital corridors, shouted at consultants, yelled at hospital managers - I was desperate. It was amazing I wasn't arrested." On Christmas Eve, 1993, Oldham finally relented and paid for the treatment.

The couple now live on income support, but Brian says, "We're being sensible about the future. Wendy went back to college and took O-levels. She now has six A-levels - two As, three Bs and a C. She is part-way through a psychology and biology degree, and is planning to go back to university this September. There aren't many young men, or older men, who can match her brains. Her future is a good career and a nice house. She will be able to provide for our children."

George, 76, and Mandy, 26

George Hallam is a retired electrician. Mandy, his 26-year-old wife, was his grandson's ex-girlfriend. Their marriage four years ago made tabloid headlines. The couple, who live in Portsmouth, have a four-year-old son, Christopher. George also has eight sons from his first marriage, aged between 51 and 28, as well as 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

"Some people might say there's something wrong about the age gap, but that's their problem," George insists. "We happen to feel like a normal couple, and we do not meet with any bad feeling. People accept us as a family.

"Only once, when I was in the Chinese takeaway with Christopher, did some youths start calling me a cradle snatcher. One said, 'She's only after your money.' I shot back, 'Well, she's out of bloody luck, then, because I haven't got any.' They were only kids."

When Mandy first moved into widower George's house, it was as the girlfriend of John, his grandson, who lived with him. George expected the two to get married; he had no thought of marrying Mandy himself. His first wife had died 16 years earlier, when she was 50. He had resigned himself to bringing up his youngest sons alone. But, when John went to London for a job, Mandy stayed on as George's lodger; and, eventually, John told her he had met someone else. Two years ago he died.

"George was my landlord, and a kind man, nothing more, for a long time," says Mandy. "I had been living under his roof for 18 months when I realised I was falling in love with him. It happened slowly. I enjoyed his company, and used to listen to him telling stories about his days in the Navy. He's a mad Sixties fan, and so am I. We both like musicals, the theatre and comedy films. There must have just come a point where I stopped thinking of him as old.

"When I realised I was feeling more than friendship, I was very surprised. I felt I couldn't tell anyone: not friends, not even my sister, especially not George, because, with the age gap and everything, I didn't think I stood a chance. I kept my feelings to myself. Then, one day, we were watching a romantic film on the television, and it just happened. We turned to each other and kissed. It turned out George had been feeling the same way but hadn't been able to say anything, either."

They went for a week to Butlins, booking a cabin as man and wife in order to "test people's reactions". Margaret, 53, Mandy's mother, was shocked: "I found it strange that she should be attracted to such an older man. I could have understood it better if she'd grown up fatherless, but she has a good dad who has always been there. Her father and I had a choice: oppose it and face losing our daughter, because there was no way she was going to change her mind; or accept something unusual had happened and that their feelings were genuine. I told George, 'Don't you hurt my daughter.' But it has worked, and Mandy is happy."

George says his own family were less surprised. "They all suspected, somehow. Now, once a month, we have a big pool night in our poolroom at home, and all my boys come with their wives and children. It's a wonderful occasion.

"When Mandy and I married, I put our wedding photos in our special cabinet, alongside the wedding photo of me and my first wife. The photo of my first wife had always been at the centre of my cabinet, and Mandy said to let it stay there. She accepts my history with my first wife, and I think that's why the boys accept her."

The couple share the housekeeping and child minding, but Christopher is a boisterous four-year-old, and George has arthritis in one leg. "When I take him to playschool," he says, "I have to put him in his buggy. I can't walk him there, like Mandy does; he has a tendency to run ahead and I can't catch him. He doesn't mind. To him, I'm just Dad. There's a special bond between us. He's the only one of my sons where I was able to attend the birth. They didn't let you in, in the old days."

Financially, the couple are OK. They live on George's pounds 200-a-week pension. He has insurance policies, which he says will go to Mandy when he dies, and has invested in bonds for his son. "But we take life as it is and enjoy our happiness. By the way, did Mandy mention we're trying for another baby?"

Andre, 72, and Marie-Helene, 26

Andre Baldet met his third wife, Marie-Helene, when she was a 19-year-old student. She is now 26. (Her own father is 53.) Their baby, Charles, was born six months ago.

Baldet, a pilot and businessman with homes in Northampton and St Tropez, founded a Citroen dealership in Northamptonshire, as well as two flying schools. He has been married twice before, and has daughters aged 49, 47, 39, 34 and 15.

