There are three big relationship commitments these days in Britain, which are, in descending order of both cost and ease of extrication: having kids, buying a house and getting hitched. Fifty years ago, invariably marriage was the first as well as the cheapest of these, what with the bride’s father being obliged to pick up the tab for everything and there being a social obligation to be married before practising the reproduction; a house next while you could still afford it; and then kids inevitably followed unless nature had other plans.
Nowadays the order of these events is rather more random, with sharing a surname often relegated to an afterthought. With sex being an expectation of any meaningful relationship rather than a dividend of the marriage contract, the compulsion for men in particular to make a public show of commitment is rather blunted; despite the ironic truth that tearing up said contract is far easier, in practical terms at least, than the unpredictable duration of liquidating property equity (particularly in the current clime) and the inevitable anguish of nuclear family fission.
But let’s examine the impulses a little more. Owning a home is a very practical driver. Most people pay little less renting their home than they would servicing a mortgage on it, and in fact often more as property owners understandably look to cover their credit costs in full. A mortgage puts a finite end to the cost of one’s bricks and mortar, although more often it helps build sufficient equity to haul oneself up the property pyramid. There is of course risk; if you buy, as we did, a house which was never going to be a long-term investment, you run the risk of nobody else wanting it when you decide it’s time to trade up, or even worse falling into negative equity*.
Having children is a product of arguably the strongest force in the universe: evolution. Now before anyone sets the case for gravity, note that this is widely held up as being the weakest force in the universe, although it is without doubt the farthest reaching. There are plenty of philosophical arguments for intelligence being the strongest force, but I would point out that evolution’s most powerful weapon – lust – has triumphed over intelligence enough documented times to make this a walkover.
It is possible to make a practical case for having children, but only in terms of having someone to look after you in your dotage, and this can’t possibly outweigh the financial cost (estimated at over £200k per child to age 21 – and that’s ignoring the effect of kippers). It is unarguably evolution that causes men to spread the seed; you don’t have to go too far back in epochwise terms to get to the alpha male and his harem (in fact disappointingly this is still a feature of many contemporary societies). Evolution further dictates that the majority of women have a burning desire to produce young, one which increases in intensity as time goes on, and then (much to the alpha male’s frustration) generally fades once further children are off the agenda. Evolution can thus also be directly held accountable for the majority of extra-marital affairs.
Getting married though is extremely difficult to logically justify. Once upon a time it was a public signal that this girl now belonged to that man (remember “love, honour and obey”?), a very overt “get your own” message to every other male in the vicinity. Socially, it was a prerequisite for having children; in fact most men would have expected their wives to be virgins, having no problem reconciling that with their own licentious dallying. Being single past a certain age was something of a stigma. Modern society has removed these encumbrances; a public acknowledgement of commitment seems then somehow to be driven only by tradition and the desire for mother and child to have the same surname. Getting married shouldn’t change your relationship, and those who do it for that reason are invariably disappointed by the outcome. It is expensive (average in excess of £18k, think of the 10% deposit on that first house this represents); it provokes innumerable family rows and minor slights among friends who expected an invitation; it causes reams of paperwork for at least the female in changing details at work, banks, driving licence, passport, etc.; it keeps makers of those nasty brick-like slabs of dried fruit and brandy in business when they should really have gone bust years ago (surely nobody really likes wedding cake? I swear you’re all putting it on for show).
But we all keep doing it. My wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary last weekend by going to our friend’s daughter’s very enjoyable wedding. Some other friends recently went abroad to get hitched after a dozen years together. Very few of our social circle are unmarried, and almost all of those that are haven’t always been. The fact is that actually people quite enjoy weddings; basically, it’s an excuse for a party. For the happy couple, it is a celebration of their togetherness and the only time in their lives they will be able to get all the people they love and like (plus a few family members falling into neither category) in one place. For the guests, it is justification to spend money looking good, staying in a hotel** and drinking to various degrees of excess, and for those who are married already to relive their own wedding day (and quietly benchmark the various aspects against their own endeavours).
And for the groom, is it the one day he can absolutely guarantee a free practice session.
Now you may have picked up that I’m not a fan of rich fruit cake (I mean as in wedding cake, not as in Elton John). So my recipe this week is for a sponge cake. They are the way forward.
Simple sponge cake
Mix 200g of butter and 200g of caster sugar until fluffy and creamy. Beat 4 large eggs then slowly add to the butter/sugar mix. Fold in 200g of self-raising flour and mix for up to 1 minute, then pour the whole mixture into a greased, and lined, baking tin. Bake in a pre-heated oven (at 160°C) for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from oven, take out of the tin then leave to cool on a wire rack, before filling and decorating with sugar flowers and little figurines of yourselves. Ah.
*We were incredibly lucky and, after four years on and off the market, happened upon a white knight who was trading down due to divorce; another six to twelve months and we would have fallen through the equity trapdoor, the consequences of which may have been as severe as not having had our second child.
**Some fools at the weekend stayed in tents at the venue rather than nice comfortable hotels a taxi jaunt away. Needless to say, they all ended up slightly soggy.