Bachelor is still a word that conjures up a certain antiquated cool; it evokes images of glamour, both in the surroundings a bachelor knows as home and in his swish sartorial uniform. One thinks of convertible sports cars, jet-setting to Paris, Venice and Rome, casinos, a Martini shaken and not stirred, one-night stands with beautiful women and strictly no strings attached. Bachelor is a euphemism for freedom, freedom from responsibility to others, to wives and children, to everything perceived as a restriction of what should be a man’s instinctive yearning to be unencumbered. A husband can effectively be seen as a castrated bachelor. James Bond is a bachelor, of course, so he has a lot to answer for; and for those of us who enjoy immersing in some quintessential kitsch, Jason King is another unlikely role model for the single man. Very few heroic fantasy figures are married men. The only time a bachelor was ever cast in a negative light was when the prefix ‘confirmed’ was added, and the subtle implication of this transformed him into a less envied outsider.
By contrast, the labels attached to single women were not so desirable – spinster and old maid. Instantly, the images are not of freedom and Cool, but of imprisonment and exclusion. One thinks of a scruffy mad woman living with a dozen cats, oozing unseemly odours of wee, sweat and stale menstrual burgundy, socially inadequate, probably a closet lesbian. Perhaps the traditional viewpoint was that spinsterhood was an abdication of a woman’s natural role – that of wife and mother; and the word spinster seemed to emphasise it. It’s not that far from spider, after all.
Ironically, both bachelor and spinster appear to have finally become closer in the public perception now. Young men and women, especially those remaining in the family bosom, can get away with singleton status – young, free and single goes the phrase, of course. But this is seen as a permissible phase, a necessary opportunity to play the field before finding ‘the one’ and settling down to the social engineering project that ensures the survival of the species. But what of those that fail to find ‘the one’ – either backing the wrong horse and paying for it with divorce, or simply never getting that far, even if not through want of trying? Middle-aged, free and single or old, free and single don’t quite have the same ring to them. If the archaic apogee of a woman’s ambition has been reinforced by the likes of Bridget Jones, men have also had to endure the revival of the family man as the pinnacle of their achievements.
Whether the David in question is Beckham or Cameron, being seen with wife and children in tow is increasingly imposed as the norm we should all aspire to. Somebody single over the age of, say, 35 is both pitied and feared. Pitied because they have yet to join the club and the consensus is they want nothing more than to do so; feared because if they have chosen not to join the club, there’s clearly something wrong with them. Couples who decide not to have children are bad enough, but men and women who choose not to even be one half of a couple? What are they trying to hide?
Publicised examples of single men way beyond the age at which they can expect to be admired and envied for their absence of a ball-and-chain are far from positive. Think of the treatment dished out to Christopher Jeffries, catapulted onto the front pages as a murder suspect whose guilt was presumed largely because he had rejected the recommended route to social enlightenment; then there’s Jimmy Savile, of whom enough has been said already; there is Cliff Richard – ditto; and back in the news a decade after his death, there is Ted Heath, a man whose rise to the apex of political power despite the lack of spouse and offspring props seems more unimaginable the further we travel from his tenancy at No.10.
Had Christopher Jeffries been dragged into the spotlight thirty or forty years ago, his singleton status would have caused many to come to the conclusion he was ‘queer’. The same rumours plagued both Savile and Heath when their public profiles were at their peak in the 1970s. Back then, homosexuality, possibly aided by the late age of consent, was often confused with paedophilia. An episode of the classic sitcom ‘Rising Damp’ in which an actor lodger (played by Peter Bowles) is suspected by landlord Rigsby of being ‘one of them’ sees Leonard Rossiter’s character attempt to explain his suspicions to Richard Becksinsale’s character, whose lack of suspicion is regarded as naivety. Rigsby poses the question ‘Did your mother never warn you not to take sweets from strangers?’ – something that inadvertently defines the times the programme was produced in and demonstrates how the two strands of deviant sexual inclinations were entwined in the public imagination.
Four decades on from ‘Rising Damp’, we are supposed to scoff at the prejudices on display and smugly celebrate how far we’ve come since 1975, yet for the single man in particular, public perceptions are no more enlightened now than they were then. If anything, we’ve gone backwards. A single man over the age at which a man is allowed to be single now has a greater awareness of how his lack of a permanent partner marks him out as a target and how he is uniquely vulnerable to awful accusations in a way he wasn’t before.
In the manner of an AA meeting, I shall now stand up and admit I am a single man in my late forties. I’ve never been married and I’ve never had children. I can’t say I was especially bothered about the latter, but the former I probably anticipated would have happened at some point. It almost did seventeen years ago, but the bride changed her mind on the day, so it didn’t. In retrospect, it was the only favour she ever did me, but I’m digressing. Those who are familiar with another side of my lyrical waxing via occasional visits to a more personal project will know there have been missed opportunities that I bitterly regret, and finding myself living alone at my age is something that has both advantages and disadvantages. Thankfully, I don’t reside on an ‘estate’, surrounded by couples and families where I would be viewed uncomfortably unfavourably. In my time, I have been suspected of being gay, though if I were, there would be no tangible reason for me to pretend otherwise in this day and age other than wishing to preserve my privacy.
Ah, yes, privacy. Now, that’s a dirty word because it implies secrecy and an unwillingness to wear my proclivities as a T-shirt. Unfortunately, the insidious virus of both reality and confessional television – not to mention the minutiae of day-to-day life being broadcast on social media – has rendered a reluctance to be ‘open’ 24/7 as masking something unpleasant, and a single man careering towards his half-century obviously has something unpleasant lurking in the background. Otherwise, why won’t he discuss it with the world and his wife? He never married, y’know…