When he fathered his first son, he was already a great-grandfather. Baby Charles became an uncle to ten children and great-uncle to another five. His own godfather is his adult nephew.

"I always wanted a son - yes I did, little monsieur," coos Andre, cuddling his son. The baby smiles a toothless grin and clutches his father's nose. In the kitchen, Marie-Helene is preparing a smoked salmon lunch.

"When a man is an entrepreneur and has made his fortune, he longs for a boy who will perhaps carry on his work. I have no brother. Without Charles, the Baldet name would have died with me."

Baldet was born in 1923, in the Pyrenean town of Tarbes. His father was a motorcycle engineer. During the Nazi occupation of France, Baldet escaped to Algiers, then teamed up with American and British forces. He arrived in England just before the War ended, to train as a volunteer pilot with the RAF.

In 1945, he married his first wife, Didi, and began building up a motorcycle business. He became the self-proclaimed "Vespa king of Britain". Every weekend, he raced bikes. For a stunt, he climbed Snowdon on a Vespa. But his marriage was foundering. He had affairs, and in 1976 he left Didi for a woman of 32, by whom he now has a 15-year-old daughter, Georgette.

This second marriage was also over, in all but name, when he first saw Marie-Helene. It was in 1990, at a cocktail party organised by a local technical college, where he was a governor. She was taking a year off from a Spanish degree, working at the college to improve her English. "I thought she was a lovely girl and wished I was younger so that I could court her... but it happened anyway."

Marie-Helene wanders through the living room with her baby at her hip. She has glossy, dark hair and a perfect figure. It's easy to see why he was attracted to her. But what did she see in a man approaching 70, a man older than her grandfather?

She laughs, and takes a long, appraising look at her husband. "I saw in Andre the kind of man I would have liked my father to be," she says. "I come from an ordinary family. My father worked hard all his life, but he's not adventurous.

"When I met Andre, I was intrigued. I had never known a Frenchman his age who spoke such fluent English. He was exciting. He had flown aeroplanes, and he still rode motorcycles. His life had been an adventure. I was captured by his charisma and energy - and I liked his eyes."

Within months, they had become lovers, and Andre bought a flat in Northampton. "He was the first man in my life," she says. "I may not have the dash of a 25- year-old," adds Andre, "but we satisfy each other."

However, Marie-Helene was bothered by others' reactions. She was frequently mistaken for his daughter or granddaughter, and she worried that she would be called a marriage-breaker or gold- digger. "I suppose I used to think that about such couples myself. But we have learned not to take notice of what the gossips say."

Andre's daughters accepted the relationship. So did Marie-Helene's mother. "She understood pretty quickly that we were in love. But my father was devastated. I was his only daughter, and very shy and reserved. It's hard enough for any father when their daughter brings home a boyfriend of her own age, but mine was nearly 50 years older. I think at first my father thought it was disgusting. He wouldn't talk to me for months. He thought I'd broken up a marriage." The family rift was healed two years before the wedding in 1994.

It was while on holiday in Mexico that the Baldets decided to try for a baby. Andre says, "People might suggest that I am selfish or irresponsible to have a child at 72. But Marie-Helene and Charles will always be financially secure. It is the men who have babies and leave no financial provision who are truly irresponsible and selfish. I wanted a baby because I wanted Marie-Helene to have something of me after I die."

Marie-Helene has stopped smiling. She says quietly, "As the third wife, I feel I am getting the best of everything. If I had known Andre when he was a very young man, I would not have thought him a good husband or a good father. Now he is both, because he has changed and learned from his mistakes. He has slowed down, and has time for me and the baby, and I have been able to give him the son he always wanted.

"But when I see him with our baby, I get really emotional. I know he wants to make time stand still, but also to accelerate it. He is frustrated because he wants to teach his son to drive, and to fly, and to see his boy eat steaks, not baby food. And I am always conscious that the time we have together could be short and is extremely precious." At this moment, she breaks down in loud, sobbing tears. Andre, too, is weeping.

A shadow has descended. To dispel it, Andre disappears and comes back with an armload of photographs of his daughters, all beautiful women.

Don't you feel strange, I ask him, marrying a woman younger than your daughters?

"No, I feel great. There is some truth in the cliche, 'you are as young as the woman you feel'."

He grows suddenly serious. He leans forward and quotes from a piece of writing in French by Samuel Ullman, which roughly translates as: "You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubts. As young as your self- confidence, as young as your hopes. As old as your fears. You will stay young as much as you will remain receptive; receptive to everything which is beautiful, good and great; receptive to messages from nature, man and infinity."

