WHO needs poetry, when personal ads are the most democratic art of the modern age?
I haven’t ever written one. But I’m almost regretful about my lack of opportunity, now that I know how pithy and engaging they can be.
My first clue to their potential was a jokey posting -- at least, I thought it was a joke -- by someone called Sharon Walsh, on the website www.cars.cartalk.com. Among Walsh’s “Personal Ads from Ireland” were the following two, my favourites: “Heavy drinker, 35, Cork area, seeks gorgeous woman interested in pints, fags, Glasgow Celtic football club and starting scraps on Patrick Street at three in the morning.” And: “Bitter, disillusioned Kerryman lately rejected by longtime fiancee seeks decent, honest, reliable woman, if such a thing still exists in this cruel world of hatchet-faced witches.”
What an inspired idea, I thought, making up personals that pull no punches. Then along came They Call Me Naughty Lola -- Personal Ads From The London Review of Books (Scribner, CDN $21), a collection of actual ads placed in the literary journal by all kinds of lonely hearts.
It’s so refreshingly British. Most of us North American non-participants in the personals game have stumbled over our native versions of these ads in our haste to get away from something worse. As far as I can tell, they tend to either feature unintelligible acronyms that have to do with obscure slap-and-tickle preferences, or run along the lines of “I’ve been told I’m devastatingly sexy and outrageously brilliant; perhaps only you, James Bond as played by Daniel Craig, can give me all the admiration and excitement I so richly deserve.”
Naughty Lola features none of that sort of rubbish. Instead, it contains beautifully realized comic bytes written by people who have made amusing the reader their primary duty.
“What is your favourite preserved body part?” one advertiser asks. “Mine is the diseased bladder of Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (currently on display in the Scarpa Room in the University of Pavia). This and many more conversation killers available from librarian and failed travel agent, F, 32, Northhampton.”
Another enthuses, “OMG! This magazine is the shizz. Seriously, dudes. Awesome! LOL! Classics lecturer (M, 48). Possibly out of his depth with today’s youth.”
Contrast those endeavours with the following -- a typically brassy “personal” in the New York Review of Books -- for insights into the differences between the American and British national characters. “Slender, toned, pretty widow: athletic, game for adventure, loves taking on challenges both intellectual and outdoors. Soft-spoken, spontaneous, and sociable, with sparkling eyes. Current passions: skiing Black Diamond slopes, hiking, via ferrata climbing in Dolomites, Golden Retrievers, studying languages, primitive hut trips, collecting nature’s edible foods (berries, mushrooms), Yo-Yo Ma, New Zealand. Seeks educated, active man, 55–72.”
Unlike the Americans, the British prefer to undersell. Ergo, “Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle-aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible.”
Personal ads first made their appearance in the “LRB” in 1998. David Rose, the editor of Naughty Lola, is the publication’s advertising director. He claims in his introduction that the first letter he received came from a man “on the look-out for a contortionist who plays the trumpet.”
His contributors don’t bother with physical descriptions, unless it’s by way of insulting themselves. Their nerves and other health issues are a more popular subject, along with their most unusual personality quirks. “To some, I am a world of temptation. To others, I’m just another cross-dressing pharmacist,” writes one participant of indeterminate gender.
The adjective “edgy” is especially popular among females. One who sounds edgy but doesn’t admit to it writes, “Tired of being patronized by the ads in this column? Then I’m not the woman for you, little man. Today you may be benighted and insignificant, tomorrow you will be more so. Now off you go.”
Male advertisers in the LRB like to throw a little braggadocio into the mix, for balance. “Behold the Polymath of Love,” writes one. “Don’t get too near, though, because you’ll trigger my nervous asthma.”
“I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out and covered in too much tahini,” another shakily cocky advertiser announces.
Some, however, use the gross-out as a come-on. “You’ll regret replying to this ad -- its owner smells of peas,” one entry warns. “But if you too live in a care home where the quality of the shower water is poor and access to the bath hoist is determined by an inadequate monthly rotation schedule, then write to flaky 72-year-old man with no recollection of where any of these stains have come from.”
Some contributors are even franker about their sense of worth, as is evident in this ad: “The uncomfortable mantle of guilt, the heavy cloak of ignominy, the coarse socks of denial, the iridescent trousers of doubt, the belligerent underpants of self-loathing. All worn by the haberdasher of shame (M, 34).”
But there’s just a soupcon of defensiveness in “Married, divorced, married, divorced, but that doesn’t mean there’s a pattern developing. Optimistic lad, mid-50s ….”
Greed is one thing few of Naughty Lola’s personal ad-writers appear to be ashamed of. For instance, “Your buying me dinner doesn’t mean I’ll have sex with you. I probably will have sex with you, though. Honesty not an issue with opportunistic male, 38.”
There seems to be a preponderance of sci-fi enthusiasts contributing to the LRB personals (about whom I am politely not going to make any jokes). “This ad is the final phase in my plan to conquer the earth,” one of them confides. “Man, 41, seeks puppet-like trillionaire F with vast army and intergalactic fleet, ready to hand over total control of affairs. Must also enjoy canasta and be a non-smoking vegetarian.”
Scientists and mathematicians also prevail in the LRB -- likewise, dodgy characters, one of whom begins his ad: “Must all the women in my life take the witness stand?”
Meanwhile, some seek points for their avoidance of certain professions, like the guy who crows, “I am not an accountant. (Write to) box no. 7542.”
Like him, other LRB correspondents simply want to tell it like it is. Such must be the case with “Grave disappointment all round would like to meet serious mistake in a nightie.”
In case you were wondering, none of the above ads is still active. I hope that means “Grave disappointment” eventually found his “serious mistake.” I have a feeling that’s a couple I’d like to meet.