When you're in your seventies, love has a long memory; I grew up at a time when sex was secret, lives were private and your parents didn't approve. Sex before marriage was either fast and furtive, or romantically dangerous. There was no pill but no Aids either. As a young woman I knew little about my own body but plenty about my troubled emotions. As a child during the war I saw the pain of separation and loss. I grew up to the strains of "We'll Meet Again", "Some Day I'll Find You" and Snow White's "Some Day My Prince Will Come". I saw it as a search for an ideal: Mr Right. Mr Darcy. Big mistake.
Then the hormones kicked in and I became a sucker for DH Lawrence and the fire in the blood. Emily Brontë's message was that tortured passion was better than gentle loving. All this led to turbulent times and love and sex became a major pre-occupation. I read about it, fantasised, saw the movies Brief Encounter, Gone with the Wind but didn't do much about it.
All these years later I still carry traces of those youthful ideas, though I don't brood on them any more. I still believe that "Love is the sweetest thing" and "All you need is love". Life has taught me that popular culture's clichs express profound human needs that do not change. Love remains the most fundamental of human emotions. When you're younger it's usually about managing one-to-one relationships and devotion to your children. As you get older it comes into play in a million different ways from good manners and small kindnesses to shared laughter and good company. As such it is central to my life.
The language has changed: it has got more raw, more crude. "Making love" has given way to "bonking" and "shagging". There is no shame in using the f-word and the c-word. Comedy and humour have become coarser; jokes are eye-wateringly explicit. I don't protest at it happening. But it isn't part of my world, I don't use that sort of language and I can't help feeling that the all-prevailing irony has damaged tenderness. I like people to say what they mean: my children and grandchildren are the ones who tell me most often that they love me. But there are others.
The films have changed, too. Although we have had the romantic The English Patient and Atonement we also have the explicit casual sex of Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs and Patrice Chreau's Intimacy. Again, I don't want such explicit films banned or censored but I can't say they move me. There can be a sense of "been there, done that" in seeing young people having sex. But sometimes it's more a case of "it's too late now". Love and sex are not voyages of discovery any more. I've long since arrived. And I'm more convinced than ever that whatever you do with your limbs and your body matters less than what goes on in your head and your heart.
I came out of my second marriage some seven years ago and have been living alone ever since. It suits me. It has left me free to make immediate choices for myself alone. With children grown up and gone I can please myself entirely as to what friendships and bonds I make and how I behave both in public and private. And that's what I do. Looking back now I can see that what makes marriages endure is a mix of several different things: a broad sharing of common interests and outlooks; an agreement about how you want your sex lives to be; and an ability to weather the stormy seas of infidelity. I failed, in the end, to sustain a proper combination of all three. Now I don't have to any more. Mrs Patrick Campbell spoke of the "hurly-burly of the chaise longue... giving way to the deep deep peace of the marriage bed." I have gone further. I called my autobiography The Centre of the Bed. I have it all to myself.
There's no denying the body grows slack and slow. The joints begin to creak, the back to grumble. But that has to do with ageing, not with loving. The loving stays young. Older people will always tell you that inside they feel just as they always did, and it's true. That's why it's a shock to catch your reflection in the shop window, or to hear yourself referred to as an old boot. Among ourselves, the 70-year-olds are as lively and frisky as ever we were.
Of course, the leaping flame of lust leaps less often. Instead, I value the golden glow of long friendships and attachments, the blossoming of new. I look around and judge the happiest of my friends to be those with long and stable marriages. But I also notice the growing popularity of a new arrangement among the old: it's known as "together apart". Two they may be widowed or divorced discover a growing bond between them. It develops and soon they are holidaying together, sharing outings and even bed. But they remain living in their separate homes. It seems to work. It saves all the tensions of shared living, avoids the financial and social rearrangements of moving in together, and it doesn't trespass on the past.
As I grow older I perceive love in a different context altogether. I have seen love at its most intense and beautiful when someone is dying. This may not fit the clichs of "sex and love" as we live it. But to witness one partner falling into a decline and the other giving selfless devotion throughout the illness is to see love in action. It seems an odd thing to say, but love gathers with passion and intensity around many a deathbed.
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