Marie-Helene smiles, then turns away because she is crying again.

David, 61, and Melanie, 22

David and Melanie Costin have two children, Andrew, two, and Joseph, four months. David also has a 32-year-old daughter from his first marriage and two grandchildren aged nine and ten. Before retiring due to ill health, he was a psychiatric nurse and civil servant. The couple live in Reading.

Melanie was just a child in pigtails when they met. "I was a family friend of her mother's," David explains. "We knew each other through going to church." When Melanie was 16, and training as a nursery nurse, he found himself giving her lifts to college. "We became friendly, and I started taking her swimming every Thursday. After a year, I became aware that I was falling in love with her."

She was attracted by David's sense of humour, and his willingness to treat her as an adult. None the less, when he kissed her over tea at his house, she pushed him away. "I told him, 'If you value my friendship, you'll never do that again.' But the next time we met it happened again, and a few months later we were lovers."

She confided in a close college friend. "My friend said, 'He sounds like a dirty old man to me.' So I lied to my family about the relationship - or, at least, I was very economical with the truth. I didn't tell them until I'd finished college and had passed my exams. I said, 'We're in love and plan to get married.' It came as a terrible shock to them. My grandmother called me a tart. My mother told people at church that I was a slag. That upset me. I've only known one man, and that's David."

David, guilty about the age gap, said they would have to split up; it just didn't seem right. But Melanie was having none of it. "I went white as a sheet. I couldn't contemplate parting. It was then that we realised how serious we were."

When they married, three-and-a-half years ago, her family was divided: her grandmother went to the wedding, but not her mother. The eventual reconciliation they put down to the birth of their children. "I had been on my own for 13 years before becoming involved with Melanie," David says. "I'd always wanted a son, but, being on my own for so long, I'd virtually given up on the idea."

Being a father again has made him realise how much he neglected his first family. "When I was in my twenties, I was thoughtless and selfish. I went out a lot. I was involved with politics, the Liberal Democrats, and volunteered as a Samaritan. I didn't think staying at home changing nappies and looking after children was something a man should do. Somewhere along the line, I grew up. Now I regret the lost years with my daughter.

"My other regret is that, because of asthma, I cannot play football with my sons in the park, or tear about with them. I get too wheezy. But I try to make up it to them, by reading to them, playing games, being considerate about their needs."

In the background his eldest son is singing noisily, and the baby is crying. "Little miracles," he sighs.

"We don't dwell on the fact that David could die before me," says Melanie, in the defensive tone you will hear from every spouse of a much older man. "You cannot be morbid. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. You just don't know what the future holds, or who will die first."

She says they never notice the age gap, but sometimes it can be comic. "Early on, when we were engaged, we were at church and, because I'm quite short - four foot nine - and look very young, a member of the congregation came up and asked me: 'Are you coming to Sunday school or do you want to stay with Dad?' I just smiled. And the other day, the children and I were waiting at the chiropodist for David. An old lady passed by and I told her I was waiting for my husband. When David came out and we kissed, her jaw just dropped. We laugh these things off - because we're happy."

Billy, 67, and Pauline, 40

Billy MacDermot is the father of three-year-old

Amy. He also has three children from his previous marriage, aged 45, 43 and 40. He met his second wife, Pauline, when she came to work at his market sweet stall. They married in 1980 and live in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

"I've known Pauline since she was a teenager," he says. "She was a school friend of my daughter Ellen, and was only 14 or 15 when we first met; obviously, I didn't have any romantic notions then. But she got a full-time job on the stall, and we were going to warehouses together. The relationship just developed. She moved in 18 months before we married.

"She has friends of her own generation. She's a big fan of Cliff Richard and a member of his fan club. I don't like him much, but I will go to concerts with her occasionally.

"We were on holiday in California in 1991 when we decided to try for a baby. I don't suppose, if I'd still been with my first wife, I would have considered having more children. But I thought: I could kick the bucket any time now. Pauline is still young, and there's no need for her to be on her own. She may meet someone else. But when I died, I wanted her to have something of me.

"On Christmas Day the same year, she told me she was one month pregnant. I felt great. Not that I saw it as any achievement, but the pure fact that there was a baby there. I'd been present at Ellen's birth, and I wanted to be there at Amy's. The thing that struck me was all the new technology they have these days. Pauline had to have an emergency Caesarean. They rushed me into the theatre, dressed in all the gear. That was exciting."

