Men, women keep telling you, are awfully dull. They are pompous. They love strange things like sport and systems. Worst of all, said a stream of newspaper articles recently, they don’t chat. The average woman uses 7,000 words a day, the average man just 2,000. Women are running out of patience with their mate.
At any moment I expect to hear science has allowed us to create our perfect man – intimately wordy, cuddly, empathetic, early morning tea maker, child carer, sock sorter and, after a hard day clothes shopping (“Darling, I have never seen your bottom look so pert!”), wild sex provider – and to declare the original obsolete.
Except for the wild sex, not, I hope, for some while. Since my divorce four years ago, my work and single status have meant that I have spent more time with men from a wider range of ages and professions than any period of my life. It has been an eye-opener. The majority of men are not dull at all. They are heaven, often scintillating, and much put upon. But there is a big gap between the generations.
It is, of course, as everything to do with men, situational. I am middle-aged, have children, an interesting job and enough to live on (thanks partly to a man – my ex-husband). I do not depend on one man for companionship. I need men only for those activities that give them deep pleasure – unscrewing recalcitrant jars of marmalade, for example, or sorting out the best mobile phone plan.
I even get good chat. Those women who complain that men make boring dinner party conversation are, I bet, all married. Men are at their best when conversation has a purpose. They shine in the boardroom, in court, in debate on radio and television or when getting a woman into bed. As a single woman, I find that prospect, however remote, is always there. It brings out the conversationalist in a man. One of my happily married male friends described the experience of sitting next to a single, attractive woman at a dinner party: “Anyone worth his salt who says he doesn’t think of sleeping with her is obviously lying.” There is, however, a definite sell-by date. Men, I have discovered, fall into two categories: those over 58 and everyone else. The majority of older men no doubt make good husbands and fathers but they are dull dinner companions. The reason is simple. At heart they do not enjoy talking to a woman as an equal. They need to constantly affirm their authority by exerting it.
Men as diverse as a member of the House of Lords, an aged rock singer, a novelist and a Third World entrepreneur who writes poetry – all dinner companions over the past four years – expected me to sit in silent awe. It is clear they have enjoyed a lifetime of women providing services. They see conversation with the opposite sex as a series of “to do” lists. The problem is, what to do with a woman who needs nothing but a good time? Young men are thrilled. Older men find it disconcerting. It means they have no power.
The novelist began well. He said he had fallen in love with me while reading one of my books. I was, of course, enchanted and leant closer, prepared for a delicious few hours discussing writing and me in detail. But he moved firmly onto his book and his life. Occasionally he would pause, shoot out a question, then return to where he had left off. After three hours, a tiny yawn escaped. He glared at me. “I don’t think you are enjoying my company,” he said severely, “Do you know how many women would love to be sitting where you are now?”
Older men tend to view their female dinner dates as interchangeable. I enjoyed a long and interesting conversation with the poetry-writing entrepreneur. Two weeks later he invited me again, ordered an excellent wine (older men have their compensations), looked deep into my eyes and repeated the conversation word for word.
All men disappoint by moving out of the courtship phase prematurely but older men do it quicker. Two dates and the aged rock singer was instructing me how to arrange roses and drive my car. When he came to supper he exclaimed: “What kind of household is this? Your 16-year-old daughter gets down from table without asking permission!” Or as my New York girl friend warned when I was contemplating going further with another older man: “Darling, one blink and they are in nappies.”
It is not all their fault. Women change too as they age. At a school reunion last week, I discussed ageing with women I had not seen since I was 16. Most of us had never been so happy. We had lost patience with the needs of the previous 30 years. Willing handmaiden seemed so last decade. Suddenly – the first intimation of menopause? – we want our own awed audience. Now that many of us no longer have to put up with one man, we relish those very male characteristics that once exasperated us – their enthusiasm, their energy and lack of responsibility. It is an age, we agreed, to thank heaven for little boys.
And here we are in luck. To be acceptable now, young men have to be able to gossip, have seen at least one play or film that week, know about foot massage, give informed advice on scent, and understand when a woman moans she wants empathy. This all makes them ideal companions.
So, I hear women asking everywhere, where are these men? Sadly they are the victims of society’s conflicting demands. When the baby hormones kick in, Metro Male is expected to transform into Cave Man. He has to bring in the goodies. Sometimes he has to do both roles at once – getting up in the night and earning enough to pay the school fees. Language is no longer to charm. It is a weapon to confirm status and stop people pushing him around at work. Most men have little energy for anything else – let alone witty conversation at a dinner party.
It means women of my age have never found ourselves so attractive to younger men. This is not all down to Botox. In a society of confusing demands, we are a demand-free zone. Well, not entirely. I do have one for my editor. In exchange for this article, he has promised to arrange a series of blind dates – to make up for all those older men now crossing me out of their address books.
The Sunday Times
Published 15 June 2008