Book Lovers Seek Lovers, Buttered or Plain
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.
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.
David Rose, the London Review’s advertising director, has compiled some of his favorite ads into a book, “They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books,” which is being published in the United States by Scribner The title borrows from an actual ad, placed by a 46-year-old male physicist.
Mr. Rose knew that something unusual was going on, he said, when the very first ad he received, after starting the column in 1998, began: “67-year-old disaffiliated flâneur picking my toothless way through the urban sprawl, self-destructive, sliding towards pathos, jacked up on Viagra and on the lookout for a contortionist who plays the trumpet.”
The column has resulted in at least two children and four marriages. (One already ended in divorce.) But some ads are more effective than others.
One recent advertiser identified himself as a 61-year-old laryngologist and amateur taxidermist looking for a woman with whom to share, among other things, dancing and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The ad has not been a great success. When he writes the next one, the advertiser told a reporter via e-mail, “I will possibly drink less wine.”
More conventional ads are not notably successful, either. After placing an ad calling herself “gentle, curvy, tactile, educated and funny,” one regular advertiser, calling herself Susan W., heard from one man who bragged that he was free of infection — “I did not get the feeling he was trying to be funny,” she said — and another who announced that he lived without electricity in the woods, in a house made from trees he had chopped down himself.
David Rose, the advertising director of the London Review of Books, has compiled his favorite personal ads.
She changed tactics and wrote another ad saying, “I’ve got a mouth on me that can peel paint off walls, but I can always apologize.”
“That got a lot of responses from alcoholics,” she said in an interview.
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.”)
In an e-mail exchange also conducted on condition that her name not be used, the woman, a 38-year-old local government arts official with an interest in Bismarck, said she been inspired by a disastrous experience with a date who announced over the tiramisu that he called his private parts “Asquith,” after the World War I prime minister.
“I’m fairly easygoing, but I specifically didn’t want another dessert-spoiler,” she said, explaining that the only thing she could think of worse than a wartime prime minister was a pre-Weimar German chancellor.
For a spell, many ads inexplicably made reference to the 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. Lots of people talk about their bad divorces. “My favorite Ben & Jerry’s is Acid-Boiled Bones of Divorce Lawyer,” says one ad.
Then there are the advertisers who ham up the single-loser clichés: women who live with cats, men who live with their mothers, crazed rejectees who seem to see “Fatal Attraction” as a source of handy breakup tips. “Tell me I’m pretty, then watch me cling,” one woman warns, cheerfully.
This being Britain, there is also a fair percentage of men seeking women who suggest that, actually, they may well be seeking other men.
One man in the current issue describes himself as “camp as custard.” Another ad reads, in its entirety: “I wrote this ad to prove I’m not gay. Man, 29. Not gay. Absolutely not.”