On Love In The Time of Coronavirus…

The Daily Mail

Emily Hill & Hayley Quinn.
Photographs: Lezli + Rose.
Styling: Amy Kester.
Hair & Make-Up: Desmond Grundy.

Love is like a virus,’ U.S. writer Maya Angelou once wrote. ‘It can happen at any time.’

So while a pandemic has driven the vast majority of the population to pillage supermarkets for pasta, turn their bathrooms into fortresses of toilet roll and shun even the most handsome strangers, those of us who realise we are suddenly in danger of dying alone are stepping up our search for love in the age of coronavirus.

According to Dating.com, there’s been a huge increase in online dating as 82 per cent of singles try to find comfort during the crisis, with the countries most severely affected so far — China, the United States, Italy and Spain — experiencing the greatest growth.

Meanwhile, a survey by OKCupid suggests Britain is the third bravest nation when it comes to a willingness to continue going on dates during the contagion at 93 per cent, meaning we’re only slightly less courageous (or desperate) than the French (94 per cent) or the Germans (95 per cent).

‘We know app usage spikes during periods when people stay at home —winter is busier than summer and there’s a spike in early January, after people have been cooped up,’ explains David Vermeulen, CEO and founder of The Inner Circle, an exclusive global dating app. This means the current situation, where we are all likely to be staying at home, is unparalleled.

As festivals, football games and parties get cancelled, it’s boom time for online meeting places such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge. Figures for dating site CLiKD show app use has increased by a quarter and is only set to rise further as those who catch the virus self-quarantine. ‘Users are definitely staying in more, but are still hungry for social interaction,’ Michael Blakeley, CEO and founder of CLiKD adds.

The entire dating landscape is adapting — fast. Tinder greets users with an in-app warning to carry hand sanitiser and practise social distancing: ‘Your wellbeing is our #1 priority . . . While we want you to continue to have fun, protecting yourself from the coronavirus is more important.’

Bumble said on Instagram: ‘It’s time to take dates digital. Right now, we’re committed to powering positive and healthy virtual connections. That means staying safe — and, as much as possible, staying home.’

And Hinge took to Twitter to make this announcement: ‘Please wash your hands before you steal your Hinge date’s fries. It’s OK to “share” fries, but not germs.’

Even the chat-up cliches are being redefined. ‘Searching for a partner in crime’, has been replaced by ‘looking for someone to self-isolate with’.

Terminology is changing, too. ‘Netflix and chill’ used to mean sex. On The Inner Circle, this has been replaced by ‘Coronavirus and chill’ which means you and your date don’t meet. Instead, you pick ‘a TV show or movie to watch together and show your sense of humour by commenting on scenes and opinions on reality shows — it could start a debate, a connection, a relationship . . .’

‘Discouraging human contact and self-isolation is causing people to get creative,’ claims Mr Blakeley. ‘FaceTime dates are becoming a new safe dating trend. We call it “Iso-Dating”.’

Even phone calls may make a comeback. Generation Z may have no idea how to do this, but for those of us who remember dating in the dark ages, there was nothing more exciting than spending hours on the phone with your hot crush.

It’s as if we’ve returned to a kinder, gentler age. Currently, I’m engaged in near-constant text action with a man I went on a single date with just before the Italians went into lockdown. He is making so much more effort to keep in touch than my last actual boyfriend and the messages are caring, romantic and sweet.

Most of the charm lies in his efforts to make me laugh. Yesterday he revealed I was, in fact, dating a millionaire. Then he sent me a photo of the anti-bacterial hand gel he’d found in a drawer.

Like Romeo and Juliet, we’re forbidden from seeing each other which, along with the new sense of our own mortality, adds fragility to our romance: according to figures, as a healthy male in his early 30s, the new guy’s mortality rate is 0.2 per cent; whereas I, in my mid-30s and with chronic asthma, am almost as vulnerable as the elderly at 6 per cent.

Pre-coronavirus, there was a dearth of romance on dating apps. As anyone who has been single for a long time will tell you, the old-fashioned framework of meeting someone in the hope of a committed, loving long-term relationship has been dismantled.

Since Tinder began in 2012, offering a seemingly limitless supply of partners, all a finger-swipe away, short-lived ‘hook-ups’ have became more frequent. In a world in which romantic prospects are as replaceable as anything else you can order on your phone, no one needs to take the time to get to know how wonderful you are.

Yet while coronavirus rages, one-night stands aren’t possible, and we are all having to revive behaviours from a more romantic age. The single women I know love the fact men now have to make more effort. As writer and comedian Kaitlyn McQuin put it: ‘You know who’s really gonna suffer during this social distancing? Dudes on dating apps. Welcome back to courtship . . . We ’bout to get Jane Austen up in here. Now, write me a poem.’

