Owner of a lonely heart

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.


Note: The Impeccable blog returns next week

More like this:
– Let me get a selfie
How to lose touch on social media
We need to make room for some light negativity

Main image: The Observer, September 2010. Faint trace of a leer: model’s own.


A couple of things:

1. I’m delighted to tell you that I’ve signed a two-book deal with the brilliant Little, Brown. My first novel, The Last Romeo, is out spring 2018.

You can find out more about it on The Bookseller.

2. My name, as you can see from the piece in The Bookseller, is Justin. Hello. Nice to meet you.


I promise here and now not to bang on about this too much, unless it’s for a feature someone is paying me for (hey, I still need to eat), or part of the actual promotional work. This is not set to become a blog about the whole “process” because, honestly, who cares? 

I do hope you’ll buy The Last Romeo when it comes out and, more importantly, like it.

More about this in Gay Times and the Irish Times


My word of 2016: Luxury

I’ve seen quite a few people choosing their words of the year. Writing words about words – how meta. Most of them have been things like “Brexit” or “privilege” or “post-truth”, but these are all terms packed with meaning; they instantly come to life, teasing out memories and experiences. They’re devastatingly evocative. My word of the year, however, is quite the opposite. It’s a word which is now lost when removed from the confines of a sentence because it has become borderline meaningless.


It’s not uncommon for words to become less effective when they’re used more often. Words like “literally” and “amazing” have long since been dusted off from the shelf of superlatives and dragged down into everyday pedestrian usage, but they do at least retain a certain charm. “Literally” still adds emphasis, while “amazing” has a cute, knowing sarcasm to it. “Luxury”, however, is dead. Here lies Luxury, overused into oblivion, redefined into insignificance.

Luxury used to be unattainable, left only to billionaires, the titled or characters on ’80s soaps. Alexis Carrington in Dynasty lived a life of unrivalled luxury, swathed in furs, with caviar dotted around the room next to the ashtrays, and a gloved hand proffering chilled champagne never more than three feet away.

Historically, us mere mortals in the real world have often aspired to luxury, installing sunken baths or adding conservatories to the back of our knackered terraces, buying Babycham at Christmas, but we never kidded ourselves we were living the lush life. We knew we weren’t superstars with untold riches – and once the novelty faded, we got back to circling shows to watch in the TV Times or buying Wagon Wheels. The trouble with proper luxury was that it wasn’t sustainable for ordinary folk. Real life gets in the way.

But now luxury is something else. We want it so bad we are willing to snatch whatever we can get of it. We are prepared to pretend it’s something else entirely. We are telling ourselves anything even slightly above “bog-standard”, “perfectly suitable”, “basic but functional” or “horrid but appropriate” is a luxury– it is used as a distancing word, rather than a true expression of joy.

See all those “luxury flats” developers can’t help but throw up every time a small plot of land to build on becomes free. Stand still long enough in London and you’ll come to to find an M&S Simply Food built in your knickers with seven floors of luxury apartments above. What makes these flats so luxe? Gold-plated bathrooms?  A personal lift all the way to the top? A helipad? Well, no, sadly. In this case, luxury seems to mean a built-in dishwasher, cream carpets that will fuzz up the minute they meet a sock for the first time and magnolia walls. The shower and taps will be disappointingly chrome, in B&Q’s second cheapest range, and you will share your design of tiles with every other hastily knocked-up overpriced cell from Bermondsey to Bayswater.

A quick search on the Marks and Spencer website for “luxury” is a pretty good thermometer of where the word is going. Luxury canapés include – what else – smoked salmon, that well-known inaccessible food stuffs that proles can only stare open-mouthed at, as it gleams proudly from the shelves in Tesco. A luxury dressing gown seems only to have earned its title thanks to the fact David Gandy is modelling it, and luxury candles have only an inflated price to allude to their luxe credentials.

Supermarkets have long tapped into our snob potential with their silvery-packaged Finest and Extra Special and Taste the Difference ranges, but now it’s not enough for us to merely know we have better sausages than everyone else. We want the faux-luxury experience 24/7. Fauxury, maybe? No? Maybe? No. OK.

A luxury item is now lightly aspirational and reassuringly out of reach of someone who would either use the product wrong or not appreciate it, and thus embarrass the whole concept of luxury and its devotees. On Wednesdays, Luxury wears pink. It Instagrams its starter.

Luxury as a word tells us we can expect to pay more, that the product is not quite as basic as the one £5 cheaper than it and, in the case of most pre-packed food, there’ll be an ingredient within we’re not keen on but won’t complain because we assume it’s a LUXURY ingredient that we don’t understand. The amazing thing about Luxury is that it’s not just othering to people who still buy the basic range, it feeds into our own self-loathing and paranoid that we’re hugely unsophisticated. Case in point: Christmas is coming up and many families will try an “extra special” prepared gravy or stuffing or  pigs in blankets. Don’t bother – they’ll all taste like crap and you will blame your own primitive palate instead of daring to admit that sometimes, just sometimes, things that cost more or pretend to be luxe are actually terrible.

There’s nothing wrong with formerly luxury items becoming everyday. Asparagus! Pumpkins! Mobile phones! Debt! But elevating the standard or passable to deluxe status feels like we’re being cheated.

But maybe I am giving Luxury a bad rap. Is it so wrong to strive for something a little better, your fingers hovering over the prosecco two price-points up because it has a silver label and says it was “specially selected” for the supermarket? Why shouldn’t we reach for the stars and pretend that bottle of fizz is going to be uncorked after a seven-second ride in the express lift to our penthouse? Perhaps I am wrong to want nice things we perfectly deserve to be considered normal and available to everyone, rather than a rare treat we should be throwing ourselves on the ground and thanking a merciful God for.


Let’s not pretend a flat the size of a rat’s eye with a breakfast bar and no room for storage is in any way a luxury just because it has a dishwasher. A turd rolled in glitter is still just that.

Luxury – we barely knew you. Goodbye.

More like this:
Give me death by skinny jeans
A clueless insider’s guide to London
Did we meme our way to Brexit?
The real basic is you


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