“Forever Alone” by Shannon Elliott
When the London Review of Books’ advertising director David Rose started the personals section in the publication’s classifieds in 1998, the first ad he ran was “Disaffiliated flâneur, jacked-up on Viagra and on the look-out for a contortionist trumpeter.”
With that one sentence fragment, the gauntlet was officially thrown down.
Originally designed to match intelligent people based on their literary interests, readers immediately ganged up on the personals section like Amazon reviewers and twisted it for their own purposes. They were, as Rose told NPR, instead “instantly very, very silly.”
In a GQ interview Rose said:
I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t going to be good. There’s no way they’re going to let me run this. What an idiot I am.’ But I work on the Bowie principal—do something once and it’s a mistake; do it three times and it’s an arrangement.’ We had to let it go for a couple of issues. My attitude was ‘I’m going to print these ads because they’re the only ones I’ve got.’ They’re ridiculous and silly, but it was like, who blinks first? Are the readers going to say, ‘No I didn’t mean for you to print that ad?’ Or am I going to say ‘No, we can’t print this!’ They were consistently like that from there on in. They never altered. Never any change in the pitch or the camber. They were just ridiculous. It was like the advertisers seized on something.
Now people turn to the personals ads first, then read the book reviews. The ads are the exact inverse of the clichéd, bragging, bitter, disturbing (in the case of The Village Voice), or inarticulate American equivalent. Instead of lying about their physical attributes, sparkling personalities, improbable sexual skills, wealth, and accomplishments in an effort to elicit hopeful responses from gullible readers, these people exaggerate their flaws with cutting haiku-like precision. The cynical, dark-humored, quirky, but literate descriptions are tinged with existential despair and CV’s full of failed relationships. They highlight skin diseases, ugliness, mental illness, flatulence, obesity, poor hygiene, personality disorders, revenge fantasies, perverted fetishes, and disappointing sexual skills.
Here’s a good illustration of ingrained false modesty: a young English expat says he has “done rather well” with women from American dating websites, which may well mean that he has bedded every willing woman, from college freshmen to great-grannies, in his entire time zone. In his case the humble phrase “done rather well” is the equivalent of Gene Simmons’ creepy Polaroid collection of his sexual conquests. But if he were to describe himself for a LRB ad, he’d have to make himself sound like a circus freak or monstrous horror movie creature in order to get anyone’s attention.
David Rose has compiled LRB personals into two collections so far: They Call Me Naughty Lola and Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland. When They Call Me Naughty Lola (named for the delightful ad “They call me Naughty Lola. Run of the mill beardy physicist — male, 46”) was featured on NPR, the self-depreciating seekers were called “the pathetic, the downtrodden and the ever hopeful.” Oh, no. If Douglas Adams, Terry Gilliam, and Nein Quarterly had ever hired themselves out to write personals for others, they would have sounded a lot like these:
If intense, post-fight sex scares you, I’m not the woman for you (amateur big-boned cage wrestler, 62)
I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out, and covered in too much tahini. Before long I’ll have discarded you on the pavement of life, but until then you’re the perfect complement to a perfect evening. Man, 32. Rarely produces winning metaphors.
My last seven adverts in this column were influenced by the early catalogue of Krautrock band, Paternoster. This one, however, is based entirely around the work of Gil Scott-Heron. Man, 32. Possibly the last person you want to be stood next to at a house-party you’ve been dragged along to by a friend who wants to get off with the flatmate of the guy whose birthday it is. Hey! Have you ever heard Boards of Canada? They’re amazing; I’ll burn you a CD.
To some, I am a world of temptation. To others, I’m just another cross-dressing pharmacist. Male, 41.
Tall, handsome, well-built, articulate, intelligent, sensitive, yet often grossly inaccurate man, 21. Cynics (and some cheap Brentwood psychiatrists) may say ‘pathological liar’, but I like to use ‘creative with reality’. Join me in my 36-bedroomed mansion on my Gloucestershire estate, set in 400 acres of wild-stag populated woodland.
My therapist has given me such a good rate I can afford to indulge my bouts of infidelity and still deal elegantly with my guilt. Attached but unfaithful London male, 60, seeks female counterpart. I promise an intensity of sexual joy unexpected in the LRB.
This advert is about as close as I come to meaningful interaction with other adults. Woman, 51. Not good at parties but tremendous breasts.
