Hitting myself with a rat

From infectious hotels to her favourite power tools - Scottish writer and comedian AL Kennedy's bril

Since winning the Costa Prize for my last novel, Day (which I’m assuming was a nice thing) my life has turned into shrapnel and I spend most of my days replying to emails from strangers who want something, slinging huge amounts of snailmail into the recycling bin and running up and down my nearest high street in flight from more of the same.

The only thing working efficiently is my paper shredder. Faced with a choice of researching a novel, adding to a collection of short stories, or hitting wheezy scripts with a stick until they squeak, I have only managed to buy a box set of James Mason DVD’s and make a few quarts of cullen skink.

All my activities are of the displacement variety. Having adjusted to being in my own flat for more than seven days in a row, I have cleaned the house to within an inch of its mortar and it now looks enough like a hotel for me to feel at home. (The room service is, of course, terrible but this is balanced by the presence of many ornaments and items of clothing that I seem to recognise from long ago and far away.) I have also been able to catch up with friends. Two of them have developed a whole extra child of considerable size since I saw them last – a healthy, square-headed chap - my current schedule means he’ll be going through his second divorce before I see him again.

But I am in work – quite possibly more work than I can do. And numbers of the courteous public continue to attend readings. So I can have that kind of fun.

My plan for this week was actually to get all caffeined-up and fly at a new story, having recovered from a) the coldest and smallest hotel room in London – I was, very literally, huddled up and yet this provided no warmth at all - followed swiftly by b) a tangibly infectious hotel in Wolverhampton with a bathroom like a mad fishmonger’s storage area and c) another London hotel erected between two bypasses and equipped with clog-dancing and mysteriously rapping neighbours and a number of electrical devices which proved to be entirely beyond me, tired and tearful as I was.

Technology and I have compatibility issues – my computers toy with me, mangle files, crash whenever they can and force me to wander the globe laden with memory sticks and paper copies of anything that might conceivably become important. Meanwhile, I travel in constant fear that Something Vital will arrive for me on my mobile phone (which loses messages) or by email (almost entirely inaccessible while on the road) and I will miss that key opportunity to discuss my favourite power tools on Radio Five, or hit myself with a rat for six weeks while a Swedish man films it for an art installation. These things being rumoured to aid sales. Sadly, six nights with no sleep at all and a number of train journeys spent typing furiously to avoid contemplating how little time I have to type furiously left me with no more than a deep desire to lapse into unconsciousness for – say – a year and a half.

Next week involves three comedy gigs in Scotland (cue much pacing up and down my living room carpet while talking to people who aren’t there) followed by another dash South of the Border to present an hour of comedy about writing to an assembly of students at Warwick. Then it’s back to Glasgow for more of the same. Dear Godhelpus.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad