On a flight back from Glasgow some years ago I was next to a woman scanning the personals in the London Review of Books. I had given her a copy because we'd both appeared on a BBC talk-show about lonely hearts. After a couple of tuts and sighs she leaned over and offered to take over running the section. "Why?" I asked. "They're hopeless," she said, "a complete disaster. You shouldn't let people say these things about themselves. And you don't charge enough."
She should know. She ran an agency that published lonely-hearts sections in many newspapers. The premise behind this particular agency was that it constructed ads for people by getting them to answer a brief set of questions. These included: "if you could be anywhere in time right now, where would it be and why?" and "what are your favourite books"; the idea being to build up a brief but interesting personal statement that could be used as a lonely heart. I tried this approach with advertisers in the London Review of Books every now again but it hasn't always produced glowing results:
If I could be anywhere in time right now it would be 17 December 1972. I have my reasons. Man, 57. Box no. 1553.
List your five favourite books. First, let me list mine: The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing: The Experience and Treatment of OCD, Judith L Rapoport; Brain Lock, Free Yourself From Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour, Dr Jeffrey Schwartz; The Doubting Disease: Help for Scrupulosity and Religious Compulsions, Joseph W Ciarrochi; Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts, Lee Baer; The River Café Cookbook, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. F, 32. Enjoys cookery, hairclips, light switches. Box no. 8313.
"We're very successful" the woman insisted, but didn't say whether "very successful" meant writing concise and lovely personals for people, matching punters up with their future spouse, or simply raking in money. Of course making money from lonely hearts isn't necessarily a bad thing - if dating agencies and columns make a fortune it's because people feel good about using them. As a nation we don't really like to discuss relationships, and we tend to be remarkably understated when it comes to talking about ourselves.
Compare UK ads to those in the US, and you get a real sense of the difference between the two emotional standpoints. Ads in the US present some fantastic adjectives: "Athletic, game for adventure," reads one in the New York Review of Books. Another advertiser in the same column describes herself as a "head-turner", which could be read entirely the wrong way were she not so sincere in her self-belief and her search for a man with "a good heart, willing to get hands dirty once in a while, itch to start a family, live happily ever after".
Agencies and questionnaires make a lot of sense in an era of increasing emotional hang-ups, but do we really have so much to fear by doing it ourselves? It's not that we have trouble finding interesting aspects about ourselves, but that we're less convinced that others share our fascination with antique radiators or the breeding cycles of terrapins.
This is a real missed opportunity. A failed lonely-heart ad isn't the end of the world. If people don't like what they read and you get no responses you can always place another ad and talk about a different aspect of yourself. No one will ever know it's you. The biggest draw of is that it's entirely anonymous and it doesn't matter if you make an ass of yourself. Whoever you are, and whatever you look like or take an interest in, there's guaranteed to be someone out there for you. As the ads in the London Review of Books show, for possibly the first time ever you have the chance to find an ideal match by being absolutely honest about your fear of chickens, your hatred of okra or your growing passion for freshwater crustaceans:
Last Valentine's Day I sponsored a truck-load of mitten crabs on behalf on my girlfriend. She left me not long afterwards, but the mitten crabs are thriving. I learned an important lesson as a result of all this, but I'm really not sure what it was. That's where you come in, F to 35 with profound love of mitten crabs for evenings spent drinking home-made iron brew and plotting the migratory pattern of mitten crabs with amateur mitten-crab enthusiast (M, 35, mercifully low sperm count). Box no. 8634.
Once you've made up your mind to do it, writing a lonely-heart ad may seem like a daunting task but as long as you follow some very basic rules it's not impossible and can be quite fun. Think about where you want to advertise. If you want to spend hours talking to a lover about fly-fishing, go for Angling Times, if pottery gets you going then try Ceramics Monthly. If your magazine of choice doesn't have a personals section, phone them and demand one!
Think about how you'd prefer to submit your ad - are you happy to phone in and ask advice, or would you rather mail it? How much are you happy to spend? Lonely hearts are certainly very lucrative and it's not unusual to find a personals section charging £1.50 a minute to submit an ad via a premium-rate phone-line and then the same again for anyone wishing to reply. A reader flicking through today's small ads could easily spend the same amount of money as a couple of rounds in the pub chatting up strangers, albeit without the drunken slobber and careless spray of Scampi Fries at every over-keen laugh. Besides which, people rarely behave sensibly on the phone. What is it you say to someone's automated phone-messenger service when it's costing you £1.50 a minute? I expect a large portion of premium-line ad-revenues come from nervous people who simply panic, forget what they wanted to say, and try to cover up by adopting a ridiculous voice and ordering two chicken bhunas and a peshwari nan.
