I should never have agreed to go on this date.
It’s a Saturday in late January, and I’m on my way to a 4pm coffee at Momo, the Moroccan bar and restaurant in Heddon Street. It feels like a chore: the Facebook instant message conversation I’ve had that morning with my friend Anoushka records that “I can’t be bothered” because “he looks short and unattractive. I just feel like lounging around at home in my PJs.”
I’m about to learn an important lesson in online dating. If you don’t fancy the idea of your date from his profile, or at least think you might be capable of fancying him, there is no point whatsoever in meeting. Whilst we all know looks don’t matter and it’s the person inside that counts, it is sort of essential that you fancy your partner, at least in the beginning. However, this lesson is yet to come and if you’re following The Rules, you go out even if you don’t feel like it. A desire to slob around in your jimjams is not a reasonable excuse to duck out: you won’t meet Mr Right while sprawled on the sofa with a packet of biscuits and a Big Bang Theory triple bill!
My date is a 41-year old who teaches a creative writing course at Oxford and is a “commercially successful novelist”. I’ve agreed to meet him because whilst I haven’t been bowled over by his profile picture, he has a nice smile, and even if we’re not wildly attracted to each other I figure we’ll have something to talk about: my degree was in English and I love books. I’m curious to meet a real-life novelist.
Over the course of a few emails, he’d revealed that he “does thrillers for Harper Collins”. Why, thrillers were my all-time favourite genre to relax with! I’d been reading a bit of Sue Grafton lately! He’d never heard of Sue Grafton. Hmm, bit surprising for a thriller writer (if you like crime novels and have never read any of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, then you should).
He’d asked what else I liked apart from Dickens (my Match profile has David Copperfield down as my favourite book – unoriginal but true). He thought Russian literature was “the most consistently good” that he’d read. I’d never read any. Unless Lolita counted? It did not. Oh, what about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons? I read a bit of that as research for a Henry James dissertation. He had to say he wasn’t a big fan of Turgenev. He reckoned the best book ever written was Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. I’d never even heard of Grossman. Oops.
Okay so we weren’t exactly on the same page…literature-wise…but a shared taste in reading material is hardly a vital ingredient in a relationship. He’d emailed a few more times and I had been about to give up on him (remembering the Four Email Rule – if he hasn’t asked you out after four emails, it’s Next!) when he suggested the date. He’d described Heddon Street as “a tiny little street that they have called the Regent Street Food Quarter in a grandiloquent attempt to give it some French ambiance, which doesn’t really work but at least it’s quiet…Momo is concealed behind a thicket of bamboo and a cloud of smoke from hookahs, I’ll be in the bar to the left of the main restaurant.”
Ah, clever. He’s showing me he’s a novelist instead of just telling me!
I’d never been to Momo before, but it got good reviews online and it sounded interesting. I wasn’t familiar with the ‘Food Quarter’. I love getting to know these places in London through my dates!
So, to get back to Saturday. I arrive at Heddon Street and realise it’s that newish pedestrianised bit where Strawberry Moons, scene of certain low-brow nights out with the girls, is located. I make it to Momo, which is pretty amazing considering the impenetrable thicket of bamboo I have to force my way through, and as for the cloud of hookah smoke – CALL AN AMBULANCE I’M SUFFERING FROM SMOKE INHALATION (translation: a single row of pot-bound bamboo canes and one customer puffing on a hubbly bubbly).
I’m dreading meeting him even more now. But Catnip, I tell myself firmly, the odd flight of purple prose can happen to anybody. You’re not an intellectual snob (there’s Dickens, yes, but also Sweet Valley Confidential) so put all thoughts of bamboo forests and fruit-scented clouds out of your mind. My mind, though distracted by a train of thought that has already reached the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland by way of an improbable ‘Nam movie featuring Catnip hacking through dense bamboo – somehow manages to obey. I find my date in the cafe section – which is charming, to be fair – and…have to force myself not to stare.
In front of me is some of the most ludicrous hair I’ve ever seen. It has grown since his profile picture was taken: upwards, outwards and backwards. It is brushed back in the Heseltinian style, but grown too long and big and bob-like (and say what you like about Michael Heseltine, he could sort of pull off his hairdo). It’s basically a grey version of this:
[Warning: Scary Scrolldown!!!]
Who’s distracted by caterpillars now?
When I was at school, it was the Nineties and plain, flat hair was in fashion. I had one friend whose hair tended towards the bushy, and whenever she thought she’d fluffed it up too much she would wail “It’s a Bouffant Beast! Bouffant Beast!”
