A few nights ago we were offered a choice: to watch the World Cup or attend a lecture on Dunkirk? I asked Jane and driver Markus for their views.
Jane plumped for the World Cup: Markus said, “With two uncles killed at Stalingrad plus the fact I am German, the UK blithering on about Dunkirk is not really my scene!”
Markus managed to watch our football defeat to Croatia with scarcely a tear in his eye!
Another blisteringly warm and humid day. We walk through Swindon and, to be as polite as possible, we are pleased to have finished this section and to be marching through the fields and woods once more. Ever more locked and shuttered gates and towering nettles blocking our way.
I’m profoundly fortunate in having had Jane as my wife for the past 50 years.
When we were first married we lived in a small house in Edinburgh. One day Jane fell down the stairs and managed to remove the right-hand banisters with her chin. Ever since then I realised that I married a particularly tough and resolute woman.
This can be proved on the walk where I call her General Montgomery. She has grown into a commanding lady who only the feckless and stupid would dare to gainsay. Jane is in command of the maps and good luck to her with that misery.
Going for Gold
I heard about a couple that suddenly decided to get divorced after being married for 70 years. When they were asked why they had waited so long before splitting, the old lady replied, “We were waiting for our children to die first!”
Meanwhile, author and staunch Catholic Lady Longford (Elizabeth) was once asked by a journalist whether she had ever considered divorcing her husband, the late Lord Longford – who, to put it politely, was not an easy man.
“Divorce never,” she cried, “murder often!”
Jane and I met at a wedding, and I was struck by what the Italians call Un colpo di fulmine – best translated as a love bolt from the blue, no half measures. Cupid’s arrow was spot on, and from that moment I laid siege for her hand. It took Jane rather longer to accept I was worth it, but I won in the end.
I spoke at a small party to celebrate our golden anniversary. The lunch was a happy occasion, full of laughter and easy conversation with old friends. But our buddies’ memories are slipping just a little and some of their replies to our invitation were all over the place. One wrote a long letter saying how pleased he was to be asked but failed to say if he and his Missus could come. Another couple said they could attend, then two weeks before the lunch, they wrote to say they couldn’t after all; so we were somewhat surprised to see them in the front row and wondered whose lunch party had two empty places!
The best way to ensure a long marriage is through the gift of amnesia. I know that Jane did something profoundly foolish last week… but then, so did I! The point is that a week later, neither of us can quite recall exactly what these things were. So we have no endless recriminations.
The children have a part to play too. They can reduce me to goo when I get pompous. I recall saying when I passed 60 that I had ceased to be a “sex object” – sadly people simply looked through me.
“Wait a minute,” commanded my eldest daughter, Clare. “Just please tell us when you were ever a sex object? The decade will do!”
In our day, there was no living together before marriage to “try each other out”, or setting up house as “partners”. I have to confess that I don’t think this modern way of casually hooking up is good for anyone, especially for women whose happiness depends on a degree of permanence in a relationship. This has been the accepted wisdom for thousands of years, and I simply don’t believe that just because the young claim to be able to junk it, all will be well.
That apart, if Jane and I could start out afresh, we would definitely have wanted to participate in a “marriage preparation” course. The fact is that neither of us at the innocent ages of 21 (Jane) and 24 (me) had a clue what we were doing. But nothing like that was available in our day! Our marriage was rather like being presented with a boat when neither of us had ever sailed before. Waving hands of good luck after the wedding simply wasn’t good enough. Some lessons about sails and the provision of a reliable compass would have come in handy. Then what about a few tips about tides, and the fickleness of the weather and winds? And to have been given some idea of where the disguised jagged reefs and dangerous rocks were lurking?
In other words, we would have benefitted hugely if we could have tapped into the experience of those wise people who have navigated – and somehow survived – long years of marriage with its inevitable storms and heartbreaks. Looking back, the fact we survived at all is nothing short of miraculous. It would have been really helpful to have been given a few tips about what to do if, for example, one of us met a very sexually attractive someone else a few years into marriage – as usually happens at the exact moment when the excitement and the passion has damped down a bit, the money is tight and the new baby never stops being sick or crying. And we could have used some advice on handling money difficulties, serious illness, a nervous breakdown, job loss, the failure of dreams and the death of close family – for all these things are part of life’s rich pageant.
Jane and I have been obliged to tease out the answers to some of these pitfalls ourselves. Fortunately, we have always had the vital ability to grow with each other – and of course, that is still happening today. Added to that, we have always liked each other. I am told that you can always tell when a marriage faces total death: that is when one side cannot talk of their opposite number without shrugging and “eye rolling”. Thank goodness we have never eye rolled, and pray God, we’re not about to start now.
Reading the Signs
The wife of the late US evangelist Billy Graham, Ruth, was once driving in California when she saw a sign, “Roadworks Ahead”. After waiting for 40 minutes, the jam cleared. At the end was a sign reading “End of Construction – thank you for your patience.” These are the words inscribed on Ruth’s gravestone.
When we sweep aside the gossamer threads of money and possessions, the really important thing is to be able to say at the end, “I have loved, and I have been loved.” Jane and our family are the enduring melody of my life. In fact, I am able to say I have always been surrounded by this melody and that’s a rare claim.
Let me end this piece with a (slightly adapted) quote from General MacArthur that sums up our attitude to growing old together:
Youth is not a period of time. It is a state of the mind, a result of the will, a quality of the imagination, a victory of courage over timidity, of the taste for adventure over the love of comfort. A man doesn’t grow old because he has lived for a number of years. We grow old when we desert our ideals. The years may wrinkle our skin but deserting our ideals wrinkles our souls. Preoccupations, fears, doubts and despair are the enemies that slowly bow us to the earth and turn us into dust before death. If one day, we turn bitter, pessimistic and gnawed by despair, may God have mercy on our old souls.