My mother always hoped I'd apply for a job at Copperas Hill post office. In November 1990 she was especially enthusiastic about it because things had been hotting up between Saddam Hussein and the Kuwaitis and a war at Christmas is always great news for postal delivery services. She was convinced that, if I played my cards right, I could make assistant manager one day.
Naturally, every other Thursday for the past eleven years — copy deadline day for London Review of Books personals advertisers — I've wondered where I might be now had I bothered filling in that application form. Not working at Copperas Hill post office, that's for sure; they had wild-cat strikes and massive layoffs towards the end of the nineties. But as my life meandered away from fighting the home-front against Saddam, only a wizard could have anticipated that I'd spend the most fruitful years of my life agonising over word-counts with soup-perverts:
I put the phrase 'five-header bi-sexual orgy' in this ad to increase my Google hits. Really I'm looking for someone who likes hearty soups and jigsaws of kittens. Woman, 62. Berwick. Box no. 7862.
Of course, I would never have become the angst-devouring loveconduit through which Britain's most romantically awkward eggheads play out their weird and frequently disturbing sex rituals. Life would be much duller, although I'd have fewer bad dreams and wouldn't have to shower quite so often.
An ancient Czech legend says that any usurper who places the Crown of Saint Wenceslas on his head is doomed to die within a year. During World War II, Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the puppet Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, secretly wore the crown believing himself to be a great king. He was assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance. I have many more stories like this one. I will tell you them all and we will make love. Man, 47. Box no. 6889.
Since the LRB personals began in October 1998, I've dealt with the phone calls, emails, letters, faxes and — always less welcome — occasional personal visits from within a very incongruous set-up. While the offices of the magazine have remained very firmly in Bloomsbury, London, the nerve-centre of the personals section was, for the most part, a water-logged shed in Liverpool. Really it was the back of an illegally built garage, but we'll call it a shed because no motor vehicle ever went in there and its main function was the storage of rusted Woolworth's power tools, an assortment of lawn-patching compounds and my (now deceased) mother's oxygen cylinders (she had dodgy lungs and we kept these in case we ever needed to re-inflate her).
When it rained, the un-insulated corrugated roof made it sound like a clown was firing a machine-gun at a sad robot. There was a power supply that was so precarious I once got an electric shock eating a trifle. And in the corner lived a nest of badgers. Before that the personals were managed from a flat above a bankrupt florist south of the Thames. Recently it's been in a Brooklyn office shared with a very serious publishing outfit who never reciprocate a round of drinks, hardly ever say hello and rarely smile unless someone has made a very hilarious remark about Adorno. Which happened only once and it wasn't very hilarious.
When someone asks my advice about what to include or exclude in their personal advert, these have been the common conditions under which I've responded — noise, damp, Adorno, badgers. Truthfully, had I worked in surroundings befitting a Zurich-based insurance company, I couldn't have offered any better advice. I was once asked by the Jewish Community Centre for London to be part of a panel discussion about dating. I'm not Jewish, which surprised everyone, but also I know absolutely nothing about dating. Those early phone calls I received from potential advertisers, full of typical British insecurity and selfdeprecation — people worried that all they could say about themselves was that they had exceptional liver function and knew from years of looking after their aging parents how to keep a glass eye sterile — seemed good enough to me. I mean, I liked these people. They were fun to talk to; painfully honest but also engaging, witty and clever. Why not just throw it all out there? At the time I'd been working at the magazine for less than a year, and working in advertising for just a little longer. Not at the rock 'n' roll creative end of things, but in sales — selling space in car magazines before I moved to the London Review. People asked my advice as if I knew what I was talking about — as if, rather than working in ad sales, I was a relationship counsellor. It didn't matter when I'd explain I was just a very junior sales guy, these people innocently trusted me and every inquiry would end with 'What do you think?' or 'Do I sound like an idiot?' or 'I'm not sure I should make it read like I'm a serial killer':
Everyone. My life is a mind-numbing cesspit of despair and selfloathing. Just fuck off. Or else write back and we'll make love. Gentleman, 37. Box no. 5369.
All I could ever tell anyone was 'it's great, just do it'. Partly out of my own English awkwardness, partly out of a fear of not making the sale back when my targets were impossible and I had no clients, but mostly out of sincerely getting a kick from what they'd written. This wasn't how other lonely hearts columns operated.
On a flight from Glasgow about a year after the column began, where I'd been on a BBC daytime show about lonely hearts with a rogue's gallery of dating experts, advice columnists and women's magazine psychologists, I gave a copy of the LRB ads to a woman who ran an agency that produced the personals sections of many broadsheet newspapers. Other publications tend to contract out their personals sections to specialist dating firms rather than ad sales companies. Usually people phone a premium-rate number and they're asked pseudo-psychoanalytic questions such as 'With which historical figure do you most identify?' or, 'If you were part of a celebrity coupling, who would be your ideal partner?' The answers are then translated into a personal ad. In occasional attempts to be more professional I've tried this approach on LRB advertisers, but with less than encouraging results:
I am more like Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich of Russia than anyone else who has ever advertised here. Man, 54. Box no. 5349.