Growing up in rural Norfolk, we had tales of heroism in love. The best centred on village plumber Stan, who rowed a tiny boat to rescue his fiancee, Madge, from the attic of Salthouse post office in the North Sea flood of 1953.

If I come down with the virus and the man I’m texting risks contamination to get me to a hospital, I’ll have something to tell my grandchildren.

Dating guru Camille Virginia suggests that how partners respond to the crisis may sort out the men from the boys.

‘Anyone who remains healthy is able to volunteer — for example grocery shopping for the elderly,’ she tells me. ‘Long-term compatibility between romantic partners is best determined by their shared values, so if you meet someone while you’re both volunteering, you know you both value giving back to people in times of crisis — now that’s a sexy trait.

‘There will be some great “We met during the coronavirus!” partnership stories that come out of this whole situation.’

Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating suggests the pandemic might mean a rise in more meaningful lovemaking and an outbreak of pregnancy: ‘Throughout the history of dating, times of death, disaster and disease have inspired acts of great romantic opportunism.

‘Whether it was wartime weddings conducted on the chance day of a soldier’s leave, or even Samuel Pepys carrying on his adulterous affairs during the Great Plague of London, the desire for human connection intensifies during testing times — which is why we can expect a Covid-19 baby boom in 2021.’

Mr Blakeley says: ‘While we recognise the severity of the situation, it’s typically British stiff upper lip to try to find happiness, even in the darkest of times.’


On an epidemic of Bad Romance


In London, love is dead.

Tinder killed it and Hinge is dancing on its grave. If the classic romcoms were set here today, When Harry Met Sally would be called Sally Never Met Harry (because she swiped right past him). Likewise, Bridget Jones’s Diary would be the tragic tale of a single woman who dies and ends up half eaten by Alsatians (as Darcy’s search filters were set to ‘non-smokers only’). Meanwhile, William Thacker wouldn’t be able to afford a cup of tea in Notting Hill let alone the rent on a bookshop that movie stars wander into — and even if a starlet was standing right in front of him, asking him to love her, he’d be too busy on Bumble to make eye contact.

The impact of dating apps on romance in the capital couldn’t be more catastrophic. If you see someone you like the look of in a bar or on an overcrowded Tube carriage, the absolute last thing you do is strike up a conversation. Being rejected — especially publicly — is not an option for a generation who grew up hiding behind computer screens and you don’t want to be accused of MeToo-ing anyone. Now when you lock eyes with a bona fide sex god/dess, all you can do is hope to God that Happn’s location services will pick them up and they’ll match with you. In London, the best-case scenario, romantically speaking, is to be  asked for your Snap so you can ‘chat’. Hardly a kiss under the clock at Waterloo station. 

In theory, online dating sounds so glorious. With a population of nine million, any single person in the capital should have thousands upon thousands of beautiful strangers whose hearts they could pierce with OKCupid’s arrow. But in practice, it’s bloody horrendous — dating apps don’t facilitate love, just lust. They’re like Deliveroo for satisfying our sexual appetites, so much so that ever increasing numbers of us now see staying celibate while spending more time with our mates as the most desirable thing on the menu — as far as our souls are concerned. For the whole of my 30s, I’ve been ‘benched’, ‘breadcrumbed’, ‘catfished’, ‘cuffed’, ‘curved’, ‘cushioned’, ‘fizzled’, ‘ghosted’, ‘haunted’, ‘stashed’, ‘submarined’ and ‘zombied’.

Last year, I was dumped — not once but twice — by a man I met on Hinge who I had (silly me) become terribly keen on. Maybe I should write and thank him. After murdering whatever hope remained within me that I’ll ever find a man to adore me who I’m matched with by algorithm, at least it meant I got a hell of a lot done. 

On the face of it dating apps are incredibly popular. In the UK, six million people are expected to use them this year. Then, every eligible Londoner will have at least three on their phone. The monopolies of Grindr and Tinder — which moved fastest and broke dating in the early 2010s — now seem out of date, responsible for a hook-up culture which has spread like a contagion from New York to London.

Meanwhile Bumble, Happn, Hinge and all the rest bill themselves as modern matchmakers each with their own gimmick in the game. On Bumble the woman must message first (it’s billed as ‘feminist’ though I can’t see how forcing one sex to make all the effort helps in the slightest.) Happn shows who you crossed paths with; Hinge’s ad campaign says it’s ‘designed to be deleted’ once you find your match. But of course you can always download it again if things don’t work out. And that’s all that happens. You get a bit excited, meet a guy, two days later, you’re like: ‘Oh, never mind.’ Again and again and again. 

After seven years of binge and bust, I no longer know what the hell the point is and like most long-term singles, I suffer in silence. And I’m not alone. About 56 per cent of adults view dating apps and services either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ negatively according to one online survey, with 36 per cent of Brits claiming they’d prefer to meet their next partner face-to-face.