He says that his other children still mean as much to him as Amy, and that they have totally accepted their young half-sister: they visit and buy her presents: "When two parents divorce, I think it hurts the children, no matter if they are grown up or not. But, when I see how my older children care for Amy, I realise I'm a lucky old man. When I was a father the first time around, I was a working man. Now I've got all the time in the world. Pauline goes out and I say, 'I'm mother today.' I like being with Amy, playing, and being out walking.

"I know there's a lot of flak over pensioner fathers. They say we won't understand our teenage children. Well, if I'm lucky enough to live that long, I'll try to keep up-to-date. My grandchildren are already making sure of that. I knew what all the fuss was about when Take That split up, and I can recognise the difference between Blur and Oasis - although I'm not sure who's the best."

Ray, 66, and Wendy, 39

Ray Davies and Wendy Lewis have two small boys, Tomas, two, and Carwyn, one. Ray, a county councillor in Caerphilly, has four children from his first marriage, aged 42, 40, 24 and 22. Wendy is an artist in residence at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, Wales.

They met in 1989, at rehearsals of the Cardiff Red Choir - Cor Cochion Caer Dydd - a group founded to raise money for socialist causes. It was an unlikely match. He was a "valley boy", a former steelworker and magistrate turned political activist. He has served three prison sentences for non-payment of poll tax. He has also been suspended three times from his local Labour group in Mid-Glamorgan. In 1982, he stood as a left-wing challenger against Neil Kinnock in his Bedwellty constituency, and forced the Labour leader to go through reselection.

Wendy, 26 years Ray's junior, an artist and a quietly determined feminist, had lived alone for ten years, convinced she had no need for marriage or a man. Demonstrations, pickets and occasional clashes with the police formed the backdrop to their romance. "I was walking through Cardiff town centre when I heard the Red Choir singing," recalls Wendy. "It was so beautiful, hymns and union songs, that I stayed for 45 minutes, then joined on the spot. I wasn't looking for a relationship, but I did notice Ray. I saw him as someone who is not afraid of anything. And there was also that lovely accent.

"We were slow getting together. Ray might have been fearless in politics, but he was frightened of rejection with women. We circled around each other for ages, like uncertain schoolchildren. Finally, on Boxing Day, 1990, we went for a walk, and afterwards I asked him if I could come in for a cup of tea. I knew I had to make a move because he would never get round to it. Before I left his cottage, I asked him if I could kiss him. It was a proper kiss, and several days later we became lovers. The age gap didn't bother me at all. I'm not an egg to be fitted into a size-two box, according to height, age and weight."

The age gap did bother Ray, though. "The night we made love, it was very beautiful, but the next day I realised I was petrified what people would make of it. Here I was, a man of 61, falling in love with a young woman. All my life, I had looked down at that sort of thing. Where I grew up, in a conservative mining community, there was nothing worse than a woman being an old man's darling. My first thought was: what will my children make of it? next, what will my ex-wife think? and finally - and this will sound selfish - what will the voters think? because I was an elected member of the Labour Party and a county councillor. To put it bluntly, I was panic-stricken."

He insisted that for six months they keep their relationship secret: "It was ridiculous. I'd make Wendy park her car down the lane so that the neighbours didn't realise she was visiting me." Then a choir member came across photographs of them on holiday. "So I made this big announcement to the rest of the choir, and they just said, 'lovely, now let's rehearse', and I felt a fool."

They married in 1992, on the West Indian island of Montserrat, where Wendy's parents now live. Tomas, nicknamed "Tad", because he looked like a tadpole on the baby scan, was born in August 1993, the day after the choir demonstrated against nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. Carwyn followed 18 months later.

Wendy went back to work full time and Ray continued with his council work. Often, when he cannot get a sitter, he takes his babies to council meetings. "It looks so funny, these two little children running around the members' room and council chamber among all the old pensioners, which is what councillors tend to be, including me.

"I'm 66 now, and life is hectic. It is harder for me because of my age. I love the children, and I love playing with them. But the older they get, the more boisterous they will be, and my energy levels and health could be a problem in the future."

He hesitates. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about the day I die, leaving Wendy and the babies. It's quite possible that I won't see the boys grow up. But, if I die next week, we have had five years of happiness and two bloody fantastic children. There has been so much love that I feel I'll be leaving behind pluses."

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