I’ve realised as my kids have become teenagers, and begun moving into the stage of relationships, that I can give them no dating advice at all, as my experience is so skewed and unrepresentative. I’ve been with Ben now for 35 years, and I have never been on what you’d call a grown-up date. Maybe this is why I love TV dating shows. They’re anthropologically interesting to me, like wildlife programmes.
It started with Blind Date, which now seems quaintly old-fashioned, Cilla performing a finely judged balancing act between the risqué and the prudish, reining in guests before they went too far, reminding us all, with her frequent mentions of getting a hat, that she hoped the contestants were looking for love and not just a shag. Take Me Out was more obviously shag-based, the daters flying off to the imaginary Isle of Fernando’s (Tenerife), and having to endure a bungee jump or an afternoon in a canoe before getting down to cocktails and eye contact.
Then came First Dates, which I love not least because the maître d’, French Fred, bears more than a passing resemblance to Ben, with his salt-and-pepper beard and that twinkly look in his eye. His USP is the tongue-in-cheek meaningless aphorism, fridge-magnet clichés delivered with a knowing carelessness: “Love is like a beautiful summer’s day. When there are clouds, you have to look beyond, and see the sunset over the hill . . .”
I also love the Blind Date page in the Saturday Guardian magazine and the brilliant weekly post-match analysis by The Guyliner. Now revealed to be the writer Justin Myers, The Guyliner has a deal with Little, Brown for two novels, which I look forward to with great excitement, as his commentary is hilarious and barbed but also (see his relationship advice for Gay Times) enormously sympathetic and humane.
I like to think that I’m sympathetic and not just watching for the lolz. I’ve seen friends using various dating apps and it’s helped me understand the awkwardness of adult dating. Not least because a date is so often dinner. I can’t imagine anything worse, or more clinical. How can you fancy anyone when all your energy is going into trying not to eat like Ed Miliband? Nightmare.
But my age shows most in my frustration at couples’ inability to spot a good match when presented with one. Their perfectionism, their checklists of attributes any potential partner must possess, their unforgiving insistence on spark and chemistry. I once wrote the lyric “You say the magic’s gone/Well I’m not a magician/You say the spark’s gone/Well get an electrician” and I stand by those words. It’s an overrated way of trying to judge compatibility. I despair when couples give up before there’s time for the smallest flame to ignite.
Still, what do I know? My only real experience is of teenage dating forty years ago, which was altogether different. You hung out first in a crowd. Or you met on the dance floor, or at a party. You sized each other up, gave each other the eye, had a snog, got a whiff of each other’s pheromones. The spark was already ignited, then you maybe had a date, which was never dinner and was still mostly snogging, and then you talked on the phone to get to know each other. It was rudimentary, but it worked.
I sometimes wonder how the hell I’d cope nowadays. I can’t help imagining the pitfalls that would lie in wait for me – minor celebrity, semi-VIP – if, God forbid, anything happened to propel me back on to the dating scene. Imagine turning up on a blind date. Option 1: he recognises me, and is a fan (run). Option 2: he recognises me, but is not a fan (preferable, but still, awks). Option 3: he doesn’t recognise me, and then comes the “So what do you do?” bit and he’s either a) embarrassed and apologetic (awks) or b) super-interested and wants to catch up on everything he’s missed (dull).The very thought is terrifying.
As Carrie Fisher says, in my favourite line from When Harry Met Sally: “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again.”
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution