Perhaps the most hopeful is Andrew Purvis, 32, a journalist whose five-year marriage ended two-and-a-half years ago when his wife began an affair with another man. At first Andrew missed 'the noise and bustle and high drama' of family life but doubted that any woman would take him on, with his demanding job, heavy financial responsibility to support his two young children (who live with their mother) and his continued emotional involvement with them.
To his surprise he found that women were compelled by the complications of his life, and that meeting them was not difficult. He analysed his needs and came up with what he describes 'a pathetically politically incorrect position': he wants fun. 'I am now the 32-year-old guy who is looking for a 22-year-old and I'm completely embarrassed about becoming this cliche,' he says. 'The way people look is important to me and young bodies, slim and beautiful, are really what I have in mind, that old supermodel stereotype. One thing which is difficult is that women my age have been in tricky relationships, whereas younger women don't seem to have those complexities. I went through years of lying about it and even writing articles about it, but being totally honest, that's what I feel.
'I have ridiculously high standards. There have been people I've met who wanted to have a relationship with me and with whom it would have been very easy, but I've thought No, I'm quite enjoying being on my own. I do believe that when I'm ready to settle down again I will meet someone. It has happened two or three times in my life and I don't see why it shouldn't happen again.'
Paula Carter, a PA to a senior manager with a life assurance company, is 40, and split up with her husband last year after 15 years of marriage because of what she describes as a 'mutual, irretrievable breakdown'. She has two children by the marriage who live with her. Unlike Andrew, Paula was initially positive about beginning single life again: 'I read all these books and articles which tell you not to stay in a bad relationship, that life isn't a dress rehearsal. Although I envisaged probably spending the rest of my life on my own, I felt that any relationship that I might have, had to be better than the one I had before. Then disillusionment set in.
'You go out with a guy and play all these bloody games - will he phone, won't he phone? They love the chase, to prove they can pull a fairly attractive woman. Once they've pulled, once you've shown that you like them, they can get on with their life. I listen to some men talk, and they want some stunning bird to show off to friends. I've yet to meet a man mature enough to want me for me.
'When I went back to work 10 years ago, I suddenly realised that there was more to me than just being a wife and mother, but I don't think men of my generation easily understand a woman's need to be her own person. My ideal man would be divorced for quite a long while so he would have the time to come to terms with it, have children of a similar age and have a sense of humour. My ex-husband is 48 and he's going out with a 24-year-old. I'm not being spiteful but, for me, I'd prefer someone older and of a similar emotional maturity.'
What are Andrew and Paula's prospects for happiness? The statistics are pretty brutal. Although there are more single (divorced, widowed or never married) men than single women (of all ages apart from the late forties), there are more women than men overall, a gap which increases in the older age groups. The older women get, the less are their chances of remarrying. As long as Andrew continues to look for women younger than himself, he will find plenty of potential partners, for there are more available women in their twenties, than there are unattached men in their thirties.
If Paula continues to insist on an older man she may look in vain. According to the 1991 census, there were 390,000 unattached women aged 40 to 44 in Britain and only 228,000 men between 45 and 49 (in part because there were fewer births during the war). A 40-year-old man who wants a girlfriend between 30 and 34 will have a pool of 573,000 available women. A 40-year-old woman trying to find a partner between 45 and 49 will only have 228,000 men to drawn on.
The reality of life on the singles scene is endorsed by One Plus One, a charity that researches marriage and relationships. 'After divorce, men are more likely to remarry,' says Karen Mattison, the organisation's spokeswoman. 'The pool of women that they are looking at is much greater. It is more socially acceptable to go out with younger women and men have more social freedom to go out on their own to meet people. They don't have the same family responsibilities women have.'
More women now inititate divorce than men: their changing expections make them less willing to put up with a bad marriage. Men seem less able to cope with single life and tend to move more quickly into a new relationship.
Mary Balfour, director of Drawing Down the Moon, one of Britain's most reputable introduction agencies, deals daily with this discrepancy between the sexes. At any time she has 15-20 per cent more women than men on her books. She has difficulty making introductions for women over 43, though she will accept men up to their late 50s.
'I can't find partners for older women and no agency can,' she says. 'It's a tragedy. There are fewer men in their forties and they tend to go for younger women. The older they are, the bigger the age gap they are looking for.'
It seems such a cliche: men looking for casual relationships, for youth and beauty; women seeking maturity and companionship. Can it really be true? But as I was talking to single men and women in their thirties and forties, again and again I heard from the men the sense of optimism and excitement at the prospect of a rich new social life, of the opportunity to have children after their careers have been established or start a second family in their forties. Talking to women, the conversations were soon circling around pain, fear of loneliness, panic as the child-bearing years slip by, outrage at being treated as a down-valued commodity on the marriage market, and a sense of betrayal at a sexual revolution which seemed to guarantee orgasms but not the partners with which to have them.
Single women will ask you, with bewilderment, why all the men they meet are married or gay. Yet men seem to find little difficulty in meeting women. 'I'm aware that women say it's hard to meet men,' says Simon Bell, 41, a book designer who lives in west London. 'Since my marriage ended two years ago, I've been out with a number of women and I haven't found it difficult meeting them. I haven't really tried.'
