What – Cilla Black? Cheap set? Catchphrases? Wonderfully grim and awkward holidays in Bognor Regis? Unfortunately I didn’t in fact take part in a revival of the hit dating game show, as much as that is my wildest dream (Cilla’s resignation in October ’02 was a dark, dark time for the twelve-year old me), but despite the ill-fate of the aforementioned TV show, it is evident that the dating business is bigger than ever – a quick google search yields over 27 million results for ‘dating sites’, and over 14 million for ‘speed dating’. It seems that every pub and town hall in the country now holds bimonthly singles’ nights.
But what are they really like? Do they work? Sceptical, but spurred on by the will to rid myself of my probably appalling snobbery towards such events and the people that attend them (and a creeping realisation that we could all very easily end up alone and middle-aged ), I went to see what my future dating life could consist of, hopped on the Oxford Tube, and arrived at Dans Le Noir in north London for ‘Dating in the Dark’, which promised me an entirely pitch black dating/dining experience.
I won’t deny that once over my initial reservations, serious excitement about this very latest of dating crazes set in (it was totally going to be just like LivingTV). There was going to be intriguing conversation, after an initial twinge of vulnerability, there would be an intense and moving feeling of liberation in the darkness, and not least I was going to create an exotic alter-ego, Flavia, a half-Greek, half-Italian, sexy-accented post-grad, lonely and looking for love with someone who wasn’t going to judge her on looks alone. All in all I was expecting, not to find ‘the one’, but a genuinely thought-provoking experience that would force me to question our fickle judgements of outward appearance.
Alas, I was to be disappointed, first and foremost by the fact that all the ‘daters’ were herded into a far too brightly-lit bar on arrival that was more like being back on the dance floor at school socials than the relaxed and sophisticated soiree with a twist it was billed as. And I chickened out of my Flavia act. Damn. It was all men and women standing uncomfortably on opposite sides of the room, bottles of Becks and glasses of house white in their respective hands, until one brave soul dared to cross the looming divide and introduce themselves to a member of the opposite sex, after which the rest gradually followed with overwhelming relief that they didn’t have to be the first.
Any chance of post-darkness surprise on the appearance front was thus scuppered, and I knew exactly which particular slightly socially inept but perfectly nice bloke I was sat next to once led into the restaurant, (which really was 100% light free).
Not to be deterred, I plodded through various predictable conversations, always hopeful, and apart from anything else, the darkness was pretty incredible. I had a distinctly greater than average amount of fun eating the mystery menu with all the decadent slobbery fingers I liked (cutlery was provided, but quickly given up on – too many forkfuls of nothing).
Still, that’s as naughty as it got, and once the novelty of spilling kangaroo and pureed celeriac on my lap wore off, the fact that conversation was even more stilted than earlier became agonizingly apparent, despite assertions from my neighbours that they felt more confident under the cover of darkness. We’d already done the job/family/hobbies sequence, where could we go from there? Discussions of ‘how weird the dark is! How amazing! How do you feel about it?’ is where. And that certainly won’t get you through an hour and a half, let me tell you. More often than not it was just plain difficult to talk; the greater reliance on hearing meant that volume of chatter increased to unpleasant levels, and lack of eye contact meant that I definitely answered more than a few questions that were not directed at me – embarrassing, but of course no one could see my blushes. Striker.
I’m being harsh. It really wasn’t that bad, and everyone there was varyingly nice, interesting, attractive, etc and some of them I even genuinely clicked with. Fulo the former student of chemistry and pharmaceuticals turned bingo hall manager was great fun, as was Paulo, dapper Italian silver fox at large, complete with deep tan, open shirt, hairy chest, fitted waistcoat and red ‘party’ trousers.
But still, I couldn’t help wondering what exactly the appeal of these dating events was. The answer given without fail by my fellow guests, very nearly all of whom had speed dated more than once before, was that it was ‘a fun evening out’, which ‘no-one takes too seriously’, and is ‘a great way to meet new people’. You can’t deny the latter, as inevitably, if you go, you will meet some, if not all, of the other 30 odd people there. The real question is whether you meet anyone you actually like. And of course, this is down to chance. Jill, an accountant for whom speed dating had previously produced a four month long relationship, readily accepted that there would naturally be ‘a lot of duds’, but maintained that willingness and an open mind would eventually yield success. Hmm.
As I made my exit at the reasonable hour of 10.30pm, I suddenly felt guilty for judging them all. I had been sociable enough throughout, but still secretly harboured my sense of superiority over those for whom organised dating is an idea of fun. Surely your own friends would do a far better job of entertaining you, or at least at choosing someone suitable to do it for them? But then again, I am clearly not the target audience – even they probably think that 19 year-old students shouldn’t really need help finding someone to bump and grind with (although I’m not so sure – Oxford can be a barren land) – and I certainly don’t have such a busy and stressful work life as they clearly did.
Indeed, there’s a reason why ‘the dating industry is absolutely huge’, as the lovely Jenny and Nicola of SlowDating explained to me, and that is the mere fact of modern life. All work and barely any play makes efficiency the key. We all know that there’s no supply where there isn’t demand, and delegating our love lives to computers and professionals, though perhaps unromantic, is really very practical in terms of sheer probability if nothing else.
So. Organised dating. Entirely understandable, but fun? Really? Not an evening of UNfun exactly, but only ever mildly amusing, and I don’t think that was on account of my relative youth – I’m sure banal small talk will still be banal small talk in fifteen years time, even if I’m more practiced at it. And as Paulo (the only other speed dating virgin there) pointed out to me, nowadays, in this world of instant gratification, where we don’t take the time to get to know people before dismissing them out of hand, it is rather ironic that we have turned so readily to speed dating as the answer. Perhaps we should simply learn to be more comfortable with being alone, or at least just hope and pray that your friends never run out of people to set you up with.