The an­cient art of sex

Tom Payne of­fers an in­sight into the age-old ques­tion of when it’s time for love to take a back seat

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Lifestyle -

The door­bell rings and two el­derly women in flo­ral dresses get up to an­swer it. When the gas man en­ters, they start paw­ing at him and coo­ing, “Ooh, young man!” Later they tell him, “The grill don’t work, so if you fancy a nice bit of crum­pet, you’ll have to make do with us.” It’s a tele­vi­sion sketch, with Harry En­field and Kathy Burke play­ing the women; the au­di­ence clearly loves it. A man ar­rives home. He’s been away for a while and is long­ing for his girl­friend. He knocks on the door and out comes an old woman. “I know you love me,” she says. “Maybe you’re sur­prised to find me at the door? Let me kiss you!” She ex­plains that women have taken over par­lia­ment, and a new law de­crees that if he wants to sleep with a young woman, he has to make love to an older woman first. “By Aphrodite, I won’t let you go!” she cries. This is Aristo­phanes’s play, Women of the As­sem­bly, from 391BC. Clearly the au­di­ence loved it. Both jokes rely on us squirm­ing at the idea of the el­derly hav­ing sex. Harry En­field’s rou­tine is an old one, but at least it has clas­si­cal author­ity to it. We seem for a mo­ment to be heirs to a tra­di­tion in which the el­derly look like un­likely lovers – es­pe­cially el­derly women. When peo­ple see an older woman step­ping out with a younger man, she’s called a cougar; the Daily Mail rel­ishes telling us about the racy life­styles of Su­san Saran­don and Jacqueline Bisset (aged 68 and 70 re­spec­tively). I re­cently re­searched an­cient at­ti­tudes to grow­ing old, in case they could of­fer any re­as­sur­ance to new, grow­ing gen­er­a­tions of el­derly peo­ple. I found that they of­fered par­tic­u­larly mixed mes­sages when it came to sex, love and beauty. Of­ten, when voices of the past sound like ours, it can re­mind us of just how out of date we are, and clearly many artists and writ­ers – all male – re­garded the idea of an older sin­gle woman with a kind of ap­palled fas­ci­na­tion. Ho­race taunts an older woman with the idea that men aren’t fight­ing over her in the street any­more. Greek and Ro­man sculp­tors, with their ge­nius for ren­der­ing wrin­kles, could rep­re­sent the grav­i­tas of a ma­tri­arch, but also the belch­ing lech­ery of an old woman reel­ing about the road. Mean­while, Pliny the Younger was writ­ing let­ters brag­ging about how young his third wife was, and how she loved him for his rep­u­ta­tion. What a leg­end. Yes, the an­cient world can seem like an ex­ag­ger­ated ver­sion of to­day’s views. Never mind Sharon Stone say­ing that there are fewer de­cent parts for older women to play, or Fiona Bruce say­ing: “There comes a point when your ca­reer just falls off a cliff.” In the an­cient world, older women had to keep to them­selves be­cause to do oth­er­wise would arouse sus­pi­cion. And the sus­pi­cion arose be­cause they weren’t re­ally that old. A wife would typ­i­cally be much younger than her hus­band (15 years would be fairly nor­mal) and, if she’d sur­vived labour, would be likely to out­live her hus­band by quite a way. The prob­lem for the squea­mish Ro­man man, or for the Same old story: Ovid, an­cient Rome’s great poet, was ef­fu­sive in his praise for women of a cer­tain age, although per­haps not Harry En­field and Kathy Burke’s leery old ladies, be­low right A face pack for look­ing young, from Ovid: Take 2lb of bar­ley, and of vetch; bind it with 10 eggs; grind and dry. Add 2oz of pow­dered hart’s horn, then strain. Peel and crush 12 narcissus bulbs, and add th­ese to the mix, along with 1½lb honey, 2oz gum, and 2oz spelt. “Who­ever uses that for her com­plex­ion / will beam more brightly than her own re­flec­tion.” judg­men­tal ma­trona, was she re­ally could be hav­ing sex. Vir­ginia Ironside has pro­posed that the ad­van­tage for a woman grow­ing old is that she can flirt with younger men, with lit­tle risk of the ex­change be­com­ing sex­ual. The Ro­mans could have thought the risk was real. Now, about that sex. Aren’t the Greeks and Ro­mans fa­mous for it? Yes, they are – but it’s all the more amaz­ing that they did this with­out Vi­a­gra or (so far as we know) pelvic floor ex­er­cises. On the face of it, tech­nol­ogy has given the el­derly bet­ter love lives – not to men­tion fewer wrin­kles – than the an­cients could ever have con­ceived. In the­ory, new gen­er­a­tions should be able to go on for longer in quite a few senses. But this is where the more en­light­ened an­cient thinkers of­fered their real wis­dom. Ovid has ef­fu­sive praise for the older woman: he ad­mires her world­li­ness, her ex­pe­ri­ence and her ver­sa­til­ity. The preda­tory “cougar” in the Aristo­phanes play sings: “Let him who wants to taste plea­sure come to my side. Th­ese young things know noth­ing about it; it’s only women of ripe age who un­der­stand the art of love.” What about old men? Ovid finds a way of prais­ing their en­durance, too, but with more than his usual sub­tlety: “He burns slowly, like hay be­fore it’s dried / or tim­ber fresh­felled from the moun­tain side.” Some men wel­comed the loss of ap­petite: Seneca thought that los­ing the de­sire for plea­sure was a plea­sure in it­self, and Sopho­cles is of­ten quoted as say­ing that when he reached old age, he felt freed from a ter­ri­ble despot. Other voices are more se­duc­tive, though, and sug­gest that the idea of late love makes life worth living. One early Greek poet, Mim­n­er­mus, writes: “Please may I die when I have had enough / of bed­rooms, sweet gifts and il­licit love.” In her best­selling book The Warmth of the Heart Pre­vents Your Body from Rust­ing, Marie de Hen­nezel in­tro­duces us to an age­ing cou­ple whose love­mak­ing is in­formed by Taoist wis­dom and, the way she de­scribes it, has no dan­ger of stop­ping. I like the idea of an ebbing but end­less in­ti­macy; and I like the way an­other early Greek poet, Anacreon, makes the end of life seem bit­ter­sweet, and worth savour­ing: “The women say you’re old, Anacreon; pick up a mir­ror and you’ll see your hair’s no longer there; your fore­head’s bald as well.” Whether it’s true or not I don’t know. This I do know: it’s right that an old man should have more fun when fate is com­ing close to him. ‘The An­cient Art of Grow­ing Old’ by Tom Payne is pub­lished by Vin­tage priced £14.99. To or­der your copy for £12.99 + £1.99 p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books. tele­graph.co.uk

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