'I have no trouble acquiring new girlfriends' says Charles Foster-Taylor, a 32-year-old surveyor. 'I have more trouble getting rid of them.' David, 35, a graphic designer who works from home and therefore met few new people, joined Drawing Down the Moon when he separated from his wife six months ago after a 10-year marriage. He has been inundated with offers: 'It sounds arrogant and cruel but there have been a number of meetings with women where I've known that the person would very much like to meet again, they've said so, and I've said yes, ok, knowing I wouldn't phone them.'
But for women, especially those who work in predominantly female sectors, there are fewer opportunities. Janet Owen, 39, a teacher, has been single since her marriage ended in 1980 (though she has since had two long live-in relationships and other shorter ones). Two years ago she moved from Liverpool to London in a positive attempt to break out of the limits of her social network. Her ideal partner could be about 10 years older: 'I don't meet many men and it's still quite hard to proposition them. I manage to have a good time socially by going out to films and exhibitions on my own, but the lack of sex is the big issue.'
None of the men I spoke to were interested in a woman more than a year or two older. David and James, a 46-year old management consultant, are both looking for women with whom to have a child.
'From 35 to 40 is my upper age limit,' James explained. 'She should be slim to skinny, with an eye for colour co-ordination, take an interest in her appearance and look great.' Charles, at 32, theoretically would accept a woman up to the age of 35, but in practice the only woman he has been out with older than himself was 33: 'At that age there was definitely the sense of a slight anxiety on her part to know whether the relationship was going to last and was worth investing in, or whether it was short-term and she should look to move on rapidly. I'd love to get married but it doesn't have to be this year or next year or even the year after.'
Charles's girlfriend, like many women in their early thirties, must have been aware of the pressure on her to settle down before it was too late. Women who want children do not have the luxury to postpone marriage into their late thirties or early forties, and those who put their personal lives on hold to develop their careers can pay a heavy price. In her mid-thirties, Joanne, who is now 48, was offered the chance to make a major breakthrough into a previously male-dominated occupation in the arts, and took it. When she resurfaced, in her early forties, she found 'the chances of meeting someone who is single and heterosexual gets more and more unlikely as the years go on. I've answered lonely hearts adverts in the Times; all the men who replied said they were getting 200 letters.
'This year I went on holiday to Jamaica and there was a problem with my hotel so I was transferred to a honeymoon hotel. I spent the most extraordinary week in paradise, on my own, eating every meal alone. The agony of being alone was brought home to me excruciatingly there.'
Single women are caught in a trap. On the one hand, the sexual revolution offered women the promise of careers as well as sexual fulfilment. Many women (especially middle-class) no longer need a man to be primarily a provider, but an equal partner. But even high flyers often earn less than men and may need financial support to bring up children. Knowing this, many still look carefully at a man's prospects. An older man, with a secure job, still has undeniable attractions, even for a career woman.
On their part, many men remain caught in a culture that prizes above all the young girl as the icon of sexual desirability. Of course, not all men respond in this way. For Simon Bell, the most important thing about a woman is not her looks. 'I'm not denying that 18-year-olds aren't instantly attractive, but what would you talk about? Looks are important but the whole is greater than the parts.' Ironically, such an attitude makes Simon a particularly desirable catch. A trawl through the lonely hearts column of the London listings magazine Time Out tells a different story: out of 45 men advertising for female partners last week, 17 used words such as good figure, curvacious, attractive, beautiful, tactile, feminine, pretty and fashionable in specifying what they are looking for. In the ads from women, the word attractive appeared only once.
If a woman is not considered sexually desirable - because of her age or because her looks don't measure up to male norms - then she is not only denied a sexual life. For physical attraction is the door to all the other qualities that go with a sexual relationship: intimacy, love, companionship. Despite the preponderance of new magazines for women offering pin-ups of Chippendales look-alikes, when women are asked what they seek in a man, by dating agencies or in lonely hearts ads, the most frequent qualities mentioned are warmth, intelligence, sensitivity and sense of humour.
Far from being impressed by young men, Dawn Anglin, 32, who runs a company in the Midlands selling machinery, looks for maturity in a partner: 'It's well known that women mature more quickly than men. Young men are too immature for me. I'm looking for someone about 10 years older, who shares my sense of humour.' She is clear that having children is an early priority, so any boyfriend will be measured as a potential father.
Last month a new magazine was launched for single people. Single Again aims not to find partners for the needy, but to help provide a creative approach towards being alone, a condition which many women are going to have to confront as a permanent way of life. The thirty-and fortysomethings are not the only ones to be affected. There are 115,245 more women than men between the ages of 20 and 29. This discrepancy will increase as this age group gets older, as it usually has done for previous generations.
So how would its editor, Christine Basciano, who has recently found herself single again, advise anyone desperately seeking Mr or Ms Right? 'It's a buyer's market and men are the buyers,' she says. 'If men are being hunted with a sense of desperation, their natural reaction is to do a runner. Women have to run away from them, but slowly enough to be caught.'
And so women resort to the wiles of the Victorian maiden. So much for feminism, so much for the sexual revolution. Being single can be an admirable, life-enriching state, but, like any other, not if it is enforced and unwanted.
If you're going to be single, make sure you're a man.