At nearly 50, left-wing and a feminist, Janice Furlong says her search for a man was looking hopeless. That's when she stumbled across the small ads . . .
About a year ago I picked up the Independent while at a friend's, and read a long article about how hopeless it is for unattached women over 35 to meet new partners. In the article there were pictures of attractive, successful, feisty women, all bemoaning the dearth of suitable available men. There were stories from dating agencies about the large numbers of women between 40 and 60 who were seeking a new partner in their age group, but how men of that age were choosing younger women to remarry. Women were looking for optimistic, emotionally literate and intelligent men, whereas men were focusing on age and appearance.

I felt cold with shock as I was reading this, because it mirrored my experience so exactly. I was 48, and like those women in the article was energetic, intelligent, enjoying a super career in the caring professions and clinging to a high and hopeful opinion of myself. I had a truly awful early marriage from which I had escaped after 18 years, and had then been in a poor live-in relationship which had recently ended after 12 years. But I was not enjoying living on my own. In fact I was positively hating it, which is surprising, because I had developed quite an independent and feminist streak.

However, I decided I wanted to meet someone else, and assumed that out there would be loads of potential partners who would find me irresistible. Like so many people of my age it was just not possible to be on the "partner market" as one had at 17 or 18, and I figured that the best way to meet a new partner was by joining a dating agency. Reading through the national newspapers I decided that the best agency for me would be one that specialised in "alternative and green people". I joined a green agency and also answered adverts in the lonely hearts columns of the left-wing newspapers. A few weeks later - nothing but resounding silence. Then I read the Independent article, and looking at the brochure from the green agency and the adverts in the national newspapers I saw that the vast majority of people seeking partners were indeed women of my age. I had one reply to my entry in the dating agency brochure. We both had to travel 40 miles to meet, and it was a disaster. We had nothing in common.

I became fixed on reading the articles in the Independent Personal page, giving myself a sinking heart every weekend. I learned that left-wing women were having an even more difficult time than most; add feminist tendencies and the approach of a fiftieth birthday and the case looked hopeless. One thing was emerging, however - proximity was the most important factor in finding a new partner. The highest proportion of new relationships formed were with people who lived within a mile of each other. So why was I looking nationally? What was going on locally?

And then, accidentally, I stumbled upon the free ads in my local newspaper. Every week a whole page, and unbelievably, more adverts from men than women, and lots of men in my age group. True, the adverts were quite banal, but I reckoned this was a system on which I could use my intelligence to find the partner that I inherently knew was there. Replies cost £4, so I carefully selected the most suitable sounding man, and wrote to him. Two days later he rang me up and we arranged to meet in a local pub on Christmas eve. He was awful, nothing like the way he advertised himself, but he clearly thought that he was attractive, intelligent, caring and thoughtful.

I declined a further meeting and went home to lick my wounds but, when my wellspring of optimism reappeared, I planned a campaign. Obviously in replying to men's advertisements it was impossible to tell what they were going to be like; it would also be time-consuming and costly. I had to advertise myself, which would be free, and it would give me control of the process. When I read the women's adverts I was struck by two things: total lack of originality, and information about themselves. Women seemed either to be playing to men's fantasies - advert after advert describing cuddly blondes wanting evenings in - or playing to their own fantasies by demanding physical characteristics (dark-haired, six-foot, hunky, handsome businessmen were in great demand). True Thatcher's children made no bones about adding "with car'' or "for wining and dining''. Yet another group of hurt and bruised women wanted sincere, caring men who liked animals, flowers and country pubs, clearly to take care of them like their daddies had, or never had, whichever the case may be.

I had great faith in the fact that somewhere, in the big city where I live, there had to be a potential partner with the qualities I was offering and seeking. But I had to communicate clearly with him through his 20- word advert. I had to grab his attention and get him to write to me, but my message had to appear every week, because what if he only picked up the newspaper once in his life? I had to discourage those with whom I would have nothing in common, so as not to waste their time and money.

I decided to say exactly what I am like: highly intelligent, green, feminist, left-wing, and to make clear exactly what I wanted, someone wholesome and emotionally literate who enjoyed walking, with whom to find physical and philosophical compatibility and love. I devised a whole series of adverts on this theme.

So my adverts began to appear, and the letters began to roll in, between four and seven a week, giving me a non-stop and fresh supply of dates. At first I telephoned everyone, but after several awful meetings I learned to become more discriminating. The first weeding process was the letter itself: the more I got the easier it became. Letters about television programmes or comedians, containing confessions of smoking or being lazy, or that showed no intelligence or originality, were consigned to the bin. I returned photographs, and once returned the £4 to an unemployed man.

The phone call was the next weeding process, and for common sense protection I did not identify myself in these conversations. If I was lucky enough to get an answerphone reply I was often able to pick up clues. A husky voice told me he was a smoker, a flat monotone told me he might be boring or short on self-esteem, and I never phoned again. It might have been judgmental, but time and energy were relatively short.

The phone conversation itself weeded out lots of men: I had a good letter from one, but when I phoned him at 10am on a weekday he was still in bed, although not ill, and had the worst smoker's voice and cough I have ever heard. I did not meet those who went silent when I said I liked to talk about philosophy, those who said they liked television, golf or football, those who drank or were proud of their BMWs. I eventually stopped phoning men who were, or had been, in the police or in the forces, because they were consistently emotionally shut- down and distressed. I did have several dates, and although there was no one really compatible, the men were getting better and better. And then it arrived, in a plain blue envelope, in strong handwriting. This letter was qualitatively different from all the rest. He had really read my advert and was replying to me. It had such originality, depth and clarity that it gave me a jolt. I shot to the telephone, and we had a three-hour conversation. His voice was vibrant with energy, and we "interviewed" each other. We worked in the same establishment in a related field.

Several more telephone conversations in the week, and then a walk at the weekend. He was the same age as me with the power and confidence of an adult, but he had just stumbled out of a disastrous marriage, miraculously carrying with him the hope, enthusiasm and raw energy of the teenage boy who had entered that marriage. He was absolutely wonderful and I felt like an explorer who had found a lost and unspoiled tribe in the middle of the jungle. Needless to say, as in all good fairy tales, we fell deeply in love, and are living happily ever after.

I hope this inspires people to take themselves seriously and use their intelligence and persistence to find what they are looking for. It really is out there.