Taking Control: Go on - think the unthinkable ...

For some, the idea of a Lonely Hearts column is beyond the pale. But in the third part of our series on getting a grip on life, Lynne Wallis, thirty-something and far-too-single, discovers the secret of changing things for the better by changing the way you think

It all began in August when I threw a party for my 38th birthday. All my old muckers turned up and we had a wonderful time. The wine flowed, everyone danced, and there was laughter-a-plenty. But something was amiss. What the bloody hell was wrong? Eureka-like, it hit me. There was no-one to flirt with. All my friends are single women, ex-boyfriends, couples, and gay men. There was no talent, trouser, totty, not a whiff of a Mr Scrumptious-o-Gorgeous in sight. Never mind Mr Right, the single women at the party wanted Mr Right Now.

The inevitable question popped up: how on earth do you meet single men these days? Parties, work, through friends? When my women friends and I go out, we always make the fatal mistake of talking among ourselves all night, failing to scan the joint for eligible males. And although I work in an almost exclusively male environment, I wouldn't fancy any of the single ones roast, boiled or fried. Through friends? They're all married and desperate to fix Kevin the accountant up with someone. Where indeed.

And so it was that placing an advert in a lonely hearts column struck me as a good idea. I'd browsed the ads a few times, who hasn't, but answering one always seemed so ... desperate. At least placing my own ad would lend a bit more control. I left a telephone message describing myself, what I'm into, looking for, etc, which gets abbreviated into print form. Anyone interested in finding out more about me could dial a code to hear my message. Afterwards, I forgot all about it.

Two weeks later I remembered to call in for messages. I was stunned that 37 men had called. Hooray, there are some men left who want to date an outgoing feminist! I frantically began scribbling details onto my pad and blow me down, some of them sounded OK.

David, the first man I contacted, came over well on the phone: 39, divorced, a surveyor (ah well, not everyone lives their job) and he worked just round the corner from me.

Whoopeedoo! We arranged to meet after work. On my way to the tube, our meeting point, I felt like throwing up and running away. I looked around nervously. How on earth do you spot a tall brown-haired man with a dark suit on in this crowd? A gorgeous man with good teeth in a dark blue woollen suit looked over, and I was just about to wander up and introduce myself when David turned up, a dejected looking soul with bad teeth, a habit of licking his lips and a tick in one eye. He looked seedy, like someone who might visit strip clubs. I had to think on my feet. "Lovely to meet you," I managed. "I've got the most awful migraine and almost called to cancel, so I've turned up just for a quick drink" I said, holding my head in a pained fashion. His wife had taken up with a younger man and was giving belly dancing lessons from their front room in Ruislip after she picked up some tips on holiday in Tunisia. I stayed until 7.45. Ah well. I did at least get some good advice on the structural problems in my flat.

I made a mental note only to meet for lunch in future, although the others were almost consigned to the scrap heap after my first miserable experience. But having already managed to meet Philip (38, fashion photographer, tall, into This Life) for lunch the following day, I couldn't very well bottle out. Someone I share an office with insisted I give him my mobile number, just in case my date turned out to be an axe wielding maniac. If I wasn't back by 3pm, Pete would phone. "God Lynne, you don't have to do this do you. Look at you, you're an attractive woman. I don't understand it. Why would any decent bloke need to use an advert?" I started practising my migraine technique. I didn't need to.

Philip wasn't someone I fancied initially but he grew on me. He was rugged, tall, clever and witty, and we got on. He'd never used lonely hearts before, but the stigma is still such that most of the men I met said this. I got back from the tapas bar, glowing, and poor Pete was beside himself. I'd been in a basement restaurant with no signal for my phone and he was convinced I'd been ravaged.

