Some years ago, I set out to commission six authors to write a short account of their first experience of falling in love and the effect it had had on their lives. Every single man I spoke to accepted the commission swiftly and the telephone calls stretched late in to the afternoon. I learned of the schoolgirl with holes in her stockings, beloved by the writer who was then her classmate; she’d let him push his fingers through the rip and he swore it was more erotic than when they finally disrobed entirely. Then there was the renowned playwright who had been besotted by a beautiful teenage waitress. It became clear as we talked that none of these men had totally left these passions behind them. “If she walked through the door now,” said the writer, only half-joking, “I’d leave my wife immediately.”
The women I spoke to, by contrast, had far less enthusiasm. “To be honest,” said one historian, “My first crush kissed like a carwash and my first experience of sex was a damp squib.” It seemed to me men kept these early obsessions alive because, by contrast to the women, their first experience of being granted intimacy with the opposite sex was so unexpected and overwhelming, they could never fully recover from the joy of acquiescence. This was borne out by research in 2012 from the University of Lancaster which found men more likely than women to carry a torch for their ex. Professor Gary Cooper said, “It tends to be a powerful experience and the memory sticks with us as a reminder of more carefree, uninhibited days.” He also pointed out, “These people, particularly men, who pine after their first love are probably doing so because they’re unhappy about something in their current relationship but are afraid to confront it. It is escapism and avoidance and it’s not healthy.”
The power of an early obsession to disrupt later relationships and the danger of barely suppressed memories is at the core of 45 Years: Andrew Haigh’s acclaimed new film, released this week. The couple at the drama’s centre, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, are poised to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, when news surfaces of a young woman he once loved, who disappeared before they married. It’s easy to see why this film has struck such a chord. Wise women know you can fight present danger, but it’s hard to battle the past: the hooks go too deep.
Those who choose to ignore this clearly haven’t read much Dante – and the artistic types are always the worst. The poet first met his beloved Beatrice when she was eight-years-old and he nine, at a May Day party. He fell for her on the spot and remained infatuated for the rest of his life, eulogising her in his work, even though she married another man in 1287 and died three years later. Such life-long obsession forms one thread of Jonathan Coe’s novel of male friendship, The Rotter’s Club. Ben Trotter, the schoolboy writer and musician is fixated with Cicely Boyd, the most beautiful girl at the girls’ school. In Coe’s sequel, The Closed Circle, Trotter’s failing marriage is further doomed by his continued preoccupation with Boyd. When she finally reappears, her beauty and health are faded, but Trotter barely registers the change – his youthful vision of her is so deeply enshrined that she will always be the ultimate object of lust for him.
Most of my female friends have come across at least one man with a shrine to his own personal Beatrice. It’s generally maddening, often an excuse to avoid emotional engagement and should not be indulged. Poet Caron Freeborn has the best answer to “…those men that worship their first true loves/ the ones they never married, who congeal/ into a charm of sex goddess and seer”. In Georges Perec is my Hero, she reminds the chaps: “For we, too, are someone’s first true love…”
Indeed, we are – but we also know that it takes a lot of work and energy to keep the incense burning. We see too clearly that the bad-boy art student with eyes like David Bowie, is now a corpulent, greying finance manager at a soft drinks manufacturer. Besides, we have a feeling the best kiss is on the horizon, rather than far behind us.