Would like to meet... the wierd and wonderful world of personal ads

It's not just the lovelorn who are populating the back pages of the 'London Review of Books', says Paul McCann
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The Independent Online

For seven years the LRB personals column has been producing surreal haikus of the heart like this. It began with "67-year-old disaffiliated flaneur, jacked-up on Viagra and looking for a contortionist trumpeter" and has never looked back. It has fans from Australia to the US; there are bloggers devoted to it and now an anthology of some of the best ads is planned for later this year.

The personals industry, online and in print, has come a long way since The Times first allowed matchmakers to advertise lonely spinsters in 1886. The stigma has disappeared and the business in the UK is reportedly worth more than £50m. Newspapers outsource their dating columns to agencies and take a share of the premium-rate calls to the adverts. One company, Telecom Express, manages The Guardian's Soulmates, The Daily Telegraph's Kindred Spirits and The Times's Encounters pages, among many others.

Some dating companies even give advice to people on how to word their ad to attract a mate. This is not how things work at the LRB. Some minimalists ads have included: "Angry trollop, 37. Offers?"; "Male, 52. Awful pianist." and "Fairly innocuous male, 57." Other classics of truth-in-advertising have included "Tap-dancing Classics lecturer. Chilling isn't it?" and "Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle-aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible".

"It's very hard to write a 20-word personal ad that adequately sums you up," says David Rose, LRB's classified ad manager. "A lot of people get their friends to do it because they don't know how to describe themselves. So humour probably says more about you than the usual bland list of likes and dislikes." Rose insists that his advertisers do get responses and that several have married thanks to the column.

One advertiser contacted by The Independent, who identified herself by e-mail only as "Thinkingmanscrumpette", says she was attracted to the column because she wanted to avoid the "City types or tank-top wearers who usually reply". However, even at the LRB, half of her 10 respondents were married men looking for a no-strings affair.

David Rose admits that there are some ads that are so "out there" that they are probably placed by people with other motivations. "There are some who are probably not that interested in finding a partner. We know we have some people who've been sending in two or three ads every year since the column launched. Some are almost competitive in the weirdness or there may be people who are trying out characters from their new novel." Rose is not above a little weirdness himself. He once printed the entire column in German for no other reason than he'd recently be listening to "Reeperbahn" by Tom Waits. "We hardly got any letters about it, but we gave the advertisers a free one anyway," he says.

Contrary to the somewhat lonely image of personals dating, the LRB adverts have a sense of community about them. Lots of ads refer to previous messages, to the magazine itself or contain running gags for dedicated readers. For no very good reason, the 1970s Canadian rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive get repeated mentions; the critics John Sutherland and Andrew O'Hagan appear intermittently and there are regularly cutting-edge scientific theories mixed in with the appeals for love.

The longest-lived running-joke was Gerald Kaufman. For about two years every edition contained at least one ad that made reference, often sexual, to the Labour MP. "We started to assume it was Labour Party insiders taking the piss," says Rose. Recently, Margaret -Beckett-themed ads have started to appear.

But the most consistent theme, apart from gross self-denigration, has been men and their mothers. A recent ad maintained: "A girlfriend isn't a girlfriend unless she makes my mother cry with grief every time she visits. For two years now she's sat, contented, in front of the TV with not a care in the world. That's where you come in. Professional M, 38, seeks heartless common slut with no small knowledge of Sheltered Housing application procedures. Basingstoke." Another insisted: "Must enjoy computer battleships, segregated bathrooms and respect my mother by wearing clothes just like hers (cavalry twill, mainly)."

And then there are the plain odd. Ads containing unsourced, gothic quotations from Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Nietzsche, or HP Lovecraft must attract only very specific partners; the lyrics of the post-punk band Half Man Half Biscuit even fewer. Last week an ad appeared stating simply: "I hate you Alan Rusbridger" - whether from a disgruntled hack or a critic of the Berliner redesign, only the advertiser knows.

The sheer obscurity of some ads has led to an urban myth that a North Korean spy was once picked up in London with a copy of the LRB containing several circled personals ads.

"The LRB is an extremely serious read," says Nicholas Spice, the periodical's publisher. "It takes quite a bit of commitment, so the personals are valuable because they break up the rhythm; they represent some light relief. They contribute only a small amount of money to the magazine, but they punch very much above their weight."

The column has given the LRB the opportunity to meet some of its readers. A singles night was held in London in August and attracted 120 people who were less "middle-aged and flatulent" than had been expected. "The fear was that it would be dowdy and slightly depressing, but it really wasn't," says Spice, who is planning to hold more get-togethers. "They were younger, more energetic and more beautiful than I imagined." And none of the men brought their mothers.

The ads

My hobbies include crying and hating men. F, 29.

True, I am a forest, and a night of dark trees, but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses. Part-time heavy-metal Guardian sub-editor (male, pale, drinks light ale).

"August 14th. Saw Alan Bennett riding his bike. Briefly made eye-contact. Wondered if I'd get a mention in the Alan Bennett 2002 diary." Peripheral bloke (47). Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest come-down I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34.

Call for papers: "London Review of Books personal ads: an exaggeration or a rejection of the dominant cultural norm?" Send proposal to gay, anorexic, flamenco-dancing M, 36, baby-blue eyes, blond hair, and pesto recipes to die for.

When, oh when will they remake Falcon Crest? Man. 43. Obviously gay.

When you do that voodoo that you do so well, I invoke 16th century witchcraft laws and have you burned at the stake. No shenanigans with Quaker M, 39.

Too much sex, not enough Vitamin B12. Vegan love-god on the brink of mental and physical collapse (M, 26) seeks pallid, calcium-deficient F for nights of apathy, depression and headaches while touring the moral high ground.

My ideal woman is a man. Sorry, mother.

Less Venus in Furs, more Derek in Buxton. Interested? Write to Derek in Buxton.

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