Friday, 27 January 2012

Modern Dating

It’s become the defining feature of this blog that I am an embittered, sexless, lonely male prone to crouching in dark corners while clutching a rat-nibbled cauliflower with a smiley face drawn on with marker pen. The ugly truth is that, surrogate vegetable friend aside, I am far from alone. It seems that in the modern age, thousands of us are struggling to find the companionship that Disney films insist we require. And as the modern age rises up to meet this challenge with a swathe of alternatives to the traditional candlelit dinner/walk in the park/date rape, are we really helping ourselves, or setting ourselves up for a future of dysfunction?

Naturally, it’s the Internet that has stepped into the breach to shore up our dating woes. Without it showing me my very first pornographic photograph at the age of twelve, I might not even today know what a naked woman looks like. Unfortunately she was being mounted by a Doberman. And this is the problem with the Internet. Since its inception, misfits and social inepts have lurked around every virtual corner ready to pick your pocket or ejaculate on your shoe. How can you trust that any potential partner to which the Internet introduces you will not burn down your home and wear your scrotum as a coin purse? It’s only natural that, sooner or later, like an exasperated mother kicking her adult son onto the street and changing the locks, the Internet should try and foist these undesirables onto somebody else.

So what are the options? Online dating seems most prevalent. And amid the lurid softcore animations of uniformed lovers or unregistered sex offenders strumming the ukulele on train stations, it’s eHarmony that sets itself apart as the most successful (success presumably derived from number of dating site subscribers dredged from the nation’s canals, on average). eHarmony claims that it really gets to know you before matching you with a potential life partner. How well can an automated survey get to know you to be trusted with such a decision?

Beyond basic information, it asks me to rate my physical appearance based on my own, and what I imagine to be my friends’, impressions. The most recent comment I’ve received from the opposite sex is ‘weirdly tall.’ This isn’t an option. As for my friends, the survey isn’t too keen on letting me select ‘oversized sarcastic whinging prick.’ In the end I choose ‘Healthy.’ My matches won’t see that rash until it’s too late to turn back anyway.

After a never-ending parade of multiple choice options (none of which really describe me), from hobbies through to religion and moral fibre, the eHarmony gurus riffle through their pages of lovelorn women and throw up my closest matches. I have two.

-           Lindsey, 23, Nottingham.
Most Grateful For: The Twilight Saga.
Can’t Live Without: Wheetos cereal.

-          Denise, 26, London.
Religion: Devout Practitioner of Wicca.

Gee, eHarmony, you really worked out what I look for in a gal. It’s encouraging to know that soul mates really do exist.

Other alternatives include speed-dating, which, having survived against the odds outside of sit-coms, offers me the opportunity to be rendered mute and humiliated in the face of 25 women rather than the occasional one. On Freeview television the Rabbit and Gay Rabbit channels throw up an interminable gallery of men sucking in their guts, overweight women hiding behind doors or generous camera flashes, the sexually confused bewigged and slathered with more make-up than a pig in a testing lab. The archaic personal newspaper ad has so refined itself as to be the closest we’ve yet come to Orwell’s Newspeak. How much can you learn about someone from ‘Piers Morgan lkl wl2m sub bbw 4 fs rts dp dv da mbm’?

Impersonal dating is still a nascent method. It was reported recently that it’s now possible to hire an online dating personal shopper to do the legwork for you, like a smack-addled rock star thumbing through the latest Playboy. To put it simply, it makes me sad. These are lonely people setting aside what pride they have left to them in search of happiness. It makes me sad because I want every single one of them to succeed. It makes me sad because, unless something changes, it’ll be me putting aside my cauliflower companion and seeking love in the virtual world. And that’s something I hoped I’d never have to do.  

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Music vs. Books. vs. Life.

I’ve been asked a lot lately (by myself) which I would pick in one of those contrived life or death situations upon which all of life’s trivial decisions seem to hang: which would you pick, music or books? As a man who frequently thumps his fat hands repeatedly against a keyboard to make words, it might be assumed that my default answer is ‘BOOKS MOTHERFUCKER.’ But just before the hypothetical gun-wielding master of reality can place the barrel against music’s head and pull the trigger, I suddenly imagine life without Pink Floyd. And that throws the whole issue wide open.

Music has the uncanny ability to penetrate life at every level. There’s the obvious one, like the CDs you buy, the downloads you steal, the X Factor singles you fumble desperately with the remote to avoid. Even for the quarter hour or so a day you’re not plugged into your iPod/iPhone/iLung those birds be chirping, those radios be playing, those feet be tapping. Even the click-click of a car’s indicator soon turns itself into a beat (don’t tell Rihanna or she’ll ruin that too).

Perhaps most poignantly, music ties itself to our memories in a way that books don’t. Everyone remembers the first record/tape/CD they went out and bought (mine was The Smurfs Go Pop. Don’t judge). Do you remember the first book you ever read? Chances are it was a right-wing didactic doctrine insistent upon the assertion that cows go moo. Maybe there’s a reason we’ve forgotten.

Remember what you were listening to around the time you got your first job? I had finally properly discovered The Beatles, and spent my 2-hour journey into and across Basingstoke rinsing everything from Rubber Soul to Let It Be. When my bus started passing roads called ‘Lennon Way’ and ‘McCartney Walk’ I feared for my sanity. Remember what you were listening to around the time you had your first serious crush? Blackfield had just released its second album. With the right earphone broken, I trudged home through Winchester in the rain after delivering a homemade Valentine’s card that would go unanswered. What song do you associate with that girl who you never quite managed to win over? ‘The World is Yours’ by Caravan.

(Listening to Caravan might be why I never managed to win her over).

