how to go on a date

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The Independent Culture
For most of us, dating agencies only exist in the classified sections of magazines, alongside the dubious likes of "Fiction Writers Needed" and "Reverse Hair Loss". You might doubt that anyone actually reads these ads. But nearly 100,000 people are registered with dating agencies - and the number of agencies is currently growing at a rate of 10 per cent a year.

According to Frances Pyne of the Association of British Introduction Agencies, there are two reasons why demand for dating agencies' services is increasing. "Firstly, people are working longer hours, often in small, single-sex offices. After the recession people have become very conscious that they have to work all hours to keep up their lifestyle or even their job. Secondly, the UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe. Women, typically, have custody of the children and it's not easy for them to socialise in these circumstances."

While potential partners don't come with any guarantees, neither, it seems, do the dating agencies. The consumer guide Which? found this July that some dating agencies, including industry-leader Dateline, are putting clients at risk by not demanding proof of identity. Paul Kitchen of Which? says: "Worryingly, we found that even if you used a completely false identity some firms will still send you names, telephone numbers and full addresses of potential dates."

If you're thinking about joining a dating agency - and think hard, because it can set you back hundreds of pounds - you should also make sure that it has been around a while. Many agencies go bust within six months of setting up. Unless yours is one of the minority that is signed up to the ABIA, your chances of seeing your money again are slim.

A better bet could well be singles' clubs. They're much cheaper, you get to view all the talent in one go and they offer a range of activities - from gallery-going to paintballing - that can be fun in themselves.

Cheapest of the lot has to be Pizza and a Shag, or P&S Introductions, as its founder, Alison Cooke, is trying to rename it in a quest for respectability. Set up last Christmas as a one-off joke for a single friend, Pizza and a Shag's parties just keep on growing. "It's a big piss-take on that singles scene thing," says Alison. "So many dating agencies want to set you up for life. Our motto is 'you're single, tough'."

Party-goers are subjected to a "totally random and humiliating experience". On one occasion, guests wandered round with numbers stuck to their chests for ease of identification. On another they used a video booth to make 15-second films selling themselves. The films were then projected onto a wall.

If, on the strength of such a performance, you still fail to get lucky, Alison will send you out on a date. "To the sickest place I can think of, and usually with the wrong person. I haven't got a computer database: I've got three boxes. But the day has been named for our first wedding. I was horrified."

Alison charges between pounds 2.50 and pounds 5 to cover the costs of hiring rooms (usually above pubs) and any technology. "I've made pounds 4.50 profit. I keep on getting drunk and letting people in for free." A pizza is promised to anyone who fails to get a shag within six months (hence the name), but no one has put in a claim so far. It's probably just as well: lined up for them are own-brand mini-pizzas, 10 for 59p.

Additional information, including a list of member agencies, from: Association of British Introduction Agencies, 25 Abingdon Road, London W8 6AH (0171-937 2800). Pizza and a Shag (0171-241 3996)