Rowan Pelling: Why old dads beat young studs

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The Independent Online

Thursday morning found me in my Cambridge garden in front of a Five news camera crew sharing my joy at the tidings that Rod Stewart was to become a father again at the age of 60. Two months previously I was a guest on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, also discussing the phenomenon of the "older dad". It seems that I have become one of the nation's leading cheerleaders for a craggy old man's right to be as feckless with his seed as any teenage lad. The Western world is so mean-spirited about ancient fathers. There's outrage - and jealousy - that any OAP dare flaunt his offensive fertility and the inequality of Mother Nature.

Thursday morning found me in my Cambridge garden in front of a Five news camera crew sharing my joy at the tidings that Rod Stewart was to become a father again at the age of 60. Two months previously I was a guest on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, also discussing the phenomenon of the "older dad". It seems that I have become one of the nation's leading cheerleaders for a craggy old man's right to be as feckless with his seed as any teenage lad. The Western world is so mean-spirited about ancient fathers. There's outrage - and jealousy - that any OAP dare flaunt his offensive fertility and the inequality of Mother Nature.

Every time some silver-haired smoothie knocks up his gorgeous, hot missus, a pack of Jonahs predicts that he'll be in his grave while the tot is still in kindergarten. And even if he's spared, they wail, he'll be far too rheumatic to play footie - never mind that the little mite's a girl. On Woman's Hour the eminent biologist Dr Steve Jones explained that, grim reaper aside, an older father's sperm was likely to be ridden with genetic mutations leading to a higher risk of physical defects and schizophrenia.

While this may tidily explain why my four siblings are so wayward (my father was in his mid-50s when he sired my eldest brother and a month off 70 when my youngest sister was born), it does ignore one salient point: men who father children in their senior years don't tend to be decrepit types in Dralon slacks. I would say the genetic inheritance they offer their children has a good chance of being downright advantageous, offsetting any risks. Generally the old dad brigade is formed from vigorous specimens of alpha manhood, whose energy, charisma and youthful appearance belie their advanced years. OK, sometimes these patriarchs are just plain rich and look like tortoises in suits, but mercifully few women make babies with old reptile-skins for a cash prize alone.

My father could only offer my mother charm, love and a drink habit when he swept her off her feet on a beach in Accra 40 years ago. He was 54; she was 27. The photos show a tanned, lean man in shorts with the raffish air of a Bogart. Five years later he was ensconced as the landlord of a pub in rural Kent, challenging the locals to a race between our hamlet and the next village and claiming he could cover two miles in 10 minutes. As a cutting from the local newspaper documents, it actually took him 17 minutes to reach his runner's-up pint. Still, not bad for a man touching 60.

And look at our Rod: my goose pimples still rise when he belts out "I am sailing". I am sure his baby will be happy to exchange a bit of youth in ol' dad for a whole lot of legend and pizzazz. My siblings and I were happy to swap tennis and football in the park for roulette, backgammon and vingt-et-un. Other people's dads took them to Whipsnade Zoo; my father took us out of school to go racing at Lingfield Park and gave us 50p per race to gamble as we pleased. While other children's parents taught them history from books, my father had lived through two world wars, fought in the last one, and then spent 20 years in Greece, the Middle East and Africa.

He sported unexplained scars and kept a small handgun under the mattress. He had what you could call texture, and a certain mystique. Other dads seemed bland by comparison. It doesn't surprise me that research has shown that children of older fathers tend to be brighter: you grow up with such a wealth of knowledge. But my living archive is as nothing compared to that of one Woman's Hour listener: "I am the last of my father's 10 children. He was 78 when I was born in 1962... His father was 70 when my father was born, resulting in a span of 148 years in two generations. My grandfather was born in 1815, before the battle of Waterloo. At a mere 42, I expect I have plenty of time left to start a family."

Does he sound like a man who feels cheated by Fate's hand? Hardly. So I don't think baby Stewart and the infant offspring of Messrs Paul McCartney, John Humphrys and Des O'Connor etc will suffer from having superannuated pops. Old dad will almost certainly be around longer than your average sink estate stud, or the 50 per cent of optimistic first-time grooms whose marriages end in divorce. Just ask the Child Support Agency.

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