It's weird, and it's shocking, but it's true - tell people you've joined a online dating agency, or you've put a classified ad somewhere, or you're going speed-dating or signing up for the next series of Who Wants To Marry My Dad? - and believe it or not, even in this day and age, you still get the odd shriek of incredulity from the hidebound and blinkered; head-in-the-sand old fuddy-duddies who think there's something 'a bit iffy' about not meeting your life-partner when you're blind-drunk in a nightclub toilet. Well to hell with them. With the exception of Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, they couldn't be further from the truth.
All of which is to say, with the autumn leaves turning to a rancid stinking mush outside and slugs like saveloys bolting for the gap under the kitchen door, this TFT contributor's thoughts have recently turned toward Romance. Actually they've been firmly focussed on Romance for quite some time now, to absolutely no avail; none whatsoever; but with this year's SAD bout just around the corner and soulless cruel winter already poking through the duvet with his old man's elbows, now is the time to take serious steps. So I signed up to a thing called Love Puzzle, and got to meet eight lovely new ladies.
At least, that was the theory.
It is kind of unnerving, beforehand. Dressing for one date is bad enough, but dressing for eight is quite the trauma. Be yourself. Apparently that's the key. No point turning up looking like the knees of a metrosexual bee, when you know for a fact that the moment she tires of that single shirt she so admires, she's going to have to adjust to the reality of your workaday wardrobe, wanking socks and all. Just be yourself. When she sees how dreadfully low-rent you really are, she will assume that your disregard for the superficialities of personal appearance, and hygiene, mask a wealth of bigger and much more profound fish to fry. Encourage her in this folly. Tell her about the wanking socks on the second date. Get it out of the way. She will admire your honesty. Deep breath. Deodorant. Breath mint.
Here's how it works: first up, you pay - £25-£30 per event, with the occasional last-minute bargain - so if you're of the opinion that there is something slightly sordid about paying for the opportunity to meet potential partners, something that smacks of prostitution, then maybe this isn't for you. Although in reality, there is no guarantee of any physical intimacy, so it's really nothing like prostitution. No more than going to a club is. Less even, if that zombified spandex pimp Peter Stringfellow is anything to go by.
So once you've paid, about a week before the event the profiles of all of your potential dates are posted on the Love Puzzle site. You pop along and rate them. You get to pick from 'Hot', 'Medium Hot' and 'Not for me', with the ratings represented by, respectively, three cute little chilli peppers, one cute little chilli pepper and a cute little 'No Entry' sign. Yeah. But, to be fair, this is not about web-site design awards, this is about True Love.
The profiles however, could do with being a little more detailed. They consisted mainly of 'How would you describe yourself?' - to which the response was invariably 'fabulous', although not in so few words; and 'Which characteristics do you look for in a partner?' - to which the response was invariably one bursting
with futile idealism. Plus a couple of other simple guides to give you a slightly better idea of the person you'll be chatting to: Favourite Music, Favourite Film, etc. My thinking was that unless someone answered 'Agadoo' and 'Rocky V', I'd be a fool not to at least have a little chat with them; check 'em out, in the flesh. Out of 15 potentials, I plumped for 14. The only one I declined to meet was a woman who for some reason was totally unashamed of her admiration for 'Dirty Dancing'.
One other minor quibble is that you're only offered dates in your own, quite broad, age range, which kind of scuppers things if you happen to be some vile wretched old lech looking to get all morally reprehensible on the cling-film flesh of some 20-something's buttocks. So yes, sorry; not a quibble at all. But a
Once your choices have been processed, you receive a 'date agenda', a kind of 'quality time-table' with the names and allotted tryst times of all your fleeting partners. On the evening itself you get to spend 15 minutes with each one, followed by a 10-minute break during which, if you're adequately engrossed or suitably smitten, you can continue chatting. Otherwise you can smile through gritted teeth, shake hands politely and skulk off to the bar, to drink and pray and wonder what on earth you'll do if slow speed-dating fails *as well*.
But thankfully, I observed no skulking and praying during the evening. Rather the atmosphere was quite charming, not dissimilar to the upstairs of a pub which has been hired out for the evening by a distant cousin, who then proceeds to introduce you to lots of his friends. I had a great time. And the timing is just right, because even when you know - without wanting to sound indelicate - that you wouldn't, you just couldn't, not even in a million years, it is only 15 minutes. And there's no-one who isn't fascinating enough to warrant at least 15 minutes' conversation. Really. Even if it becomes at best a kind of fascinating if rather creepy social experiment. (I saw that look in the eyes of at least two of my dates.)
Apparently most speed dating events allow you to speak for between three and seven minutes. But 15, with the option on another 10, is ideal. You're also free to swap phone numbers as and when you desire - unlike some places apparently - or if you're a little on the shy side, you can let a Love Puzzle person know after the event. On the whole, an excellent night out.
Of course, I might not have thought so had I not been fortunate enough to meet a couple of rather special ladies. In fact, I had my first 'proper date' with one of them just the other night and it went very well. So well in fact, that I've decided not to mention the wanking socks at all for a while. Not even in jest. I may even throw them all away. And buy another shirt.
If You Fancy Your Chances: http://www.lovepuzzle.co.uk