Saturday 6 April 22.15.49

Dear Rudy. I'm sorry to have been so silent this week. To tell you the truth, I think I've got what could be called Netshock. The cybersea is a place of disappointments, of drowned hopes, as well as being full of the fishes of opportunity and the ships of surprise. If you see what I mean. Bear with me while I get all this off my chest.

You may remember that I fell into e.mail correspondence with a young woman called Arianna, who hailed from Tombstone, Arizona. Judging from her words she was intelligent, had interests compatible with mine, and an attitude towards the physical dimension of relationships between men and women that made Nadine's seem a bit limited. Her picture, once I'd down-loaded it, reminded me of Pamela Anderson. At the very least she would prove (I thought) an entertaining Net-companion, helping me out with local details for Wild Man, Wild Horses, and even commenting upon drafts. At the very most - well, who could tell?

I thought things were progressing quite nicely. It was pretty clear to me from the way she wrote that this was no hoax by some 50-year-old hippy in Halifax. There were details about the preferences of the modern American female that no man could possibly have invented. She liked my writing, and spoke warmly of the times we could have together when eventually (and in her opinion, inevitably) we were to meet. I tell you frankly, Rudy, the very thought brought a lump to my Calvins.

God knows what would have happened had not chance and the guys from Flames (the seedy cybercafe on Crouch End Broadway) intervened. One of them had "met" a foxy lady from the ice-bound city of Helsinki on the Net, and was boasting about it. So I countered with tales of Arianna. Oho, quoth he (Shakespearean), I bet yours is really a 50-year-old hippy from Halifax. I retaliated that his was almost certainly a Dutch pornographer collecting titillating stories for some appalling rag to be sold under brown covers in the sleaze shops of Old Amsterdam. Twenty pound notes were wagered and deposited with Nolan, the odoriferous proprietor of Flames.

First we ran a check on Mikka from Finland, by e.mailing a Net service in her country. Sure enough she existed, although a visit to her faculty page confirmed that she was a mature student of 37, and not the spring- chicken of 20 that the cradle-snatching Don had fondly imagined. He pronounced himself well satisfied.

If only I could say the same. Contacting Arianna's nearest cybercafe (Flagstaff, Arizona) raised a guy called Duane McIver, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona at Tucson. Duane now runs a cactus farm in a mesa near Pueblo. Or was it in a pueblo, near Mesa? Anyway. Duane says sure, he's heard of Arianna, who hasn't? And then the full story comes out.

Deep breath. Arianna is not a woman. Nor is Arianna a man. Arianna is a cybersociology project being conducted by an entire class of the Applied Humanities Faculty of the U of A - all 130 of them. They write to men who post notices on the Net, to see if they can be engaged in romantic or sexual dialogue, what sort of things they reveal, what their desires are and whether a meeting can be arranged - all under the codename Arianna.

The students take it in turns to "be" Arianna, with particularly effective communications earning merit marks. The project has been going on for two years and will, when written up, constitute (according to Duane) "the most ambitious study of the extent to which physical anonymity depresses inhibitory sexual self-description in European and North American males".

So it was all lies and deceit. But worse, within the foreseeable future my name could be star-billing in some huge tome devoted to telling the world what utter prats some men are!

Quite apart from the object lesson in human behaviour that the whole episode affords, it has made me look with new eyes upon my poor, neglected Nadine. She may not be a temptress or a vixen, she may inadvertently have the effect of interrupting the struggling poet in me with her constant emphasis on the banalities of life. But she cares and she is honest. Brutally honest.

But fortune has not entirely frowned upon me. A few weeks ago Nadine, who is a martyr to her teeth, filled in some competition in the BBC travel magazine while waiting for the dentist to construct a bridge (no, really) and has won a fortnight's holiday for two sketching in the Orkneys. We leave tomorrow.

Sig Dig

Saturday 6 April


Dear Arianna. Are you at your keyboard? Then take it and your PC and shove them right up your project.

Yours, Digby Ponder, Englishman.

Network contact: David Bowen