There's a lot to be said for old-fashioned box-numbers which encourage written replies. The respondent will be able to think more carefully and be much more measured in tone. His or her handwriting will bring out the amateur cryptologist in you so you'll be staring at that first missive for hours, wondering about the maverick with the looped "g"s. Most importantly, with written responses it's impossible to disguise a prison postmark. As at least one LRB advertiser has discovered, inmates become very bored and like to use their monthly letter allowance by playing out the novels of Henry James.
Once you've decided where you're going to advertise, how much you're happy to spend and how you'd like people to reply, it's important not to leap straight into the task of writing the ad itself. Think about what you have to do. Relax a little. Environmental factors are very important. I often get calls from people wanting to place ads while they're about to dash out to work or are stuck at home getting their central heating system over-hauled.
Stress, a recent break-up or loss, or any other significant extenuating factor will affect the overall tone and content of your ad. Readers who are scanning the small ads for prospective partners are very sensitive to even the most subtle flashes of anxiety:
My favourite Ben & Jerry's is Acid-Boiled Bones of Divorce Lawyer. They don't yet make it, but, damn, I can taste its sweet, sweet ice-creamy softness already. Bed-sit-living doctor (M, 54). Box no. 6321.
Try to make yourself feel good. Sit down at the kitchen table early in the morning with a cup of herbal tea. Put some nice clothes on. If you feel good, you'll undoubtedly project that into your advert. A positive, sober frame of mind is absolutely essential when writing your lonely heart.
I am not afraid to say what I feel. At this moment in time I feel anger, giddiness, and the urge to dress like a bear and forage for berries at motorway hedgerows. Man, 38. Box no. 3632.
Approach your advert by first listing your 10 top positive traits. Think about the qualities you appreciate in a person. What is it you look for in others? What do you think is your most appealing feature (bear in mind that everybody says "eyes")? Do you consider yourself to be intelligent with some degree of intellectual acumen? Then don't be scared to show it.
Be careful though. If you find yourself well beyond 10, with the list running away with itself, then you've probably unearthed the cause of your single life right there. No one likes a smart-arse, much less one who doesn't know when to stop talking about how great they are. Get over yourself for just a minute and you may just get a girlfriend:
Without love, it doesn't matter if you have all the qualifications in the world. Which I have. Please write for full list. I also have all the money in the world and look like Jude Law. Yes, I can provide a photo. M, 71, Ottershaw. When named I am the man apart. Box no. 4319.
Most personals focus on making the advertiser look attractive. This is absolutely correct, but making yourself attractive in a personal ad isn't always as important as making yourself seen. There's every likelihood that you'll be appearing on a page with 100 others, with each advertiser claiming to be desperately good-looking or intelligent.
Try to be different, don't just focus on physical attributes. Stand out from the crowd. If the ads collected in They Call Me Naughty Lola are testimony to anything, it's that standing out gets you read. Bear in mind, though, that "attractive" and "different" don't have to be contradictory terms:
My animal passions would satisfy any woman, if only it weren't for the filibustering of this damned colon. And the chafing of these infernal hospital sheets. Write now to M, 83, for ward visiting hours and a list of approved solids. Box no. 2377.
That said, approaching a personal ad isn't the same as getting dressed up for a date. Yes, first impressions last, but just because you might wear a slimming black number for that first wine-bar meeting doesn't mean you have to suck your gut in with your personal ad. What's the point of being euphemistic about yourself in the hope of getting someone to respond when your aim is actually to meet them? If your ad is successful then, presumably, they're going to find out that "cuddly" or "more to love" actually means you have to bathe in bed with a sponge on the end of a stick:
Hoxton salad-dodger (42 - my age and my waist; M, my sex not my coat size, that's strictly XL). WLTM chubster with an interest in red meat and mustardy dressings. Free first Tuesday of every month, Slimmer's World every Wednesday. Box no. 1275.
Finally, and keep this firmly in mind, there are certain things that should never be touched upon in a personal ad. For example, it's vulgar to mention income or debt. Mentioning that you're divorced is fine, but going into the details of the break-up and subsequent acrimony is most certainly out. Similarly, court appearances and medical histories are absolutely to be avoided. How you came to be in a personal column in the first place - be it in the London Review of Books or elsewhere - will not intrigue the casual reader in quite the way you hope it will. For now at least, let's keep some of those skeletons firmly in the closet.
I've experienced some of the finest mace sprays produced in the Western world, but nothing is as painful as placing an ad in here and getting no responses. That's where you come in: blonde, pole-dancing acrobatic F to 21 who isn't put off by two-way mirrors. Man, 82. Box no. 2985.
'They Call Me Naughty Lola, The London Review of Books Personal Ads: A Reader', edited by David Rose is published by Profile Books, priced £8.99. To order this book with free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897