It was sorrowful coming back from America, where it was basically warm or hot, with soft air and a sun that wasn’t ever too far away, even on cloudy days. As soon as I got back to London, jetlagged and full of plane food, I took the Tube back to Brockley and got into bed. That was pleasant enough. It was less pleasant to look out my window at a changed scene; cold, grey, the sky leaden and heavy with streaks of rain. But the weirdest thing about the pathetic fallacy experience of returning- ie that my mood slumped in accordance with the gloomy weather- was the AURAL effects. So, Brockley appears to be ever more in the flight path for Heathrow, which is superb for me actually because I’m a trainspotter and love to see those giant Airbus A380, albeit usually with the distasteful brand Quatar scrawled across its belly, lumber over my house. Those things go at – SLOWEST 163 k/h – even though they look like they’re crawling at like one mile an hour. Sometimes when I’m walking up Upper Brockley Road and a plane’s dawdling overhead I feel like I’m racing it a bit, and winning. BUT! On this bleak and chill August day I realised that the planes were making a different sound from their hot summers’ day descents. They were mournfully droning; and the streets – chill, dark and inexplicably empty, perhaps in homage to the weather, but clearly lacking homage to that boisterous exciting back-to-school atmosphere of early September – seemed to be full of the drone. No human noise, just depressed and whiny engines. All week I heard it and became mired in pathetic-fallic theorising – were the planes making that noise because I was glum to be away from my ancestral beaches and my long Trollope novel? Or did their drones in some way bounce off the low grey clouds? Was there some correlation between ice-cold Augusts and turbine moans? [Full disclosure: I just googled this and found a thread entitled, ‘Why do jet engines sound different in cold weather?’]
I think it seems very likely that there is.
The League dating app is currently leading the new brace of mating services aimed at people who consider themselves elite – what might, in Britain of the past, have been proudly asserted as upper middle class (Mrs Bennett would have encouraged her daughters to join – if they’d had jobs, that is). Synced with LinkedIn, its USP is not to hide but rather to embrace the professional pedigree of members. It’s got nicer graphics than most dating-related products and thus actually seems a plausible place for the kind of people the homepage addresses thus: “you’re smart, busy & ambitious. You don’t need a dating app to get a date – you’re too popular as it is. But you should join The League”. Evidently a lot of prospective customers agree and really believe they’re “too popular” to get a date; The Guardian reported high membership, entailing a “waiting list” of 100,000 long. But one man that was told he was 11,000 elite singles away from being “drafted” found himself through within a week. Now, this should ring some alarm bells, surely. This man’s sudden acceleration through the ranks of hopefuls smacks rather of an algorithm claiming ideas above its station than a genuine triumph of romantic-professional glory; isn’t it possible that some vague scramble of numbers just spat out this man’s wait-list place, its only brief to make him feel hopeless, then special?
The League insists on an acceptance rate of 20%. But I’d like to see an article interviewing those who never made it. I think it’d be a short article since I’d be very surprised if The League was genuinely so oversubscribed that it authentically had to turn 80% of real, LinkedIn-listed single applicants (or should that be supplicants?) away.
See, matchmakers peddling exclusivity is as old as the stars – or at least the mid-1980s. Decades-old agencies like Drawing Down the Moon, Sara Eden, The County Register and more recently Berkeley International (over $5,000 to join) and Gray & Farrar (a name made-up to sound posh) have all guaranteed the right kind of people- the kind who, in Berkeley’s case, think nothing of boarding a plane for a date (the agency has international offices). Yet the reality for most agencies pre-Internet – from the Ivy Gibson Marriage Bureau to Prestige Partners to Mastermatch video dating – was usually different. In its relentless 1970s London Weekly Advertiser adverts Ivy offered special deals to women under 30 (prime marriage age), while Prestige was accused of distinctly unprestigious behaviour, pinching Dateline’s questionnaire (The Guardian, Oct 16 1983) and ultimately going bust. Mastermatch, which also claimed to cater for the busy, the popular and the sexy, also failed (The Guardian, May 23 1982) after the founder, a failed businessman called Michael Oram, got his friends to pose as signed up singles. Drawing Down The Moon was short on “eligible” men so offered them discounts, according to its founder, Mary Balfour [private interview].
It’s easy to see how our dating industry-rookie ancestors of the 1970s, 80s and 1990s might have fallen for the promise of exclusivity. It’s less easy to believe that such people as the League seems to have queueing up, such debonaire, suave, knowing, travelled, urban people, people with such beautiful highlights, are so ready to buy it. They are people of the world. Shouldn’t they know better? Perhaps they’re just battle scarred by Tinder.
