A couple of weekends ago, I went to my 50th wedding. Everyone I have mentioned this to has pulled a rather strange face, as though to say, ‘You count the weddings you go to? What unhinged variety of cross-eyed lunatic does that?’ But like so much of lasting value in life, this began with a conversation in a pub. Back in 1997, I was moaning to my old friend Terence about how many weddings I was having to go to. People I knew simply wouldn’t stop getting married. So how many in all? asked Terence. I don’t know, said I. It could, and probably should, have ended there. But the freelance career was passing through one of its periodic dips, and I had slightly too much time on my hands, so I went through old diaries, made some calls, studied my cheque book stubs and compiled a list. Aged 37, I had been to 38 weddings. I rang Terence up to tell him the happy news. Hmm, he said, deep in thought. When the invitation arrives, has it ever occurred to you simply to say no?
Once you know you have been to 38 weddings, you can’t help but count. If your mind works in a certain way, a list can be a thing of beauty. (I have long toyed with writing a book called ‘The Joy of Lists’, complete with drawings of a naked woman and a man with a beard making some very interesting lists.) Each subsequent wedding has gone on the list, although the flow quickly abated to one or two a year. As middle age takes root it’s important that we set ourselves new targets, define new goals, in order to keep the intellectual juices flowing. For me, that target became the 50th wedding. Marooned for a year on 48, I was saved by an old friend’s slightly rushed second wedding this spring (bride gloriously big with child), and earlier this month, when the eldest daughter of an old American friend of my long-time girlfriend married an English banker in the leafiest Kent village imaginable. The half-century! In my mind’s eye I raised my bat to the cheering crowd.
I will admit: I do like weddings. Even if you barely know the protagonists — I knew no one at the one two weeks ago — you feel honoured to witness this public celebration of what is essentially a private and intimate act. At weddings, irony is suspended for the day. Even the brutal sarcasm of former boyfriends and girlfriends of the happy couple, who may have been invited just to rub their noses in it, can be placed in context. Just as a funeral frees you to weep and wail and gnash your teeth, so a wedding encourages you to look kindly upon humanity while drinking free champagne. Later on there will be loads of food and the opportunity to dance ineptly to hits of the 1970s. Wedding togs are unique in that almost everyone looks good in them, except when dancing, when everyone looks ridiculous. In this sense, at least, it’s the most democratic of our great social rituals. And as we let our guard down, almost anything can happen. I myself began at least one long-term relationship at a wedding, although she did watch me rather carefully when we subsequently went to others.
After 50 weddings, though, some trends become apparent. Of the 50, six were people I barely knew at the time or have lost touch with since. Of the remainder, only eight have ended in divorce, while a ninth is in the process of crumbling horribly. One more was cruelly abbreviated by the wife’s death, and the other 34 couples are still together. Either the people I know are a particularly faithful and uxorious bunch, or (as I have long suspected) many of them simply can’t afford to split up and so are stuck with each other, at least until the children move out. Only the very rich and the very poor can afford to divorce now, the very poor because they have nothing left to lose.
Most of them, also, were first marriages. I have been to a couple of seconds (including my mother’s) but many of these seem to take place at a secret location, i.e. I am not invited to them. Twice have I been to both first and second weddings and on each occasion I was one of very few people who had been to both. You feel proud but a little anxious, for you realise that statistically you have little chance of being invited to the third wedding, in however many years’ time.
Certain things, though, never change. When the priest asks if anyone knows of any just cause or impediment why these two people should not be joined in holy matrimony, at least one person will titter audibly and around a quarter of the congregation will look around at the door, expecting Hugh Grant to burst in. Similarly, it is widely considered a miracle if the best man hasn’t mislaid the ring. Such is the baleful influence of TV sitcom on our lives, although worse still is the priest who thinks he is a stand-up comedian. A notable recent development is the so-called groovy priest who thinks it’s hip to make repeated references in his address to the couple’s sex life. In a just world, such lapses in taste would be punished with medieval acts of violence.
The best man problem remains acute. You will never get a friendlier, more supportive audience for a speech in your life, so most best men never begin to realise how disastrously their speeches have failed. Many grooms attempt to solve the problem by appointing as their best man someone who barely knows them and so cannot embarrass them unduly. One monomaniac of my acquaintance chose himself for the job. There was no one he trusted more and it gave him the opportunity to make two speeches. We all knew the marriage wasn’t going to last, and his wife might have had an inkling by the end of the evening.
As it happens, I was best man myself not so long ago, for my friend Terence, who finally got married, aged 53, to an Australian woman of high intelligence and impeccable good taste. The speech went well and I didn’t lose the ring. He has said he will be happy to return the favour one day, whenever the call comes. Because that may be the strangest thing about all this: I have been to 50 weddings, but not one of them has been my own.