The secret of a long and happy marriage

'One hundred and fifty years ago, most people just didn't live long enough to get divorced'
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The Independent Online

National marriage Week begins tomorrow. I heard the Chief Rabbi talking about it with great enthusiasm on the radio yesterday morning. There's this couple, apparently, in Nuneaton called Frank and Olive Hodges, who've been married for 77 years. They're both 102 and a wonderful example to the rest of us, advised Jonathan Sacks.

On second thoughts they may have been called Fred and Audrey Bridges or Phil and Eileen Hedges, I wasn't really listening to the names, so mesmerised was I by those awesome numbers. Having just seen Richard Eyre's deeply depressing film about Iris Murdoch getting Alzheimer's and running amok on the motorway in her bedsocks and peeing on the carpet, I'm not sure I want to make old bones let alone old married bones.

Every time yet another survey about rising divorce rates in Britain is released, the usual media experts are wheeled out to explain why society as we know it is breaking down. I think it was David Sheppard, former Bishop of Liverpool, on Any Questions who put the whole thing into perspective. The other guests had been trotting out the usual stuff about how much more responsible parents used to be and how stable Victorian marriages and families were when divorce wasn't an option. Did anyone happen to know how long the average Victorian marriage lasted, Sheppard asked. They didn't, so he told them, and for the record it's 15 years. One hundred and fifty years ago people didn't live long enough to get divorced, especially the women who were lucky not to die in childbirth.

If, as the Chief Rabbi seemed to be saying, we should all try to emulate Mr and Mrs Hedges/Hodges/Bridges we need luck on our side because it's one thing to be married for 50 years but something else entirely to be happily or even reasonably happily married for 50 years. One of my duties as an apprentice cub reporter on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph was to interview couples in Blackburn who had just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. It was a time-honoured Evening Telegraph tradition of which there were many. At Christmas, for instance, every paper was numbered and the winner of the lucky number which the editor drew from a hat got a visit from the Christmas Fairy bearing a cheque for £50 and a hamper. One year I was the Christmas fairy. I remember it well. Wearing a spangly dress with wings and a golden crown I knocked on the door of 17 Accrington Road. "Congratulations Mr Thornton," I cried, waving my wand. "I am the Lancashire Evening Telegraph Christmas Fairy and I am here to ..." "Fuck off," said Mr Thornton and slammed the door.

Golden wedding anniversaries were easier on the whole because it was the couples themselves who had invited us in. First we gave them their presents, a gold-painted biscuit barrel with a pair of turtle doves on the lid and their initials and dates underneath. Then the photographer took pictures and I asked questions such as "Do you have any advice to give to young people getting married today?" Of course they did and more often than not in the form of a proverb. "Never let the sun go down on your wrath", was one. "Handsome is as handsome does was another". "Hang on to your teeth as long as you can" was a favourite. It was always the wives who answered. No use asking him, he's deaf as a post, they'd say, waving dismissively at their mates.

I'm not quite sure what we're supposed to do in National Marriage Week – gloat if we are, sign up with a dating agency if we aren't, organise match-making dinners for our single or divorced friends. I may just leave a note on my husband's desk: "Happy National Marriage Week darling, please can I have a new cooker."

I've taken to writing notes since reading about a couple who were married for 47 years but never actually spoke to each other. They communicated only through their children or notes. Someone asked their daughter after they died whether her parents had been happy. She seemed surprised. "I think so," she said, "I never asked."