Still. There are so many opportunities for alarm bells to ring – at least for the historian of dating. In the pre-Internet period of 1970-2000, dating agencies always claimed large numbers of customers but never had to prove it. 6,000 would become 1,000 when pressed, would become zero as agency after agency folded often first abandoning debts and glossy West End offices for the matchmaker in question’s front room (such as in the case of Judy Joseph of Prestige- see Guardian, May 23 1982). Decades later, dating sites have come under fire for bogus data, inflated active member boasts and fake profiles. Yet when League hopefuls are told they’ve got 10,999 people desperate for membership in front of them under consideration, and then get in that same week, I sniff a potential rat. In the past, membership claims were hard to disprove because of anonymity concerns. Today, it’s easy to use the technology, the ubiquitous mystery algorithm, as a smokescreen.
Good luck to the League successfuls. I do hope that in all their popularity and LinkedIn glory they find time to nurture that thing called love. Or at least, the strategic partnership of two like-minded people. Of two successful and above all, guys, two popular people. And as for those with thousands in front of them, I do hope they won’t have to wait too long to get started. If the history of the dating industry has anything to teach us, the exclusive club they covet shouldn’t remain too firmly shut for long.
The latest thing in dating is to get rid of the internet entirely.
According to Airdates, a new offline app for dating in the air, “internet dating is so 20th century!!!”
That’s three exclamation marks.
Others seem to agree. Among recent Twitter followers, I seem to have attracted Sowher (Startingoverwithouther.com) a site for people who are either crushed or psyched to have lost the mother/whore figure in their lives. The site offers offline aides such as “Pimp Your Lingo- Seducing Women With Words – the complete six CD rom set”. (If not words, one wonders with what the site’s customers might seduce women – abs, lats, balls? Brains? Unlikely.) Personally, I’d steer clear of graduates of “Pimp your lingo”; they’d be at risk of messing up the whole semantic dimension. If you’re not into seducing new women, it’s lucky Sowher sells a “Girl Back System (Get Your Girlfriend Back)” – another product seemingly arrayed in old-fashioned CD Roms.
Then there’s Hitch, which does, to be fair, hinge on at least a 3G connection. You set friends up through Facebook with this one, but at its core is a system as old as the moon: matchmaking. A similar idea is being peddled through another of my Twitter followers, My Mate Your Date: “Meet people through your friends, everyday. No randoms!”. I met the guys behind this site at the UK Dating Awards 2014. They were very nice but came from a business – not a heartsearch – background. Fair play to them, though: they’re on trend in the way their matchmaking business dismisses exactly what early adherents (and not so early) thought was the web’s genius: randomness and playing the numbers. Elect Matchmaker, another of my followers, also purports to dispense with connectivity. Here, a team of BMI-appropriate, modern-looking people who enjoy “getting to know people and finding out what makes them tick” put other (paying) people together. One of the team gives style advice: “as of April 2010, Daniel weighed over 22 stone!” He doesn’t anymore and he’s on hand to make sure any other fatty lonely hearts get the slimline help they need to have a better shot at finding love. And then there’s Pozee, “the ultimate wingman”. Once again, the technology is the “wingman” but the real action lives in the app’s stark opposition to technology – the idea is to force people out from behind their devices into the real world. “Forget poking, forget winking and forget messaging…chemistry is what matters,” says Pozee. “It’s time to put down your phone and go say hello. You don’t have any more excuses.”
So for all of you till trying to find love with boring old online dating, it’s time to get with the programme: internet-mediated romance is so 2014 it hurts. It’s life that now takes centre stage. “Life”, that is, for a generation of people who are as capable of hand-writing with a fountain pen as they are deliver a chat-up line without, at the very least, a digital wingperson.
I always wonder how “reality” tv can possibly be “reality” when the presence of cameras and audience is known, producers have made you up within an inch of your life and you’ve got a mic hanging from your neck. Big Brother is simply bizarre. Aren’t they all doing it because they’re on camera? So it’s not really “reality” TV, but “reality with a camera and massive audience” TV. Which isn’t the same.