The Grey Bouffant Beast sitting opposite me is the kind of ‘do of which any 75-year old dowager would be proud, and I just cannot get over it. I don’t want to offend him so I focus on anything else I can: the table, his corduroy jacket, the wall behind.
The first thing GBB does is tell me he attended a book launch the previous evening for a friend of a friend’s new Holocaust memoir. He’s been reading the book while waiting for me to arrive, and it is open on the table when I sit down. He picks it up, flips a page and shoves it under my nose. “Read the paragraph I’ve highlighted”, he demands, “Isn’t it just so extremely powerful?” Um, okay. I read it. I have no context whatsoever. “Er, yes, really powerful, gosh” I say. I must admit, I’d been dreading the awkward first greeting, but I hadn’t factored the Holocaust into my dread calculations and I’m not entirely thrilled with the tone the date is taking so far.
Blanking out those images of Belsen and Auschwitz that always hijack the imagination in these situations, I try and steer the conversation on to the happier subject of writing more generally. I am keen to find out about his novel-writing/creative writing teaching career. However, it transpires his day job is as an English teacher in a girls’ school in West London, the creative writing gig being a part-time thing he’d only just begun. He writes his novels in the school holidays.
Oh lord. Great that he teaches English to teenagers, but if that’s his main job why didn’t he say so before? I find his concealment of his real job, whilst advertising what he presumably believes is his more glamorous sideline, desperate; and it also makes me wonder what else he’s not mentioned.
I ask whereabouts in London he lives and he answers ‘The Bushhhhh’, whilst nodding in a too-cool-for-school type manner. He stops short of saying ‘oh yeah’ at the end but it lingers, unspoken, in the air. Er, that would be Shepherd’s Bush?
He manages to drop in the name of his old (independent) school. I’m sorry, but 41 is too old to offer this sort of information up on a first meeting. Tell me at some point, by all means, when we’re looking through old photo albums at your mum’s house. But there’s a hint of snobbery in the way he brings it up, as if he’s trying to impress me, or worse, show his social superiority. I feel more embarrassed for him than ever.
Some fairly typical Painful Date Conversation ensues. It can be a bad sign when conversation topics move to music and movies: sometimes when you start mining these generic areas, it’s because you’ve got nothing else in common. We chat about The Artist and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both of which I’ve recently seen. “Maybe film is your medium,” Grey Bouffant Beast states ostentatiously.
I mention I’d also like to see The Iron Lady, “because Meryl Streep is supposed to be really good in it” (she’s just been nominated for the Oscar). I swear, the trajectory of my conversation is heading towards I had a faaarm in Aaaafricaaaa. Instead however, amid much huffing and head-shaking, Grey Bouffant Beast whips out his anti-Thatcher credentials straight away. He doesn’t know about me but he lived through the Eighties and he’s not a fan.
Um, I thought we were talking about the Oscars?
“Well,” I say, “I didn’t agree with her politics. But as a woman and -”
And then I say it. The F word guaranteed to cause offence on a first date and one that I would never have employed, had I any interest at all in GBB:
” – as a feminist, I admire her.”
Even as I say the F word, I am conscious that I am effectively ruining the date (or at least destroying such salvageable elements as existed). This is interesting in itself, and I shall come back to it later.
The Grey Bouffant Beast’s reaction could hardly be more righteously indignant than if he’d been a Daily Express reader canvassed on the subject of immigration. He takes it as a personal insult.
He demands, in no uncertain terms – and with no apparent sense of irony – if I know what feminism is. Then he wants to know exactly what I mean by it, and not in an interested, enquiring way but in a ‘don’t be so stupid’ way. “Well,” I say, shrugging, “That men and women are equal.” He shoots me a withering look and says ‘That’s what everyone believes’.
Oh, honey. Oh, sweetie.
Somewhat surprised, I say ‘Well, no, unfortunately they don’t’. I say this almost apologetically – I haven’t come here to have an argument and I want to show reasonableness. He has the nerve to demand, incredulity dripping from every pore, if I’ve ever experienced rampant sexism. Kind of like asking a black person if they’ve ever experienced racism. When I say “yes”, he doesn’t believe me and demands to know where!
“In the workplace, for example. In virtually every other culture outside of our own.” In this conversation…
I’m not suggesting I live in the 1950s or anything. But I’ve definitely come across sexism in the workplace and in other cultures, and in certain other situations. I’m guessing he’ thinks of himself as a liberal-minded guy who’s anti-sexism, anti-racism and anti-whatever else, and is not really conscious that sexism still exists. But if that’s the case, why not just say you’re surprised? Or ‘Gosh, I have to say I’ve never heard any of my female friends say that. Until this date I had know idea sexism still existed.’ Or even, ‘I’m sorry that you’ve experienced that.’
