About half way into my first foray into speed-dating this week I reached the table of a man who with the resigned misery of a conscript on the Western Front said, before he said anything else, “I don’t want to be here”. What a flirt. None of us wanted to be there, is the comeback I should have reassured him with. We’d all like to meet the love of our lives in a bookshop or at a bus stop or after embarrassing ourselves at a social gathering, but life, it transpires, simply isn’t scripted by Richard Curtis.
Yet even the sight of my supremely uncomfortable suitor endeavouring to contract himself into his chair could not persuade me to proffer such comforting disillusionment. For truth be told, by the time I’d reached his table I was actually very happy to be there.
This was not how the evening was supposed to play out. I was meant to be the dejected one, the shy one, the one whose conviction of the utter futility of it all was to be roundly confirmed. For of all the things in this world which I hold in cynical regard – politicians, tabloids, supermarket salads, dishwashers – I have always reserved my severest scorn for that most unscrupulous of phenomenon: the dating industry. A leech that feeds off the hopes of single people, a monster that hears of a mass of loneliness and sees only a bottomless pot of money. Yes, I have heard of successful speed dating stories; but people also meet at parties, at classes, at work and simply by chance, and in my desire to belong purely to the latter category I have always rejected the former. Until this week. For this is a year for trying new things, and in particular new things I would never ordinarily do.
So, I swallowed my cynicism, put on my best-but-not-too-over-the-top dress, and headed out to have a thoroughly horrible evening.
But it was thoroughly enjoyable.
For my ‘dates’, of which there were eighteen lasting four minutes each, by and large fell into one of two categories: they were either so genuinely pleasant that a four minute chat was by no means a hardship. Or they were so unaccountably odd that meeting them proved, in hindsight if not in the moment, amusing.
There was for instance the man who did not think it inappropriate to ask me quite personal questions about my dating history after knowing me for all of 180 seconds. Or the man who, with the attentive authority of a GCSE examiner, required I write down his name and number on my card before he began conversing with me. Or the man whose character-defining question was: “If you were a piece of farmyard machinery, what would you be?” Momentarily flummoxed, perhaps it was my prayer for death to save me from this conversation that brought the grim reaper to mind. For I answered that I would be scythe, as I am old-fashioned and sharp. “Are you interested in farming?” I naturally then asked him. “No” was the answer.
These are only the most bizarre cases. With most of the other men I had perfectly nice, sometimes funny, sometimes surprisingly deep conversations. In four minutes I managed to discuss the philosophy of Tolstoy with one suitor, lament the under-appreciation of Robert Musil with another, and discover a mutual intolerance to cheese with a third. I found the last date particularly revelatory; having not eaten cheese for five years, the instant affinity I felt for someone who understood my frustration with the cheese-obsession of sandwich makers and non-Asian chefs everywhere was nothing short of deep and joyous.
In sum, my experience of one evening leads me to conclude that four minutes is perfectly sufficient to make your mind up about the potentiality of a suitor. You know as soon as you look at a man whether or not you could be physically attracted to him. The first minute is enough to realise whether you have anything of mutual interest to talk about. And four is more than enough to make each other laugh, or think, or alternatively to start praying for the bell to shepherd you on to the next date.
I therefore came away with the unexpected conviction that this is a good and very efficient way of meeting – and writing off – men, and embarrassment at my former contrary beliefs shall not prevent me from recommending it to others. I can almost guarantee you’ll come away with a match – unless there is something diabolically peculiar about you – for after taking the plunge and paying over £20 for the privilege, all attendees are determined to get at least one real date out of it. And if by the end of the evening you’re doubtful of anyone you liked liking you in return, you could always emulate the strategy of one girl who told me she was going to “tick every box and hope”.
I have in fact only one piece of cautionary advice for future speed-daters: to avoid conflict, do not tick the same suitors as your friends. In fact, do not go with friends at all. Having witnessed the fall-out of two women liking the same dress, I shudder to imagine the irredeemable consequences of two women taking a fancy to the same man. And good dresses, unlike men, are generally mass-produced.
As for myself, for you are probably curious to know: I am abominably picky when it comes to men and therefore was highly selective in my ticking.
Apparently the men were less picky than I, as a majority of them ticked me.
Including incidentally the poor chap who didn’t want to be there.
But not the man with a farmyard-machinery fixation.
You win some, you lose some.