Now, tell me what book you were reading during these rites of passage. It’s a little more difficult, isn’t it?

Reading a good book tends to be a more insular experience. While music blares away as a background to housework or masturbation, reading demands your attention. You settle down in a quiet moment and lose yourself to it. You snatch a chapter on a bus journey to distract you from the smell of the other passengers. Those moments remain self-contained. I read The Magus on a 9-hour Megabus journey from Leeds to Southampton. I read The Shining in year seven literacy class just to spite my teacher who didn’t believe I could. I read endless Peanuts comic strip collections at my Grandma’s house because the unusual bedroom made me too scared to sleep. From these memories I can piece together by association what was happening in my life, but the books in no way come to personify it. The experiences become fond memories in themselves.

This is where some kind of conclusive point should arrive. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen, as when I set out to write this the whole music vs. books conjecture was merely intended as a framing device for my more wayward personal memories. I’m sure there are countless people out there ready to disprove my theory with a shout of ‘Whenever I reread American Psycho I remember my days as a marauding axe murderer!’ Luckily those people will never see this blog and are hopefully in jail.

A conclusion... well, in line with social convention, let’s just say that if someone ever holds a gun to my face and screams ‘MUSIC OR BOOKS!’ I’ll lower my head further into my book to avoid the weirdo, and won’t hear the snap of the trigger through the Iron Maiden blasting in my ears.

Sunday, 1 January 2012


It’s 6am, I’ve been awake for 24 hours, and I’m deep into a table tennis tournament with five homeless men. When I stepped up to the table I’d anticipated a comfortable victory. Like all the cool kids, ping pong is my game. As I tocked the opening serve over the net, I wondered if I should take a dive. After all, these guys are homeless, and as a volunteer it wouldn’t look good to school them in the art of miniaturised court sports. The decision is abruptly snatched out of my hands. My opponent, an overweight man in his forties who sleeps under a footbridge, blasts the ball full pelt into my crotch.

Running into the Forrest Gump of homeless men is hardly the first surprise of my few night shifts volunteering at the Crisis at Christmas rough sleepers centre. I arrived expecting a few damp-damaged rooms filled with thirty-or-so steel-framed beds and a close-knit crew of insomniac volunteers to ladle out tea and soup come morning. Instead the centre is spread across three floors of a disused office building and kitted out with a cafeteria, computers, a DVD area, giant chess and Jenga, and anything else to keep the sleepless guests distracted through the night. There are around 100 volunteers (which means over the course of my shifts about 100 conversations for me to make awkward) to look after 400 rough sleepers. The sleeping floors resemble makeshift field hospitals with their endless rows of camp beds and variety of troubling smells.

Throughout the night, as I move from post to post (and desperately avoid toilet duty), I meet guest after guest who seem to be competing in their efforts to defy my expectations.

I meet Marius, who, despite sleeping in a Kingston car park for the past 3 months, endlessly praises the virtues of England over his native Poland. Jobs there? ‘No good.’ Food there? ‘No good.’ Nice scenery? ‘No no no.’ A stolen passport prevents him from finding work or claiming benefits. He’s a qualified engineer. From his grubby raincoat he pulls out receipts for scrap metal that’s paid for his pair of smart phones charging under the table. Why two phones, Marius? A wide grin opens up beneath his moustache. ‘Because this is England!’

John, not much older than me and completely blind, engages me in a conversation about Bret Easton Ellis and J.G. Ballard too intellectual to follow at 3 o clock in the morning. Although his fondness for the debauched use of Habitrail hamster tubing in American Psycho frightens me a little, his critical insight into his reading (or rather, the few audio books stocked at his dependency centre) outstrips any university student I’ve ever taught in my classes.

Later on there’s Kris, who perseveres for what feels like hours in teaching me to make paper aeroplanes (I still can’t do it. Don’t tell him). At 4.30am he follows me on my outside duty with a kite composed of toilet roll tubes, cling film, and a long spool of decorative ribbon. We try repeatedly to get it airborne in the freezing wind blowing off the Thames docks until finally it swings down past my face like an axe and crumples on the car park tarmac. Kris deems it my fault and compares me to Charlie Brown. Later he tells me he made the kite because he’s frightened to go to sleep.

After all, these fun moments don’t paint a full picture. There’s the man who suffers an alcoholic fit and is taken away in an ambulance. Dylan (named after his Bob Dylan t-shirt) paces the car park for much of the night screaming at people only he can see. While I’m supervising a sleeping floor, one of the guests jerks awake and asks me, ‘Have you ever seen a dead alcoholic?’ It’s a tough question to deal with at 5.30am. He doesn’t go back to sleep, and begs me to stay near him.

Stereotypes of homeless people are no good here. Not only are they real people dealing with poverty, illness, and addiction, but they’re also struggling to align themselves with the rest of society. All over the centre phone chargers trail from electrical sockets. Guests pace through the night with headphones and Bluetooth headsets clamped to their ears. Every screen in the computer area is logged into Facebook or playing the latest YouTube video of an unfortunate looking cat.

One volunteer, this her fourth consecutive year, puts it into perspective. ‘Everyone is just one bad decision away from losing it all. It only takes one crisis.’ Gazing bleary-eyed along the rows of camp-beds, it’s difficult not to wonder what bad decisions brought all these people to this place.

The sun’s on its way up, and the first planes of the day are roaring what feels like inches overhead to land at London City Airport. I battle back from 4 match-points down to win the first table tennis game, then lose in the next round. As he celebrates with his friends, I shake the victor’s hand and make him a promise. I’ll be back tomorrow for a rematch.  

(He beat me again)