Off the shelf
Lonely-hearts ads in the London Review of Books have a cult following. So when the journal advertised its singles night, the author felt compelled to attend
It’s not your typical lonely-hearts ad. “I’ll see you at the singles night. I’ll be the one breathing heavily and stroking my thighs by the ‘art’ books. Asthmatic, varicosed F (93) seeks M to 30 with enough puff in him to push me uphill to the post office. This is not a euphemism.” But then, the London Review of Books, where this appeared, is not your usual place to find a lonely-hearts column.
In the seven years since it was introduced, it has become a cult phenomenon: there’s even an anthology in the pipeline. So when, a few issues back, there was an advert for a London Review of Books Personal Ads Singles Night, I had to go along.
The London Review of Books is beyond doubt the loftiest literary journal in Britain. While the rest of the world cheerfully dumbs down, the LRB adopts a stance of unabashed intellectualism. In the current issue we find Julian Barnes discoursing on Georges Braque, a critique of the work of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and an unfeasibly long and learned review of Plat du Jour, “an album of dance tracks on the theme of food”.
To be honest, it’s all a bit intimidating.
Which makes the personal ads, tucked away at the back, all the more incongruous. After so much high-minded prose it’s a bit like peeking under high table and seeing that the dean and dons are wearing suspenders. Instead of dreary, acronym-filled attempts to impress with physical perfection or accommodating personalities, the ads are a riot of exuberant wit, messy emotion, lacerating self-knowledge and thwarted lust. Some plump for self-pity: “Monocled, plaid-festooned gadabout, out of place in any relationship, or century. Please help me . . . ”, writes a man who is “possibly your embarrassing uncle, 51”. Some choose whimsy: “Unemployable choreographer and amateur harpist (M, 62) seeks recovering alcoholic with feeble mind. Own tap shoes an advantage.”
Others shamelessly tickle academic fancies: “Beneath this hostile museum curator’s exterior,” one lady writes, “lurks a hostile museum curator’s interior . . . ”
What makes the column such a joy is that it conjures up a vivid sense of the paper’s readership or at least that part of it looking for love. Facial hair is a recurring theme (“must enjoy beards and harbour contempt for any music that isn’t Belgian jazz,” reads one, while another concludes, simply: “Man, 45, beard.”) As are mothers. Indeed, mothers are everywhere, alternately as disturbing oedipal figures or infuriating nuisances. “I want mummy,” declares one 37-year-old “with far too many issues to go into detail about in this column.” “It’s not that I don’t like living with my mother,” writes a 42-year-old, “but it would be nice to meet a woman who doesn’t think that subtext is what you get when you press 888 on the TV remote control.”
From time to time we get tantalising glimpses of how previous dates have gone. “Despite listing 34 French erotic novels as your favourite reads, I liked you,” writes F, 35. “Then you went and ruined everything by spending an hour ordering continental ales in the voice of Yoda.”
Possibly the same woman (“once bitten, twice bitten, three strikes and you’re all out”) reports back from another evening: “Drawing little faces on your thumbs, getting them to order meals, then shouting at them for not being able to pay is no way to win a woman. You know who you are.”
Small wonder that she is “seriously considering going gay unless the standard of replies from this column improves”. Elsewhere an exasperated lady admonishes male LRB readers that “Greetings, Earthling I have come to infest your puny body with legions of my spawn” is unlikely to win her heart. “Don’t send me any poems,” writes another, glumly. “Fed up of [sic] getting poems.”
All of which made the prospect of the LRB Personal Ads Singles Night a mind-boggling and frankly unmissable prospect whether you’re single or not. I forked out £8 for a ticket (an absolute bargain, as it turned out), donned a brown corduroy suit gathering dust at the back of my wardrobe and made my way to the LRB bookshop in Bloomsbury.
There are many advantages to holding a singles night in the company of books, not least that if there’s a lull in the conversation, or you’re too shy to make approaches, then there’s no shame in browsing the shelves. But books are also an erotic shortcut, and can create instant bonds. As one ad put it, “We brushed hands in the British Library, then again in the London Review Bookshop, reaching for Musil . . . ”
Indeed, the instant affinity provided by literature is perhaps the secret of the column’s matchmaking success: there have been at least two weddings through its pages although one, unfortunately, has already ended in divorce.
