what a week it was for ... nurses

The actor Glenn Ford did it (although he divorced six weeks later); impresario Sir Rudolph Bing, fighter pilot Sir Douglas Bader and former hostage Brian Keenan all did it, and now Professor Stephen Hawking is about to do it, too. He has announced his intention to marry his nurse, Elaine Mason.

The cynical view of matches between men and their nurses is one that's been fed bydecades of screen comedies - Carry On movies, Are You Being Served? and the final episode of Absolutely Fabulous among them. In these comic depictions, the scenario is always the same. Pretty (preferably blonde) young nurse marries ageing, decrepit man, whose only attractions are his bank account and his short life expectancy.

The reason these matches make such good comedy is that the motives of each party are made so transparent and so impure. In the comic scheme of things, he's old enough to be her father and therefore must be a dirty old man (or gaga); she, meanwhile, is a grasping golddigger who can't wait for him to pop his clogs.

At 53, Professor Hawking is not old enough to be Mrs Mason's father and she, in turn, is most definitely no bimbo, but they have not been immune to wagging tongues. Foremost among their critics is Professor Hawking's ex-wife, Jane, mother of his two children. "I do not know the dynamics of their situation," she says, "but I believe it is very ill- advised. I fear he is caught up in forces beyond his control. I have been very concerned about what is happening to Stephen for a long time."

Enter the second critic, David Mason, Elaine's ex-husband, a former colleague of Hawking and the man who devised the voice-box through which he speaks. "Elaine left us in 1989, in order to achieve this. She was very clear about what she was doing."

The dark tone of each comment may be the understandable reaction of a former partner, hinting at some sinister motive for the marriage. But stereotyping will not do. Stephen Hawking is no young Mr Grace: bored, senile and reduced to ogling women; he is a brilliant, inspirational man and a tireless worker. Nor is he lonely; he is always surrounded by people - nurses, secretaries, colleagues, interviewers. The last thing he needs, one might think, is a wife.

But then men who fall for their nurses don't always have conventional ideas about relationships. The late dambuster Guy Gibson would ask the nurse he eventually admitted he'd fallen in love with "merely to hold him". The poet David Gascoigne, so the story goes, fell in love with his wife, a visitor to the psychiatric hospital in which he spent some time, because she read one of his poems to his fellow patients.

Professor Hawking may be unsure of his frail body but, as "master of the universe", he is most definitely sure of his mind. And his mind is made up. It has been a good week for his nurse.

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