You’ll no doubt know friends who obsessively crawl bars and clubs looking for someone – anyone – who can provide the security and comfort of a familiar relationship. And then everything will be all right. Right?!
My parents met on a hill in Heidelberg. It was, they always told us, love at first sight.
My mother was 18. My father was 21. Two months after they met, my father sent my mother a telegram saying: ‘Will you marry me?’ My mother sent one back saying: ‘Yes.’ When my father died, 47 years later, he was still buying her flowers.
This is not what happened for me. I always thought it would, but it didn’t. I have lived on my own since I was 26 and have been single nearly all my adult life. People often asked why and I never really knew what to say. I even bought a book called If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?
Looking back, the answer is clearer. The steady, reliable men I met seemed boring. What made my pulse race was charming men who made me laugh. What made my heart sing, in fact, was narcissistic charmers who played the game and often didn’t stick around.
In my 20s, I tried to look cheerful as I went to friends’ weddings alone. I smiled at speeches. I smiled at photos of the honeymoon. I smiled when people put babies in my arms. But I didn’t smile when I got home. I thought they had won the lottery and I had not.
When I hit 30, panic kicked in. I put a skull and crossbones on the invitation to my party and pretended it was just a joke about passing time.
At 40, I had just ended a relationship with another charming bad boy. And at 50? Well, if anyone had told me when I was 30 I would still be single at 50, I would probably have picked up the phone to Dignitas.
I had a party anyway. You should always mark big birthdays with a party. But it certainly wasn’t the 50th birthday I’d planned.
Then last year, I found love. I had to wait until I had turned 51, but I did, at last, find love. I don’t worry now about who I’m going to spend Christmas with or whether I’m going to be alone on a Saturday night. If I want to go to a gallery or for a walk in the country, I don’t have to trawl through my address book to find a friend who is free.
Holidays have turned from a bit of a headache into - well, a holiday. It isn’t much fun being ushered to the back of a restaurant by waiters asking if ‘madam is eating on her own’.
I don’t know if my relationship will last. None of us can know. I still live on my own. My home is my castle and I have no desire to fill it with someone else’s stuff.
I still have the friends I’ve always had. I still go out a lot on my own. But for the first time, I find myself swapping the word ‘I’ for ‘we’. To be honest, it feels a bit strange.
I stutter over that word ‘we’. That’s because a part of me doesn’t want to let go of the rich life as a single woman I spent so many years building up.
When I think of the hours I spent moaning over bottles of chardonnay, then sauvignon, and then prosecco, about the nightmare of being single, I can feel my cheeks burn.
I could have written War And Peace in that time. I could have written the whole of Dickens.
But instead, I said one thing, again and again. If only. If only I had a boyfriend. If only I had a husband and a family and a nice little house. If only I had these things, everything would be fine.
I would have these conversations after a long day at work in a job I loved. In my 20s, I was organising literary events, having dinner with top writers.
In my 30s, I was running a national arts organisation. In my 40s, I was a newspaper columnist, interviewing Nobel laureates and senior politicians.
I went on press trips to Syria and Cambodia, Shanghai and Iran. And I still had the impulse to say to Nobel laureates and former prime ministers: poor me. I’m single. Feel my pain.
And when I wasn’t working, I was seeing friends. I’ve always been very lucky in my friends. Friends are the people who shriek with laughter about the man you’ve just met on the internet who droned on about his work, drank too much, then left you to pick up the bill.
Friends are the people who scoop you up when you didn’t get that promotion or when you’ve just been dumped. Friends are the people who come with you to a hospital appointment when a scan shows a shadow.
Or at least my friends are these people. My friends are my family. They are my cheerleaders, my necessary critics, my clan.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would tell her those friendships she has are so strong, loving and supportive they’ll last longer than romantic relationships and will give her more joy, more laughter and more fun. I would tell her it might take a bit of courage, but it’s better to go to parties on your own.
You make more of an effort, you meet more people and you often have better conversations.
I would tell her to relish her opportunities. When you’re single, you can go where you like, do what you like, meet who you like.
You can leap on a plane and have an adventure, as I’ve done many times. I wouldn’t recommend them all, but they were never dull.
I’d remind her that when you’re single, you don’t have to cook. You can’t just alternate chablis and Kettle chips, but you don’t have to waste time on gourmet meals for one. You can save your recipe books for dinner with friends and sparkling conversation.
When my father retired, my mother told him she married him for better or worse, not for lunch. Now I understand. Some love domestic life. I’m afraid I don’t.
I would tell my younger self to savour the energy and curiosity that drives you to seek more. If you’re single, you often get more done. You have more time to devote to your career. You have more time to nurture friendships. You have more time to read, learn things, meet new people.
I used to dream of sitting at home with a box set, but there’s a big world out there and you can’t see all that much of it when you’re curled up on the sofa.
Never feel ashamed to be on your own. Being single doesn’t mean you’re unlovable or weird. Millions of people are looking for a partner. A third of us live on our own.
When you’re single, you have freedom. You can live life with an intensity you might later miss. The security of a good relationship is less exhausting, but when you swap freedom for security, you may - sorry, darling, if you’re reading this - have a bit less fun.
What I would tell my younger self, in other words, is not to ruin the rich life she has by yearning for what she hasn’t yet got. There are lots of ways to live a life. You just can’t live all of them at once.