You're Helen Mirren. I'm Will Self. One half of this century's übercouple-to-be seeks tousled fems to 50 for weekends full of recondite wines, obscure blandishments, and winning references to abstruse 11th century sexual practices. No loons. Box no. 7936.
The personals sections managed by this particular agency were full of gorgeous, healthy, intelligent people. Each presented a paradigm of human excellence, albeit infused with a somewhat eerie sense of eugenic urgency. Naturally, she was appalled by the LRB ads. 'These are awful', she said, 'you can't let people say these things about themselves', and then she offered to take over running the section.
I've grown used to this kind of response, but it's still exasperating. Even if the advertisers in other columns haven't been coerced into a clumsy rhetorical liposuction of all the junk of their lives and were genuinely Nietzschean Übermenschen (notwithstanding their appearance in — sotto voce — a lonely hearts column), the existence of such characterless people can only be depressing for the vast majority of us jaded, cynical, out-of-syncwith-the-world types:
I hate you all. I hate London. I hate books. I hate critics. I hate this magazine, I hate this column and I hate all the goons who appear in it. But if you have large breasts, are younger than 30 and don't want to talk about the novel you're 'writing' I'll put all that aside for approximately two hours one Saturday afternoon in January. Man, 33. Box no. 7810.
Of course, there's no need to feel intimidated by the shining beauties occasionally sprinkled across small ads sections like glitter on a dog turd. Significantly, one of the most revealing and often unquoted statistics about personal ads is that the commonest complaints are to do with advertisers rarely being the way they describe themselves in their ads. Such instances of advertisers not being altogether candid — or, more accurately, lying — are probably the cumulative results of dating agency spin, being delusional about their sense of self or simply a fear of not being interesting enough. It's not a complaint we get at the LRB. Although we have occasionally had concerned phone calls from respondents surprised that certain adverts weren't, after all, intended ironically —
My hobbies include crying and hating men. F, 29. Box no. 8620.
I'm not convinced personal ads tell us anything about human behaviour other than that our ideas of what makes us attractive to others are based on very arbitrary assumptions. Speedos aren't a good look for anyone. Knowledge of circuit training and which protein shake is best for a post-squat-thrust warm-down isn't going to win you points in the 'great to talk to' league. In this sense, the personal ads in the London Review of Books are very liberating. Their strength comes from resoundingly rejecting those archetypal elements of attraction that press so heavily on our insecurities but that few of us actually possess. Bespectacled and melanin-deprived, the LRB personals tell us not to be ashamed; to relax a little and enjoy what's out there without feeling threatened by it. We can read them without ever having to suck in our gut:
Young, charming, thoughtful, attractive, sporty, zesty, intelligent. None of these are me, but if you'd like to spend an afternoon or more considering alternative adjectives to be applied to 53-year old cantankerous dipshit, write now to box no. 0927.
After all these years I'm honestly still cheered by the phone calls I get from people as insecure about their attractiveness as I am. I enjoy talking to these people — rich, lively and (it's true) often strange folk whose main selling point is their knowledge of medieval filigree, or their jam collections, or fondness for ingesting things they probably shouldn't be ingesting:
They say you are what you eat. I'm eight Panadols, a few daily Seroxats, a couple of Senokots, a whole clutch of Nuvelles and — since I came around this afternoon — three crayons and a Maxi Pad. Dizzy historian (M, 54) seeks woman for whom the terms 'good times', 'tracking device' and 'A&E' aren't always a million miles away from each other. Box no. 3235.
Perhaps we're all taken in by the Scheherazade effect — a term coined by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller* in reference to the ancient Persian queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. Like King Shahryar, beheading his virgin brides once he's had his way with them, we read personal ads ready to laugh at them and brush them aside. But, just as Scheherazade permanently stays her execution and wins the affection of her king with tales full of history and humour, so the LRB personals keep us compelled with their inventiveness — their minute performances — engaging us in such a way as to keep us wanting more and thus forever postponing their dismissal:
If you're reading this hoping for a mini-biopic about battles with drugs, cancer and divorce, talk to the guy above. But if you want to know about historical battle sites in Scotland, talk to me. Alan, 45. Scottish historical battle expert and BDSM fetishist. Box no. 8553.
Each advert, whatever first appearances may suggest, is very carefully crafted, often involving hours of pain and self-examination and, very possibly, home-made benzodiazepines:
Yesterday I was a disgusting spectacle in end-stage alcoholism with a gambling problem and not a hope in the world. Today I am the author of this magnificent life-altering statement of yearning and desire. You are a woman to 55 with plenty of cash and very little self-respect. When you reply to this advert your life will never be the same again. My name is Bernard. Never call me Bernie. Box no. 3916.
