THERE was a time when Toad of Toad Hall might have seemed an eminently suitable Tory candidate for parliament - had he not been a toad, of course. But stories this week suggest that, were he to try his hand now, eyebrows might be raised in the constituency party, and discreet attempts made to play down the friendship with Ratty, Mole and Badger and drum up a prospective Mrs Toad.

The term bachelor used to conjure up a range of images with which society felt comfortable. There was, for example, the gruff old buffer: ex-army, ex-public school, fiancee killed in the war, with a housekeeper and a butler, dining at his club, and hanging grouse in the airing cupboard; or the family Uncle Norman who never quite got out into the world - celibate, still living with his mother or his sister in a world redolent with biscuit barrels and cup-a-soup; or the dashing chap who wore a cravat, drove a sports car, lived in a bachelor pad, said 'hell- ieow-ding-dong' every time he met a lady but never found the right one; or the hopeless workaholic whom everyone wanted to mother.

Sherlock Holmes, John Steed from The Avengers, Godfrey (the one who lived with his sister Dolly) in Dad's Army, Percy in Coronation Street, Winnie the Pooh - did we question their sexuality in the past? As Alan Bennett writes in the preface to his stage version of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows: 'Bachelordom is a status that had more respect (and fewer undertones) in Grahame's day than it has now' - a fact that seems to be borne out by the reluctance of real-life bachelors to use their names when discussing the issue with the media.

'I think single men are regarded with much more suspicion than they were 30 years ago,' reflects James Firth (not his real name) a 67-year-old unmarried (heterosexual), retired consultant surgeon. 'People have been bombarded with stories about homosexuality and sexual indiosyncracy. It's rather odd that as society becomes more sexually liberal, people should become more judgmental.'

Nearly two centuries ago Jane Austen confidently opened Pride and Prejudice with: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'

Now, Zelda West-Meads of Relate acknowledges: 'A single man after a certain age can have a difficult time convincing people that he is 'of the marrying kind'. In the past, if a bachelor was seen to enjoy the company of other men, people did not assume he was homosexual. Now we get single men who want to find a relationship with a woman feeling that if they share a flat with another man - or even go shopping to a supermarket with another man - they somehow have to establish their credentials as heterosexuals.'

The absurdity of this scenario is heightened by statistics: in the last decade marriage rates among men have fallen by almost a third, and single people in the 25-29 age group - who 10 years ago were outnumbered two-to-one by married men - have now come to outnumber the married.

The popularity of co- habiting out of wedlock is a major factor, but more than a quarter of British households are now single ones.

When bachelordom is drawing closer to the norm than an aberration, why is there a growing association of the term bachelor with homosexuals or bin-liners?

'It's probably not so much homophobia as the fact that the public is simply more aware of homosexuality and other sexual issues than they were in the past,' says Jim Edgell of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. 'What limited evidence we have suggests that homophobia is currently decreasing, albeit gradually. Assuming that someone is homosexual is not the same as minding if they are homosexual.'

'It's the Oprah syndrome,' says Tina Jenkins, who was Producer of the Carlton TV documentary series, Singles. 'Making everything seem sensational and out-of-the-ordinary, viewing the apparent as bogus, over-inspecting.'

'It's reached silly proportions,' says John Fogg of the Scout Association. While worries about bachelor scoutmasters are not, apparently, a specific issue, a general public paranoia about sexuality led three years ago to the Association issuing guidelines for leaders on avoiding sexual aspersions.

'Long gone is the 'age of innocence' and in its place is an unfortunate sexual awareness, which has a destructive 'downside' to normal relations between adults and children,' the guidelines begin. Fogg puts the problem down to 'increasing publicity surrounding sexual incidents and prosecutions.'

A current urban myth that fathers who are photographed bathing their baby daughters are liable to reported to the Social Services by the processing lab is presumably a product of the same paranoia.

These social attitudes are inevitably hard to pin down. A bachelor in Birmingham, for example (who again declined to be named), aged 65 - ex- Army, a former Assistant Manager at Cadbury Schweppes - said that although he was aware of the assaults on the status of the bachelor, it wasn't something he came across at all in his declaredly down-to-earth circles.

However, a 36-year-old heterosexual bachelor - whom we shall have to call Bill - who works in the media, claimed he had little experience of people assuming he was gay; five minutes later he called back, horrified, to say: 'I've just realized that if I hear about men over the age of 35 who are bachelors, I wonder if they're gay]'

There does seem to be an age for an unmarried man at which eyebrows begin to raise; and a greater predisposition towards the scalp-bound eyebrow among certain social and age groups.

A leading London headhunter (who was also nervous of going on the record), admitted: 'There is no doubt that if a man is 45 and not married there is a question mark in your mind and in the mind of the client. That probably wasn't the case 30 years ago. The importance of the issue varies, depending on which industry you're dealing with. In the communications business, for example, sexual persuasion doesn't matter at all. It's not a question of companies not wanting to employ homosexuals. It's just that if someone is single, they now wonder why.'

Yet another publicity-shy bachelor, aged 39, says: 'I suppose the aggressive line of questioning began when I was about 32. The people asking were mostly of my parents' generation. It's been getting worse ever since. I start blushing furiously, stuttering and dribbling, as if I had something to hide. I feel I'm viewed as somewhere between a homosexual and a tragic social misfit. I think 'Why aren't you married?' is a deeply impertinent question to ask. I feel it's none of their business.' Poor old Ted Heath had to suffer magazines sending his details off to dating agencies.

The root of the problem is that social attitudes have failed to keep pace with social trends. Unmarried women beyond the age of 30 share bachelors' problems not so much with suspicions of homosexuality - does anyone wonder if the unmarried Betty Boothroyd is lesbian? - but of disappointment. The tragic, embittered, shrivelled, spinster-on-the-shelf assumption is equally absurd, but continues to plague single women the world over.

Believe me, as a tragic spinster myself, I know. 'Why aren't you married?' they worrit on . 'Because, actually, underneath my clothes, my entire body is covered with scales,' I reassure them.

'Why aren't you married?' ought to be outlawed, now, as a very rude question. Children should be taught about its rudeness, alongside pointing, staring and talking with your mouth full.

Some new words might help matters too, since bachelor and spinster are dinosaurs crashing around in a terminological Jurassic Park.

A few years ago, a book called The Meaning of Liff offered up a dictionary of British town names for definitions which lacked a corresponding word. (A Kettering, for example, was the mark left on the bottom by a wickerwork chair.)

Maybe they should add an appendix for tagless unmarrieds: a Motherwell, for one who's taking care of mother; a Liphook, for one who likes to flirt but not to commit; a High Ercall for a person married only to their job; a Starcross for the unlucky in love; a Faddiley for one who's still looking for the right person, and a Great Yarmouth for a Hooray Henry who's far too irritating to get anyone to marry him at all.

(Photograph omitted)