It had been nearly six months of telling my cousin that I would be his wing-woman on a random escapade to either find him a nice girlfriend- or at least open up the possibilities. But London is the desert of dating. So bad, that nearly 30% of new couples meet online. “Save a boyfriend for a rainy day- and another, in case it doesn’t rain,” said Mae West. But are all potential suitors circulating cyber space, asking people out by winking at them through their online avatar?
While researching East London’s The Book Club, for another piece entirely, Last Night A Speed Date Changed My life popped up on their events list. Could this be a more successful matchmaking scheme? I phone my cousin immediately. His hot new girlfriend is just across town, sitting at an empty table with a score card and his name on it. He’s game, and so we book ourselves in. But after the weekend I suddenly slump, unable to muster the appropriate mindset for the opposite of what I really want to do: put on soft clothes, play low music, talk to no-one. Speed dating on a Monday night!? The dread is akin to an approaching job interview when, so unprepared and exhausted, ‘hello’ is a mere squeak that disturbs my equilibrium. I want to bolt. The idea had become an abstract notion, an enabler of my cousin’s romantic life, and I forgot that I had to speed date too.
What is the etiquette of speed dating? And what can someone do when they can’t handle the formalities and etiquette of regular dating? And on a Monday?
My cousin picks me up from work, grumpy, exhausted, and already annoyed because I’m late. So we sink something strong in a pub opposite and enter the warm and welcoming Book Club as if we’re heading into battle.
We’re greeted by the friendly Jolene, who takes us down into a basement cluttered with cute, mismatching tables and chairs. The ceiling is a take on Jeff Wall’s Invisible Man, shrouded by a collage of light bulbs. Across the room, a motley crew of men screen us from the bar, the girls the other side. But then Jolene starts talking, her friendly banter gets everyone relaxed. We write our names on stickers and Jolene explains the rules: the girls find a table, on which a bowl of sweets and a few candles have been placed, and the guys then circulate the room. Each time Jolene plays a chiming sound, the men move to the table on their right. Phew! I find a spot at the back of the room and grab my cousin (reluctantly) to join me- not wanting to sit alone while the men sheepishly find their first date. This was a good plan in match-making Andrew, as he always makes me laugh. For the next three minutes, the cackling coming from my table gets the attention of a hot blonde to my left, who doesn’t know that Andrew and I are related. When the chimes sound Andrew shimmies off to meet her, and suddenly a strange man with grey, square hair shakes my hand, sits down and starts a fire-speed chat about all and nothing. For the next few mini-dates I realise that by locking onto one tiny detail, you can pretty much spin a three minute conversation out of anything. I then learn about tweed, swing dance, Disney and a Catholic boss who wants to be a nun: far less tiring than speed-flirting, which is impossible on a Monday night.
Half-time and Andrew and I go for a cigarette outside. Someone has re-written his name tag, so he is now being known as Andy, which couldn’t be funnier. The man who taught me about tweed joins us with an 18th century tobacco pipe, and tells us a bit more about gilding and the intimidating group of girls sitting on a row of tables next to each other. One of them, Andrew chips in, leant over to accuse him of stealing her friend’s wine. This is not the way to speed date.
Second half; another gin and tonic and three more dates, when I spy a rather older gentleman schmoozing his way from table to table with a bowl of nachos. Andrew comes back into view from behind the pillar, slightly hot in the face, speed-date weary, possibly now drunk. The lap is closing. But that’s not before Stuart (with his nachos) pulls the chair around to my side, and we start our last and most surreal date. Weren’t the age brackets mid-twenties to late thirties? When the chiming starts, he slaps me on the thigh and says he’ll catch me at the bar. Now, only one person can slap me on the thigh like that, but then I’m at a speed-dating night: just another one in the mix, playing the game for the sake of my cousin.
There’s the weird intimacy of a stranger, plonking themselves at eye level, to judge and be judged. There’s also the exhausting pretend-flirting and paranoia that your face is speaking your thoughts. But most importantly, and finally, there is the hot blonde… and her friend, who matched Andrew on their ‘wish list’, to be dated again? Maybe a speed date will change his life…