Despite the number of exchanges between an advertiser and me, it's very rare that I find out if an ad has worked. Although I've heard a handful of success stories, people are very shy about admitting they met their partner through a lonely heart. More often I only hear from the advertiser again if it's to complain about the standard of response generated — the orthodontist who collected cavity samples and proudly sent a whole album's worth of photographs, the woman who posted photocopied passages from the Bible with the cryptic annotation 'I've done this and enjoyed it', or the gentleman whose hobby was documenting his sightings of albino people. This volume, along with the first, They Call Me Naughty Lola, merely collects the adverts themselves, but imagine how enlightening (and terrifying) a volume of responses would be.
This advert formally ends the period of my life I like to jokingly refer to as 'the years I spent a lot of money on drugs' and begins the phase I hope will be known in the very near future as 'the weekend I had sex with that guy'. Woman, 32. Box no. 9830.
Even the mode of response is, in itself, an important consideration here because most LRB ads don't give email addresses. They rely, rather, on a box number forwarding system that costs an extra fiver per ad and is entirely at the mercy of the ambivalent British postal service and the LRB advertising department's staff holiday schedule:
If fate brings us together, destiny will probably tear us apart. Kismet may see us off in the morning. Causality might cook dinner. Hubris will almost certainly iron my trousers. Determinedly deterministic man, 37. Mostly leaving everything in the hands of Royal Mail and a box number reply-forwarding system that made no sense whatsoever when Louisa at the LRB tried to explain it. Box no. 8522.
Indeed, it may seem to the casual reader that the LRB personals began at the wrong time, coming as they did four years after the birth of one of the most successful online dating communities, Match.com. In this digital generation of social networking sites, the personals in the London Review of Books are something of an enigma. Not only have they survived, undiminished in their openness and brutal self-analysis, but they have steadfastly resisted the anodyne resources of the modern dating landscape, as if Match.com, Craigslist and JDate are, if anything, simply too easy, like finding the teacher's edition of the algebra textbook complete with answers in the back.
We make no apologies. The effort of writing and posting a response has always been regarded by our advertisers as an essential part of their vetting procedure. Maybe that's to be expected of a very literary readership. Rather than create a single, generic email that can be sent to as many people as one likes — as is the case on dating websites — respondents to LRB personals have to be much more conscientious. They must choose their stationery carefully, for instance. Would-be Henry Millers could be undone by a coarse sheet of foolscap whilst a self-gummed Avery standard could very easily scupper any advance made by a latter-day Anaïs Nin. Sentences must be beautifully composed and written with a fine calligraphic hand. Every cursive stroke is open to analysis. Every looped 'g' scrutinized for meaning. These are all elements digital dating doesn't allow. Plus, with a written letter, it's impossible to disguise a prison post-mark:
Part biopic, part utopian vision, all epic of redemption amidst the trials of mankind. This personal ad has everything. Woman, 38. Only one conviction for nuisance calling. Box no. 6544.
In the age of Facebook triteness, the ability to engage with even the most fractional components of writing has become an increasingly valuable commodity for any intellectually-minded mate. Shortage, it is true, drives demand:
Dear LRB, I have no money. Please run my advert for free. I want a woman who is 38. Let her know I'm really clever and good-looking. Thanks. Box no. 4487.
But it would be a mistake to assume that our advertisers are simply old-fashioned, or that, as traditional lonely hearts sections become transplanted onto the internet, the LRB personals column is nothing more than the last tooth in a gum of longsince vanished small ads sections. Perhaps they are a canon in their own right, presenting a very specific style of writing that is quite apart even from other publications' personal ads sections. Like haiku or sonnets, they suggest specific constraints of form and metre — a 'house-style', if you will — but traverse these frequently with gamesmanship and a desire always to be distinct:
Straight line. Straight line. Funny line. Sucker punch. Busy man, 36. Box no. 9732.
Nor would it be entirely egregious to suggest that they have a small place in the broad aesthetic of British emotional awkwardness that would include Morrissey, Alan Bennett and Philip Larkin at the top of the tree, and my auntie Alice at the root ('I can't dance tonight, lad, me dollypegs are 'urtin'). For LRB readers, the personal ads aren't cris de coeur as much as they are bucolic tests of wit and audacity — poissons d'avril pinned to the back of the unsuspecting literary establishment. And yet, when all's said and done, they are personal ads. They may punch above their weight, but there is an end to them that stops considerably short of art's high-table. Their purpose is to attract attention, nothing more. Their absurdity and humour aren't disguises for some deeper intent. They are simple and genuine statements about the people who write them and the people they hope to find. True, their honesty subverts the traditional lonely heart form, and we're often surprised, delighted or infuriated by their unwavering and messy emotion, inelegantly sprayed across the page like water from a garden hose loose on its faucet, but if an advert doesn't garner a positive response — however entertaining it may be — its author will always consider it a failure. Whilst the stakes aren't necessarily high in the LRB personals, there is always a sense of consequence:
I celebrated my fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collectionof bird feeders. Next year I'm hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake.Join my invite mailing list at box no. 6831. Man.
Note for readers: It should be pointed out that the adverts in thisvolume are no longer active and as such responses cannot beforwarded on to advertisers.
Copyright © 2010 by LRB Ltd.
Introduction and notes copyright © 2010 by David Rose