Even a pathetic bloke can be quite appealing

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The Independent Online

Michelle does not love me. When I reached my desk this morning, there was a message from her telling me to ignore any communication I might have recently received suggesting that she loved me. She does not, and opening up to love by reading her note could have serious consequences. My memory could be wiped; all sorts of havoc might be wreaked upon my hard drive. Anyone with whom I have regular contact would also be vulnerable.

Michelle does not love me. When I reached my desk this morning, there was a message from her telling me to ignore any communication I might have recently received suggesting that she loved me. She does not, and opening up to love by reading her note could have serious consequences. My memory could be wiped; all sorts of havoc might be wreaked upon my hard drive. Anyone with whom I have regular contact would also be vulnerable.

ILOVEYOU sweeps the world. ILOVEYOU paralyses business. ILOVEYOU destroys international communication networks. It is said that metaphor is out of fashion, but on this occasion, thanks to a computer virus, the metaphor struck back; it was too powerful to be ignored. As spring emerged in all its glory and the animal world celebrated life's greatest gift, romping, humping, rutting and renewing, humanity is frozen with fear. Delete! Switch off! Close down all systems! ILOVEYOU is back in town.

Is it possible that the hacker who invented and launched the virus was alerting the world to a great new contemporary crisis, the death of love? Yesterday, in these pages, Natasha Walter celebrated the demise of the traditional romantic story, arguing that "in this guilt-free age, it's hard to see where the big narratives of thwarted love would come from," but there was something faintly alarming about her cheery pronouncements. Even Bridget Jones types, she wrote, "would no more think of giving up their families and friends and jobs and lives for a man than they would contemplate giving up shopping". Today, people lived passionately, but they had invested in their own kind of romance.

Perhaps it is true that the triumph of self-esteem over guilt, of independence over messy involvement, is one of modern life's great gifts, but recent interviews with a number of young, successful women writers suggests a more complex reality. One after another, Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation and The Bitch, Mollie Jong-Fast, novelist and daughter of Erica Jong, Amy Jenkins, creator of This Life, and Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, have told journalists the same bleak story. They have tried relationships but they had not worked. The men, frankly, were a disappointment.

Smith and Jenkins even used the same mournful little phrase, "terminally single", to describe their condition. "So how come I can't get a date?" Smith asked in one of this weekend's newspapers, before briskly replying to her own question. "The young guys I meet are just aggressive, too competitive. There's a whole generation of 35-year-old men talking like teenagers, refusing to grow up. The last one I went out with even had his own Arsenal toothbrush. Pathetic!"

Are 21st-century young men really so appalling and inadequate? The answer - take a look at their magazines, listen to them in pubs - must be "yes". But then so are young women. They may not have Arsenal toothbrushes, but they have their own pathetic equivalents. This is a gender issue over which both sides are equally discontented. Men are too nervous, or too sensible, to sound off in interviews about the inadequacy and selfishness of women, but the evidence is all around us: they are every bit as likely to be disappointed with their dates as Amy, Zadie and the rest were with them.

The problem is that everyone is pathetic in their own way. Sometimes the patheticness of your partner dreaming about Tony Adams while cleaning his teeth can be rather appealing or, if not, is balanced out by an irritating flaw of your own. But when every relationship is approached as a personal investment requiring an instant return in the form of wit, fun and sexual satisfaction, it is no surprise that terminal singlehood results, and the ILOVEYOU virus is firmly and definitively deleted.

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