Romancing the Sloane

Taking my free copy of the London Evening Standard the other day, I saw from the front page that Allegra Mostyn-Owen, Boris Johnson's first wife, is to marry a Muslim roughly half her age. Inside, she had been given two full pages in which to explain herself. I was, I have to say, delighted for her, and the whole business has brought clarity to a strange experience of the sort that can only happen to the divorced or separated man.

A few minutes after being given my marching orders by the wife, I turned, as men do these days, to the internet, in the hope of finding a mate. I started corresponding with one woman in particular, whose profile was not the boilerplate "I love long walks in the countryside followed by a glass of wine curled up in front of the fire" crap. After a while, she confessed that she wasn't actually looking for a partner at all, but was a conceptual artist who was collecting men's asinine and self-regarding descriptions of themselves to construct an audiovisual artwork.

This, reader, added a new terror to the business of internet dating, but I was pleased that she said my own profile and correspondence were not as stupid and creepy as every other man's. (She directed me to her website, which had actors reading out some choice entries, and you wouldn't believe how toe-curling they were. Apparently there are an awful lot of men out there who think it's acceptable to sound like a borderline rapist with a brain the size of a bumblebee's.)

Anyway, we continued to write to each other, and after a while, she kindly set me up on a date with one of her friends. Who, as it turned out, was the aforementioned Allegra M-O. This made me uncomfortable in about nine different ways, not all of them unpleasant (like all left-wing, middle-class boys, I find something exotic in the contemplation of the truly posh). However, for some years I had been proposing, in the pages of the Independent on Sunday, that her ex-husband was not who he claimed to be, but in fact the construct of an exceptionally wily comedian, such as Borat or Alan Partridge. (I once expanded on this riff at some length to Ian Hislop at a Private Eye lunch, and was most gratified to see that the next issue used it as the basis for a joke.)

Boris or Doris?

So, not only was I worried that I'd make some frightful howler with the cutlery when we went out for dinner, I was apprehensive that she might have seen my little gag at some point, or that I'd blurt it out anyway. (I have form when it comes to making extremely stupid comments in a social setting, the all-time most blush-making being when I said to the late Ian Curtis's daughter, "You smile a lot more than your dad did." You could actually hear the air whooshing out of the room as I said it.)

In the end, dinner with A M-O involved chopsticks, not knives and forks, so no class distinction problems there, but she didn't drink, and that was a snag. As I have never been involved in a relationship whose successful prosecution did not at some stage involve a decent amount of booze, this put me on the back foot somewhat, and the single bottle of beer to which I restricted myself did not really help me overcome any social awkwardness I might have been feeling.

So the evening was a bit of a bust. I was quite impressed by A M-O's seriousness and sense of purpose, yet as I walked back to the Tube, brooding on the strange ways of fate, I suspected that wedding bells were not exactly on the cards. Now that I know what her idea of the ideal man is, I feel a kind of relief, as well, naturally, as that sense of disinterested (I'm using the word properly) benevolence that comes when you hear that someone you don't know very well is getting married.

Some time after our date, at a party, I was introduced to a woman who looked just like Boris Johnson, only with longer hair and a skirt. This turned out to be his sister, and long before I had had a chance to recover my poise and bearings - was this a new comic character, the Pauline Calf to Boris's Paul? - she said, in a way that I found deeply ominous, “Ah! So you're Nicholas Lezard." I wonder: why on earth did she say that?


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power