In the “reality” setting, I can imagine being filmed perusing wildlife or property. But performing first-date emotion, partaking in the curious power ping pong and evaluative poker-facery that goes hand in hand with sizing up a mate over unwanted food? That’s the mystery behind Channel 4’s First Dates, whose third season premiered last night. It’s billed as though we’re really watching what first dates are like – something that TV critics seem to find “beautiful” and “excruciating”. But they’ve not been out on the dating block for a while. Because then they’d know that first dates without cameras and national audience are quite a lot different from first dates with them. Snippets of overdetermined camera-awareness, like the slow eating of olives by the much-hyped Frankie, are rife. For instance, she does that thing where women bite the olive from the toothpick in a way that it sits right in the centre of her tongue, about halfway up, so her whole mouth is open before she closes her lips around it. It’s like a pre-blow job mouth enclosing that olive. Nobody does that in REAL reality.
Which is why I find it odd to read articles in Radio Times, the Guardian, The Mirror and Metro today following last night’s show that eulogize the authenticity and therefore the fascination of the dates. Frankie and Mouhala, in particular, are widely agreed to have cataclysmic sexual energy. Frankie giggled and sucked olives; made comments about taking off her clothes. She said she liked to eat chocolate and therefore she liked to date chocolate (eg black men). Mouhala did this terrible grin-fake-bashful thing and went into the bathroom to talk to a female friend on the phone, describing Frankie’s big boobs. Erm – it looked to me like two porn stars limbering up for a paid gig scheduled long ago, not two people with genuine sexual energy…
After the show I googled it and found that an editor I’ve worked with in the past, Rosie Mullender at Cosmo, actually appeared on the show. There was quite a touching account from both her and her date on the Cosmo website that implied it was enjoyable. The cameras was noticed but seemed not to have been the main event. Maybe there is a kind of reality that can take place, then, in the full glare of self-conscious performativity. Some people don’t seem phased by it. For me, though, reality kicks in when the cameras go and nobody’s watching, at all.
Academia does not generally have a laxative effect on writing. Conscious that I have not written anything glibly flowing and (naturally) concise for ages, I am worried that I am becoming constipated by a dawning awareness/fear of the millions of things already written about every thought I have. A chorus of scholars in my head now suggests thousands of different ways to evaluate/contextualise/frame any given topic, sentiment, observation, urge to write. Sentences are now perilous. Thoughts are heretic if they bear close resemblance to unsupported claims.
Still, can’t let that sort of thing slow one down. The GOOD thing about my PhD about history of modern courtship is that it’s putting all sorts of absolute treasures my way. As I slowly work my way through the likes of City Limits, Singles and newspapers of the 1970s, I pay close attention to class and gender. Naturally, when you go back to its newspapers, the past seems hilariously other. On a basic level there’s ratio of print to pictures, the shite quality of the pictures when they did appear, and the utter minuteness of the print. More substantially, terrible gender stereotypes are unabashedly present in all discussions of success, career, sex, marriage, dating, money. For example, a very typical piece in Singles Magazine, the mag put out by Dateline, the computer dating business, runs thus: “This is the sad story of a middle aged divorcee who is desperately lonely: Unwanted women understanding men”. A profile of pop singer Lynsey De Paul is headlined: “Even gorgeous and talented girls can be lonely”. Numerous stories talk of gold digging women; women themselves talk about using male money to get ahead/live well. Classified ads routinely begin with “male company director, owner of Jaguar, educated, seeks similar”. Money, education and class – these things are not considered embarrassing criteria for a mate in 1977. They are spelled out with hilarious clarity.
But here’s the thing. Nothing has changed. If anything it’s got worse. The mediated dating scene still relies on masculinist, classist (although it’s not really class anymore, but rather some ersatz amalgam of branded education and salary – sorry scholars, bit of a wild unsupported claim that I nonetheless stand by) branding. It’s so blatant it’s embarrassing but what is extraordinary is that even though the product is a mobile app responding to Tinder, it feels more 1970s than the 2015.
Behold 40kpd: an app where men have to earn 40k per year minimum but women don’t have any salary required. It may be that women want men to support them or pay their way. I think it’s that men still want to be richer than women. Just like they have to be older, taller, stronger and in front. For instance, in a new Lovestruck ad on the Tube showing a couple laughingly cycling, man firmly in front. I asked Simon if he could imagine the woman being in front in the picture and he said no. Nor could I. The nature of the past, and of past-ness, begs fascinating questions. Change and continuinty and even regression are so co-embedded that despite such seemingly enormous changes in form as provided by the rise of digital and mobile, function appears to have been fossilised. We are different and we are the same. In fact we’re older than we used to be – the wording and tone of a 40kpd type of service ventriloquises the matrimonial ads of the 1870s more than it does the 1970s.