The complete list of my sexual conquests: 1994-1995—Anna; 1996—Julia, Alison; 1997—Italian girl at Karl’s party, Claire (Clare?), Jessica (fingered); 1998—Anna again (big mistake), receptionist at my second temp job (possibly called Helena), Becky (I was in love but she went back to her boyfriend); 1999—Jeremy’s girlfriend; 2000-01—Karolina (deported); 2002—woman at nightclub, woman at nightclub, woman at nightclub, woman at Stewart’s barbecue, Stewart (accidental coming together of groins, the three of us were naked and very, very drunk), woman at nightclub; 2003-2006—Evil Satanic Bitch Whore; 2007—the Internet. [London Review of Books]-reading women to 35—don’t pretend your relationships have been any less incongruous and unsatisfying. Write to probably the most normal guy you’ll ever see in a lonely heart advert and maybe we’ll end up friends or lovers or despising each other and wincing every time we remember our awful one-night stand or maybe we’ll get married and have children. Writing’s a good start though. Man, 31.
Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible.
Save it. Anything you’ve got to say can be said to my lawyer. But if you’re not my ex-wife, why not write to box no. 5377? I enjoy vodka, canasta, evenings in, and cold, cold revenge.
I’m no Victoria’s Secret model. Man, 62.
Sinister-looking man with a face that only a mother would love: think of an ageing Portillo with a beard and you have my better-looking twin. Sweetie at heart, though. Nice conversation, great for dimly-lit romantic meals. Better in those Welsh villages where the electricity supply can’t be guaranteed. Charitable women to 50 appreciated.
Newly divorced man, 38, Would like to meet woman to 40 whose heroes don’t include Leslie Cole, Bill ‘Dink’ Hewit, Roger Martinez, Peter Jaconelli, Dave Man or William Corfield. Northumbria.
I vacillate wildly between a number of archetypes including, but not limited to, Muriel Spark witticism-trading doyenne, Mariella Frostrup charismatic socialite, brooding, intense Marianne Faithfull visionary, and kleptomaniac Germaine Greer amateur upholsterer and ladies’ league darts champion. Woman, 43. Everything I just said was a lie. Apart from the bit about darts. And kleptomania. Great tits though.
You’re a brunette, 6’, long legs, 25-30, intelligent, articulate and drop-dead gorgeous. I, on the other hand, am 4’10”, have the looks of Herve Villechaize and carry an odour of wheat. No returns and no refunds at box no. 3321.
If you think I’m going to love you—you’re right. Clingy, over-emotional and socially draining woman, 36. Once you’ve got me, you can never ever leave me. Not ever. Prone to maniacal bursts of crying, usually followed by excitable and uncontrollable laughter. Life is a roller coaster; you’ve just got to ride it, as Ronan Keating once said. Buxton.
Just as chugging on a bottle of White Lightning on a park bench will make you nauseous and diminish the respect of your peers, yet taking just a glass of cold cider on a barmy summer evening will quench your thirst and take you back to heady days frolicking in West Country apple orchards, so it is with this ad. Man, 37. Refreshing in small sips where the delicate nuances of Somerset burst through full and flavoursome, but anything bigger and you’ll end up puking over your own shoes and smelling of wee.
Your stars for today: A pretty Cancerian, 35, will cook you a lovely meal, caress your hair softly, then squeeze every damn penny from your adulterous bank account before slashing the tyres of your Beamer. Let that serve as a warning. Now then, risotto?
List your ten favourite albums…I just want to know if there’s anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35.
I’ve got a mouth on me that can peel paint off walls, but I can always apologize.
My favourite Ben & Jerry’s is Acid-Boiled Bones of Divorce Lawyer.
Woman, 38. WLTM man to 45 who doesn’t name his genitals after German chancellors. You know who you are and, no, I don’t want to meet either Bismarck, Bethmann Hollweg, or Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, however admirable the independence he gave to secretaries of state may have been.
Most partners cite the importance of having a loved one who will listen and understand them. I’m here to rubbish this theory. F, 38.
Salon‘s Kate Harding met her husband through this ad:
I smoke, I drink, I talk waaaay too much and think even more than that, I swear like a longshoreman, I’m usually covered in dog hair, I do not order salad as a full meal, I always want to Talk About It, I might be funnier than you, I want to be taken care of but hate feeling weak, I’m completely disorganized, I will keep cuddling until you pry me off you (and so will my dogs), I say “awesome” a lot, I don’t lie even if it’s easier, I tell my girlfriends everything, I expect to come, and I’ve been told repeatedly that I scare the crap out of men. If that sounds like your kind of girl, awesome.
When it was announced that the section would be discontinued in 2010, there was an immediate outcry. Luckily it is still intact, although the self-esteem of some of their users may not always be.
Haikus of the Heart, an interview with David Rose, below: