Tuesday 14 November 2006

Happy anniversary

Oah Noah! They told us it was going to be the most dramatic evening on radio since Grace was burnt to a crisp in that stable fire in 1955, but sadly episode 15,000 of The Archers proved to be the ultimate damp squib. Ruth realised that she could not go through with her planned night of passion with the dullest man in the world, because of her sense of duty to her kiddies. A cruel blow to all of us who had prayed that she and Sam would walk off into the sunset together, so cleansing Radio 4 of perhaps the least convincing North East accent in the history of British broadcasting.

Instead we face the tedious prospect of her working to rebuild her marriage to David, the second dullest man on the planet. But, hey, at least it gives Heather Mills McCartney a clear run at the ‘most unpopular Geordie of 2006’ title, barring a late rush of support for Freddie Shepherd.

In an age when marital break-up seems to be the norm, is The Archers in any way like real life? It certainly seems more like it than Coronation Street, where elderly men expire of strokes on their wedding day and another love triangle envelops Frankie Baldwin, her ex-husband and her stepson. And a brief survey of my married friends shows that nearly all of them are still together after 20 years or more, against all the apparent odds.

True, there have been victims of that calculation by the stay-at-home wife that if she can’t have it all, she can at least have the house and the people carrier and a good 50% of everything else. And free herself of the occasional company of that boring bloke who is clearly happier in the office anyway, judging by the amount of time he spends there.

I realise this cuts both ways, so let me add that I know few less edifying sights than the orchestra stalls of the Royal Opera House on a night when they’re performing something with a few decent tunes in it. There you will find row upon row of silver-haired captains of British industry alongside their blonde, trophy, second wives. They usually look about 20 years younger than their husbands, though this might of course merely testify to the effectiveness of the beauty regimes to which they clearly devote about 50% of their time. The other half being spent in planning their long and happy widowhoods.

Even before The Archers blew up, or rather fizzled out, I’d been pondering on the durability of marriage, as today would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. Tomorrow would have been my father’s 98th birthday, and my mother was only a year younger, so the chances of them reaching this date together were always pretty slim. But stranger things have happened. Earlier this year, a British couple claimed a place in the Guinness Book of Records by having stayed married for over 76 years. They attributed their success to having a daily argument, probably about exactly the same thing every time.

Sustaining a relationship for longer than the design life of a normal human being is a truly extraordinary achievement. But think how much easier it must have been to make a lifetime commitment when there was a sporting chance of death breaking things up quite quickly, through any one of a wide range of revolting dread diseases, or the high risk annual ritual of childbirth.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my limited experience of divorce, it’s that the children of broken marriages hate it. So maybe when today’s young rebel against their healthy new school dinners and go on smoking and drinking to excess, there is an element of logic to it. After all, if they insist on shortening their lives in this way, perhaps their own marriages really will last until death us do part.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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