Older dads are hardly glamorous but they go a long way

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The Independent Online

So 50 is too old to be a father, is it?

So 50 is too old to be a father, is it? By what measure? Charlie Chaplin, Anthony Quinn and Saul Bellow all managed to sire children in their eighties. My own dad showed stamina in the field by fathering my oldest brother at the age of 54, and following up this feat with a further four children, the last of whom, Dorcas, arrived two months short of his 70th birthday. No one in my family regards a first-time father as mature unless he's clutching his bus pass. But society at large still clucks its tongue at the older dad, which seems strange in this age of prosperity, cosmetic dentistry and "middle-youth".

It's hardly as if any of these geriatric fathers looks like Alf Garnett or is on income support. In order to secure a nubile, childbearing mate, they tend to be prosperous, charismatic and relatively youthful. They might, for example, be one of the most powerful men in their field and look a good 10 years younger than many of their colleagues. Yet instead of the pundits pointing out that the progeny of such men are likely to have a fearsome head start in life, what with all kinds of experienced, entertaining and senior figures dropping in for infant tea parties, all they can wail is: "He'll be too old to kick a football around with the little nipper."

Well, my sisters and I somehow managed without, while my brothers miraculously learnt how to kick balls and break windows without paternal instruction. My father didn't offer the compensations of a wealthy and powerful background for our football deprivation, but he was charismatic in a way that made other fathers look two-dimensional. For starters, he had fought in the war, which meant there was a reasonable chance he had killed someone. Then there were the missing years in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East, not to mention the forbidden topic of previous wives. "Two or three," my older sister informed me, rolling her eyes. Other stories rippled through our imaginations: the greyhounds that my dad once raced; the parties with fire-eaters at his house in Persia.

The exotic past was bolstered by the eccentric present. My father ran a country pub with the irascible humour of a man who swore equally lustily in Turkish and English – mainly to discourage people from discovering that he was a soft touch. He couldn't bear to punish his children for any misdemeanour. On the school run he would press pound coins and Mars bars into our grubby palms saying, "Don't tell your mother." While other dads took their offspring to Chessington Zoo, my father took us to Lingfield for a day's racing, sharing his life's great passion with us. My mother's sandwiches would be discarded in favour of the members' restaurant and he would show us how to study form over vast plates of ice-cream; afterwards he would issue hand-fuls of 50p pieces so we could bet on every race. Invaluable training, topped only by his teaching me how to play backgammon, and the advice: "Don't cheat if you're going to be found out."

We were never embarrassed by my father's pensioner status. We actively enjoyed other people's discomfiture when they realised he was not our grandfather, and would add decades to his age to shock the innocent enquirers. In truth, I can only think of two disadvantages to having an older dad. Firstly, by the time he was 75 he was driving us to school at 20 miles per hour with a vast queue of traffic behind us. Secondly, we did not have him long enough. He died when I was 20, at the age of 78 (a respectable innings for a man who had smoked 60 cigarettes a day from the age of 14). My mother attended a school reunion shortly afterwards and found herself with a group of friends who had been horrified when she married a man 27 years older than herself. She was the sole widow among four divorcees and one spinster, "I know which I'd rather," she said.

Older fathers may have less puff but they have exceptional staying power. My own husband is 15 years my senior. As yet we have no children – but then, he hasn't quite turned 50.

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