Via Hey Skipper comes news of a book collecting the notoriously bizarre Lonely Hearts ads placed in the London Review of Books.
Eschewing the standard “GSOH”-style ad, readers of the Literary Review proclaim their attractions with such tempting titbits as: "They call me naughty Lola. Run-of-the-mill beardy physicist (M, 46)” ; or "Employed in publishing? Me too. Stay the hell away. Man on the inside seeks woman on the outside who likes milling around hospitals guessing the illnesses of out-patients. 30-35. Leeds” or "I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest comedown I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34”. And other such stuff.
The New York Times, reviewing the book, is utterly bemused:
LONDON, Nov. 20 — Perhaps only someone from Britain could genuinely believe that a personal ad beginning, “Baste me in butter and call me Slappy,” might lead to romance with an actual, nonincarcerated person.
Mr. Rose’s book lifts some of the stranger ads, which highlight the English obsession with self-deprecation and fear of unironic sentiment.
But in the strange alternate universe that is the personals column in the London Review of Books, a fetish for even the naughtiest dairy product is considered a perfectly reasonable basis for a relationship. Rejecting the earnest self-promotion of most personal ads, the correspondents in the London Review column tend instead to present themselves as idiosyncratic, even actively repellent.
In so many ways, too. The magazine’s lonely hearts have described themselves over the years as shallow, flatulent, obsessive, incontinent, hypertensive, hostile, older than 100, paranoid, pasty, plaid-festooned, sinister-looking, advantage-taking, amphetamine-fueled, and as residents of mental institutions.
They have announced that they are suffering from liver disease, from drug addiction, from asthma, from compulsive gambling, from unclassified skin complaints and from reduced sperm counts. They have insulted prospective partners. As one ad starts, “I’ve divorced better men than you.”
The subtlety (if that is what it is) of these courtship techniques may well be lost on people used to American-model personal ads, in which stunning, good-sense-of-humored characters seek soul mates for walks in the rain and cuddles by the fire. But while the ads in the London Review, a twice-monthly literary journal favored by the British intelligentsia, are weird in the extreme, they are also peculiarly English. This is a country where open bragging is considered rude and unironic sentiment makes people cringe with embarrassment.
Kate Fox, a cultural anthropologist and author of “Watching the English,” compared the London Review personals to an advertising campaign several years ago that showed people recoiling in revulsion from Marmite, the curiously popular gloppy-as-molasses yeast byproduct that functions as a sandwich spread, a snack or a base for soup (just add boiling water).
“An advertising campaign focusing exclusively on the disgust people feel for your product strikes a lot of people as perverse,” Ms. Fox said in an interview. But when Britons exaggerate their faults, she said, they are really telegraphing their attributes. “It does speak of a certain arrogance, that you have the confidence and the sense of humor to say these things,” she said.
Many of the ads reflect the writers’ diverse intellectual interests.
A woman in the current issue, for instance, specifies that she is looking for a man “who doesn’t name his genitals after German chancellors” (not even, the ad says, “Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, however admirable the independence he gave to secretaries of state may have been.”)
…Many ads inexplicably reference writer and professor John Sutherland. Gerald Kaufman, a Labor member of Parliament, and Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, have also been mentioned frequently, for no apparent reason.”
Rather than approaching this one from the angle of English eccentricity/loathing of sentimentality etc, I will instead pay tribute to Skipper by viewing it through the lenses of natural selection.
The London Review of Books is a magazine aimed at an audience of smart, well-read, witty, self-aware people. Therefore to get noticed one has to appear smart, well-read, witty and self-aware.
So once somebody has written a Lonely Heart like: "Not everyone appearing in this column is a deranged cross-dressing sociopath. Let me know if you find one and I'll strangle him with my bra. Man, 56", or "List your ten favourite albums... I just want to know if there's anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35", then soon enough everyone is obliged to follow suit or try to top it, and merely stating that you are cuddly or intellectual or have a GSOH will leave you looking very dull indeed.
Thus the evolution of the Lonely Hearts ad has taken on a life of its own, with its own bizarre rules and in-jokes.