(Bear in mind the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Don’t look at the hair! Don’t look at the hair!’).
In everything I’ve said, I’ve been trying to sound as self-deprecating as possible, contorting my facial features into “I’m so sorry, this is a frightful bore isn’t it?’ grimaces, to cushion the fact that we are disagreeing and in the hope that he’ll calm down a bit. Grey Bouffant Beast is too ridiculous to make me angry. I’m just…dumb-founded. Next he lectures me about how actually Margaret Thatcher was anti-feminist and made it more difficult for other women to follow in her footsteps. “Well, maybe,” I say with another shrug, “But, you know, before Margaret Thatcher, people said a woman couldn’t do the job because of periods and stuff.”
Why can’t people just get that this is what feminism boils down to? I noted that I wouldn’t normally want to sabotage a date by using the F word. But why do I have to assume that if I make the smallest reference to feminism, I might as well announce that I’m a militant man-hater with no sense of humour who’s stuck in the Seventies? (Which, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not). It’s exhausting. And anyway, is it me, or can a real man handle a bit of light feminism? I haven’t recited the complete works of Camille Paglia at him, I’ve just acknowledged that the first female prime minister of Britain was a landmark achievement for women. Didn’t realise that was a controversial viewpoint. And incidentally, if it’s your viewpoint, then – as Caitlin Moran would say – that makes you a feminist too. For crying out loud, if I say ‘I’m a feminist’ to a man, it’s not the same as saying, ‘You are sexist’. Apparently, we have equality now so its churlish to make men feel guilty by claiming any men treat women as less than equals. Apparently, if I make this claim, it’s because I don’t really understand all the issues and I need a scapegoat – men – for all the problems in my life. Apparently, it’s out of the question that I could possibly have come to a reasoned position based on my own experience.
Anyway, rant over. To get back to the date. I’m about to start making excuses to leave when he unexpectedly orders a cocktail, despite the fact that I’ve declined to join him in one and it’s only 4.45pm (Come on, could this guy be ANY WEIRDER?). I somehow manage to sit through his drink, making small-talk whilst avoiding looking at his hair. The large Boden label on the inside of his corduroy jacket is making me feel queasy. Never mind the hair and the paradoxical sexism: I don’t think I can go out with a man who catalogue shops.
I manage to navigate the conversation away from sexual politics and back on to his work. What’s his next thriller going to be about? “It’s a political thriller set in the DRC”, he explains.
Oh goody! Another book about some white guy’s adventures among the shady coltan dealers and corrupt local officials, by some bloke who’s never set foot on the continent. Remind me not to read any book set in Congo in the near future. Outwardly though, I just say “I’ll have to look out for it in Waterstones!”
Finally, after what seems an eternity, we leave Momo. We walk back down Heddon Street together towards Regent Street. “Strawberry Moons,” he murmurs speculatively as we walk past. “Strawberry Moons,” I concur, “Good times!” He’s interested. “Really, what’s it like?” “Well, it’s just this cheesy, tacky nightclub. Lots of hen parties, that sort of thing”. “Oh fantastic”, he says enthusiastically, “I love hen parties!” It’s a slightly odd comment. I try to think of anyone less welcome than he would be at the average hen do. I’m struggling.
Then, thank the baby Jesus, I’m finally rid of him. It’s been quite an ordeal and I feel jittery and a little like crying. Reader, I walk down Regent Street and buy a pair of boots. They make me feel a bit better, but on my way home I start to get rather down. The phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ springs to mind when I think of this never-ending quest to find a partner.
But then I think back over the date and start laughing. And laughing. And laughing til I cry.
Amazingly, a few days later I get a text from the Grey Bouffant Beast asking if I’d like to go out again. Seriously? What part of the date does he think went well? Suffice it say I turn him down.
But that’s in the future. The next day is Sunday and I have another 4pm coffee date. He’s also a writer, of an unspecified kind, and is 42. It’s hard to tell what he’ll be like, but at least there is no hint of pretentiousness in any of his communications (further important lesson in online dating: if someone seems like a pretentious twit in their profile and in their emails, then they are probably a pretentious twit in real life).
Will Bachelor No 2 be an improvement? Keep following my blog and find out!
TTFN Cat xxx