I started seeing Philip once or twice a week, but I couldn't bring myself to stop meeting the others. Philip said he hadn't banked on all this competition. "At what pint do you decide, I'm not bothering to meet anyone else?" he asked, and I didn't know. I was growing more and more fond of Philip, but my love life had been such a desert for so long, I had to meet some of the others, at least the ones I'd contacted. It was like seeing all the sweets in the shop window and only being able to taste one. I was certain Philip's attraction to me was being enhanced by the competition - even the modernest of men like to chase a woman in demand. I continued my dating game but didn't tell him about it unless he asked.

I met a legal hack I'd been to school with, and a broadcast journalist who was so nervous he kept disappearing to the men's loo to wash his perspiring face. When he declared his favourite columnist was Auberon Waugh, I realised I could not date this man. I didn't have the heart to tell him face to face, and when he plucked up the courage to ask for a second date, I said I'd love to and had to put him off over the phone.

Fitting in all these dates with my regular social life was wearing me out, but I was getting a buzz out of it. And then I got my comeuppance. I was stood up. I'd arranged to meet Brian, another hack, but I'd left my scrap of paper with his description at home. Was he tall dark extrovert with glasses, or 5ft 9in wine lover with a fair beard? I couldn't remember, so I went home after work to get it, to find my flatmate sprawled out on the carpet with beer and curry. I was jealous. I was desperate for a night in.

I told Brian I'd be in a light jacket with a small black rucksack on my back, but the blasted thing broke on the bus so I slung it over my shoulder. Also, it was raining, and mackintosh-clad, my description was no longer accurate. After all this effort, the only bloke on his own at Covent Garden had a face that, how can I put it, only a mother could love. Surely that couldn't be "tall, athletic, friends-tell-me-I'm attractive". Are they all blind, or what? I decided to leave when a besuited 30 something who'd been knocking back electric soup wandered over. Could this be Brian? The suit said "He'll never turn up. Why don't you come out with me?" Give me a break. The lone man on the corner was staring, but I left anyway, arriving home delighted to have a night free. "I've been stood up," I said. Not so, my flatmate informed me. Brian called from Covent Garden at 8.25. He must have had a gumption bypass. I didn't contact him.

After that, there was Nick, a human rights lawyer who looked like one of Botticelli's angels, and Sean, an Irish journalist I quite liked. I met Malcolm again a few times but I only really wanted Philip. When Malcolm tried to kiss me goodnight one evening, he complained as I stood there rigidly. "God, you don't have to kiss me you know. You look like you're being tortured", and I knew the game was up. I didn't fancy him.

It looked like it was going to be me and Philip, but I was scared because I was beginning to feel he wasn't all he seemed. A self-confessed control freak, he had a lot of problems, including a troubled relationship in his past, and an ongoing custody battle. His attitude towards women worried me, and he sounded so bitter. He said I was "prickly". We drifted apart and made up, but it wasn't any good. I'd have a fab time with him and then not hear from him for days. And then there were his depressions. "I'd run a mile from me if I were you," he said, so I did. Fond of him though I was, he wasn't the stuff relationships are made of. I stopped returning his calls.

Now, I'm single again, but I don't regret having done the lonely hearts one bit. There were 15 men I didn't even get round to phoning, but three months on seemed a bit late to contact them. Most of the time I had great fun, and what it really gave me has had some lasting effect - the return of my sexual confidence. I feel now I can walk over to a man I fancy, and talk and flirt, whereas before, I'd forgotten how. I also feel a lot wiser about spotting Philip-types, the emotional retards who can't get beyond the two month "isn't-this-exciting" bit, and the needy Alfies of this world.

Paula Yates once said the way to get a man via lonely hearts if to write "Naughty girl likes blow jobs and spanking". I got 37 replies by just being myself I might do it again this year.

Six of my friends are using lonely hearts now, and one is hopelessly in love. I certainly don't feel either sad or desperate about having used a column, and I think slowly the stigma is disappearing. It cuts out all the time wasting, like fancying someone who is married or otherwise unavailable. And after all, it's only lunch. If you don't like the starter, you don't have to stick around for the main course.