I arrived on the dot of seven the event lasted only two hours and was presented with a glass of fizzy wine at the door. Somewhere in the distance a beautiful Chinese lady was making marvellous, mystical noises on an instrument called a zheng. Delicious oriental nibbles were being ferried around on large trays. But at this early hour the place was empty save for a couple of middle-aged men engaged in purposeful browsing and a woman who looked strangely like Camilla Parker Bowles. So I made my way into the basement and hovered by the Poetry section.
Over by the Classical Studies shelves I overheard an Oxford librarian expressing astonishment that a rival university’s library did not automatically stock all the books on course reading lists. By the Psychology section there was a lady I later decided must have been the “nice, slim, dark-haired damaged Laingian seeking fun with sincere man 58+”.
We struck up a conversation. “I suppose that’s what you do at these things go up and talk to people,” she said with a nervous laugh. Recently abandoned by an “eminent academic” who had run off with a younger colleague, she’d placed a couple of ads in the LRB, so far with no promising results, and had decided to try her luck here. We ventured upstairs, which was starting to fill out. “Anyone take your fancy? ” I asked. She picked out a Professor Brainstorm type in a red jumper. We approached him, and he eyed me suspiciously when I made the introduction: “Are you paid to do this?” A few moments’ agonising small talk ensued, during which time Professor Brainstorm rocked from foot to foot with his eyes darting round the room, before he scampered off. “Oh dear, that didn’t go very well,” said my new friend. We agreed to split. I was clearly cramping her style.
Part of the fun of the evening was trying to guess who was who from the ads. Others seemed to be playing the game too: one woman was even clutching a copy of the current issue with various entries circled. I suspected a man wearing Elvis Presley glasses of being the “deracinated Yank, ex-academic” after “paint, polyphony, alliteration, and auto-eroticism” (he denied it); a wild-haired foppish fellow could well have been the “ ex-superhero, now librarian (M, 31)” seeking “solvent woman to 35 for Scrabble, real ale and spontaneous morphing” although he would not reveal his secret. I am almost certain that I located the “computer geek and amateur bio-mechanic (M, 32)” looking for a woman “with knowledge of advanced humanoid circuit systems”, and if I am correct then his dating techniques were as disastrous as his advert suggested they would be. “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” I heard an artist from Finsbury Park plead. The varicose-veined 93-year-old eluded me.
While the overwhelming number of people I chatted to had some sort of literary or academic connection, I also spoke to a hedge fund manager, a lawyer and a management consultant. Some were coy about their reasons for attending the evening professing to be accompanying a friend.
Others were brazen. “I’m here for a shag, of course!” guffawed a middle-aged psychotherapist who had divorced her husband the previous week. In case I didn’t get the message she slipped a card with her telephone number and e-mail address in my coat pocket. Some people’s nerves were clearly on edge. One elderly man recoiled when I attempted to engage him in innocent conversation, his eyebrows darting up in affronted horror as though I were a gigolo making inappropriate advances. And near the end of the evening a desperate woman tugged at her friend’s sleeve: “I’ve had enough, I just want to go!”
My Laingian friend departed empty-handed. But in a nearby pub afterwards I discovered a literary editor in a clinch with a Balkanologist she had met at the party. It’s too early to say whether the evening will result in further marriages or for that matter precipitate any divorces. Either way, I eagerly await the next issue of the LRB, when, I am sure, all will be revealed.
NICHE PUBLICATION: MATCHING LIKE WITH LIKE
From Country Singles, a US midwest newspaper for single rural adults:
“Youthful, attractive, intelligent, 50-year-old male seeks sexy, passionate lady for romance, adventure, long-term relationship. I love cooking, baking, fishing, light rock music, walks, bird watching, crafts. Let’s find out if we are a match. Please write, Roger.”
From the Mensa Bulletin, the national magazine for members of American Mensa:
Assured in the knowledge that their ads reach only those who reach the top 2 per cent in IQ tests, members don’t mess about with flowery language, but get straight to the point.
“Male Mensan, PhD, seeks female Mensan, to start family.”