Although I’m not on the look out for an SWM (Slender White Male), in moments of matinal paralysis I check out the Personals. These blameless perusals are mainly parochial: Farmers Weekly and The Spectator. I’m always cheered when there are as many men looking for women as women in search of men, which is rarely the case in the countryside. It took a river of coffee before I figured out that GSOH meant Good Sense of Humour, which is probably a waste of column space because everyone thinks they have a GSOH.
But my favourites are in the New York Review of Books, where everyone is brainy, cultured and ‘slim’ and the majority are DWF, which isn’t shorthand for dwarf, but stands for Divorced White Female. I didn’t see the ad that Jane Juska (DWF) put in-‘BEFORE I TURN 67-next March-I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me, NYR Box 10307’-but I was transfixed by her account of the strenuous year that followed when it was read on Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’.
If I was slow to figure out that NS did not stand for Not Solvent but meant Non Smoker, I no longer try to detect in the cheerful, confident telegraphic abbreviations the signs of the trapped, economically precarious or lonely. Now I just see men and women ISO (in search of) a lovable human universe.
How did this happen, this pandemic of Old Singles? The most obvious answer is divorce. For thousands of years couples stuck it out ’til death did them part. Remember the couple, aged 94 and 96, standing in the divorce court. ‘But why on earth are you getting divorced now?’ asked the bewildered judge. Came the quivering reply: ‘We were waiting for the children to die’. Nobody waits nowadays, and I’ve now reached the age my mother called ‘The Season of Their Discontent’, when men who’ve been married for two or three decades decide they want to spend the rest of their lives with 33-year-olds. They manage this transition with ease, thanks to nature’s cruelest trick of symbiosis: wherever there is a rich man not wanting to feel old, there is a young woman not wanting to feel poor.
And now, with a cluster of close friends whose marital lives seem to be vanishing all at once, I’ve taken to moonlighting as a divorce lawyer. My office is the kitchen table and my law library bible is Divorce for Dummies, UK edition. When I’m truly stumped, I consult my friend Helen over the Cromer crab stall at the farmers’ market. A high-powered London family lawyer, Helen accepts that my job is to dilute the extortionate fees that her profession charges. I do this by preparing my clients well for each meeting and writing letters on their behalf. In extremis, I even dressed in my Jaeger suit and represented my friend Annie at a postponement hearing, saving her £750 in solicitor’s fees for a court appearance that was a mere formality requested by her ex-husband.
Not content with my legal/illegal career, I’ve decided to move on to Life After Divorce. I am thinking about Thursday-night singles’ dinners in the restaurant, a great service in the isolated countryside. I’d make sure that the numbers were even. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than introducing ‘loves Peter Beales roses, fly fishing, Jane Austen and dogs’ to ‘can’t stand Blair, Easyjet or Tesco’s ISO woman who loves long walks and apple crumble.’ GSOH vital.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on October 27, 2005.