We’re long used to living our lives in public. Even before social media really took off and we were all superstars in our own storylines, there were plenty of opportunities to show the rest of the world who we were – Big Brother is almost 17 years old, after all.
For anyone too timid or claustrophobic to live in a pretend house with 12 sociopaths and Brian Dowling, there are dating shows. Take Me Out, First Dates, The Undateables, Dinner Date – playing voyeur to poor hapless souls’ search for romance has never been so popular.
Sharing our romantic struggles way pre-dates even the internet; there’s nothing new about matchmaking as a spectator sport. Cilla Black took her first curtsy on Saturday night stalwart Blind Date over 30 years ago, with a host of imitators trying to recapture the primetime magic of Cupid’s arrow ever since. Despite the fact that most first dates are awkward, agonising garbage fires littered with bad jokes, deathly silences, revulsion and dreary bickering over splitting the bill, humans seem to have a death wish, ever eager to show off how supremely undateable they really are. Newspapers and magazines all over the world send two hapless punters out to a local restaurant for a free meal in the hope a carafe or two of the house red and a hovering waiter will be enough to loosen some tongues and fill column inches, perhaps the most notable example being the Guardian’s Blind Date column in its Weekend magazine every Saturday, which I gently eviscerate on my blog.
If I’m harsh on the participants of the Blind Date column, it’s because I speak from bitter experience. The call is coming from inside the house: I appeared in a similar one myself.
Years ago, the Observer ran a monthly column called Up Close and Personals, which would delve into dating profiles to see how the hunt for Mr Right was going. I do not believe in regrets, particularly – they seem like such a waste of time – but I am terrible for lying awake at night and replaying bad decisions in my head. One I could really do without, though – I need the space for all my future mistakes – is my decision to appear in this column, back in 2010. And here it is:
Why did I do it? I could lie to you here and say I thought my story was worth sharing. Perhaps I could claim that I aspired to give hope to other singletons out there, or make them laugh at my poor fortune. But this is nonsense. I just wanted the attention.
One of my favourite things about the digital age is how much attention we can get if we’re up for it. We can put as little or as much of ourselves as we like to get it, although, sadly, we can’t control the attention we receive, either in quality or quantity. It either comes or it doesn’t, and we either like it or we don’t.
I wasn’t getting much of it at the time. I was living alone for the first time ever, staring at the walls and fanning myself against the oppressive heat of that first lonely summer. The blog was in its infancy, read only by a handful of strangers and the flies who’d land on my laptop screen.
Usually the best way to get attention, and the preferred, acceptable way of dealing with it, is to pretend you don’t want it at all. So I could say to myself back in 2010 that I wasn’t interested in the attention at all, that it was “an experiment”. Oh my goodness, I mean please. I’ve written for a living for almost two decades – I crave attention. It is my fuel. I write to be read. Without actual, physical attention, with zero eyes on my words, I am nothing, dead. Plants need light and water; writers need your eyes.
So, back in 2010, I wanted two strands of attention: I wanted someone to read it and think they should commission me to write something for them and, perhaps more easily as it turned out, I wanted a man to read it, look at my photo, and fall in love with me.
What? You never dreamed of that? That someone would just lay eyes on you and be immediately smitten, as if they’d just drunk a magic fairy-tale potion? Oh, man, that’s a shame. Dream big. The whole dating thing – from start to finish – had been about getting attention. As I said in the column, albeit paraphrased heavily, “I wanted to check whether I was still attractive”. When you’re with someone for eight years, you’re never sure whether they’re telling you you’re handsome because it’s true, or out of habit, obligation, fear, or a combination of all four.
I answered an ad. A journalist phoned me. We spoke. I did not write it myself, as you can see from the journalist’s byline. I agonised over which photo to send in. I sent around five, I think.
I know how it must feel for the Guardian Blind Date couple when they see the finished product. “Is that me?” they may wonder. “Did I really say that?” Well, yes it is. And, yes, you probably did.
They hadn’t picked the picture I liked; I looked like I was leering into the camera (because I was). The interview’s paraphrasing of our conversation made me sound quite cold. My reference to my previous relationship came across as particularly flippant out of context, and my ex was upset about that. It looked like I’d explained away almost a decade of what was in actual fact a very happy relationship as a mere blip, an inconvenience that I’d dealt with – but I must have known this could happen.
I hadn’t told anybody it was going to be in, so I had a run of shocked texts from friends, family and, mortifyingly, a few previous dates. My ex’s parents were particularly unamused – what must I have looked like? Exactly what I was, I suppose: an attention-seeker looking for the validation I lacked and the reinvention I needed.
I did get attention, most of it from readers tracking me down on Facebook or Guardian Soulmates. Some were women who hadn’t read the small-print, and the rest were men chancing their arm, at least half of them without their underwear. Like I say, you can’t choose how you get it. If you throw out your line, you’ll catch something eventually.
But it could’ve been worse. At least I was a lone voice in my column, even though they weren’t my exact words. No other side of the story, no rebuttals, or arguments, no contradictions. That’s what makes the Guardian’s Bind Date so terrifying and exciting at the same time – and so dangerous.
There’s a school of thought that says to be truly entertaining, you need conflict, but watching people argue or feel nothing but contempt for one another is a temporary buzz that soon becomes tiresome. Insults, hair-pulling and grudges quickly lose their lustre once you realise there’s nobody left to root for, and while watching the fur fly is the backbone of reality TV, what we really need is a story we can get behind. Reading about your average Joes and Joannes cringing their way through a starter, or bite their tongue in horror at a clanger they’ve just dropped, gives us hope, it reassures. Contrary to what you may have read in my blog, the ones where they get on are way richer, more satisfying.
We’re just like them, we think, except we would never go so far as to seek attention like that. And then we pause for a selfie, or write a funny tweet, or do a quick meme, and post it to our 3,000 followers, our heart beating that little bit faster every time a like comes in.
We are all Blind Daters now. We always have been. But they dare to do it in print. They’re extra. Once you’ve done it, you’ll know just how brilliantly brave – and a little bit stupid – that is.