While researching my next book, Love In Late Capitalism, I collated a chorus of complaints about dating culture today. Everyone I spoke to who’d come off apps had reached their breaking point — whether they’d contracted a sexually transmitted disease from someone ‘who ghosted me while I was waiting for the test result from the doctor’, because all their ‘dates were just so, so, so dismal’, because ‘I’m fed up of always being flaked on at the last minute’ or because ‘you talk for several years and they never want to meet up at all’. It’s the feeling that it’s a complete free-for-all that most gets daters down. One woman became hopelessly dispirited after she agreed to two dates on one day and the men concerned turned out to be living together and that was a hashtag too far’s worth of awkward. ‘Dating apps suck balls,’ concludes my 31-year-old BFF who has never had a boyfriend but not for want of wanting one. According to him, heterosexuals have it easy. ‘In 2016 alone I went on 146 dates… Three stood out as men I could have imagined building a life with but as ever, they just weren’t that into me, and who can blame them? Who wants to have their cake and eat it when they could have the whole bakery?’

‘The fact is, most dating apps are not designed to be deleted,’ says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History Of Dating. ‘Instead they want to retain you as a user for as long as they can muster, with around two years being the goal for many. In that time they expect you to date several people you meet through the app — returning every time each encounter sours to look for the next person on whom to pin your hopes.’ 

Even I’m not immune. About once every three months I succeed in stewing my brain in enough vodka to block out the memory of whatever-the-last-one’s-name-was and tell myself in the mirror: ‘If you don’t try you’ll never meet anyone.’ I then download Bumble (for the 387th time) and send message after message to any man who has a kind face who’ll disappear from my phone forever if I don’t talk to him within 24 hours of ‘liking’ each other.

Increasing desperation exacerbates the problem. You start to notice how, in the capital, romance has been annihilated. Say you do get a date. Are you enthusiastic about it? No. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. Are you really supposed to believe that, if you keep at it, Mr Right will appear if you’ve spent 20 years of your life encountering endless Mr Wrongs? I always get confused when married people say they’re going on date nights. I can’t think of anything lovelier than never, ever having to go on one again. 

If your next big birthday’s 40, most of your dates go like this: you turn up, take one look at each other, something inside you says, ‘nah’, and it’s over in two drinks. You know you’ll have a better night if you take an early bath. 

That’s if you’re being polite, however. My last date wasn’t. The second he saw me the spark was extinguished in his eyes. Mid-way through staring at Helen Sharman’s space suit in the Science Museum, I realised he was standing at a distance from all the exhibits with his arms crossed. ‘Do you want to get something to eat?’ I suggested, as he steered us towards the exit. He did not. 

Not so long ago, you could assume that you were in some sense special. That the person you met would treat you like a human being with thoughts and feelings, not like an instantly replaceable avatar in this never-ending game they’re playing on their phones. But today, searching for love in London isn’t the way it used to be. A decade ago if you wanted to be treated like a piece of meat you could go to some sweaty club and snog someone random. But if you were seeing someone you had to be nice to them. Usually you met them in your local pub, they were a friend of a friend, you worked together, or shared something in common: like a bus route or a building. This meant you couldn’t just get rid of them on the click. If you acted badly there would be consequences, social opprobrium or a sense of shame. 

But now, the second someone does something ‘a bit off’ the whole situation gets snuffed out. Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about what I do wrong and the trouble is I’m insecure and send batty texts when I get nervous. Once upon a time a mutual friend, relative or co-worker would have been on hand to say: ‘Oh yes she’s mad as a coot but terribly sweet if you get to know her.’ In the age of the app, there’s no one to vouch for me. 

It isn’t just the men who are behaving badly; women can behave terribly, too. Forty-three per cent of all daters admit to lying online. If a date is a bit dull you can always spice it up with: ‘What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?’ Everyone you meet will have a litany. The most appalling story I’ve ever heard was from a gorgeous man I batty-texted into submission who said he’d once gone on a date and the girl got so drunk she started racially abusing a waiter in an Indian restaurant and insisting he didn’t deserve a tip on top of the bill she wasn’t paying. 

While a man would never write on his dating app profile, ‘must be nine stone or lighter’, women rarely think about how awful it must be to read height requirements that basically equate to: ‘Don’t even talk to me if you’re short.’ One man I met admitted he never usually got anywhere because he was bald. 

Even one-night stands are too much commitment; Londoners are fond of the ‘half-night stand’. When I was promoting my first book, I was invited on to the Millennial Love podcast in which listeners wrote in with their dating stories. One young woman complained that she’d had a man over, bought him a pizza, given him an orgasm, paid for his Uber home, and thought this was all perfectly fine — until he couldn’t muster the manners to text her to say thank you. Something inside me screams, ‘We can’t go on like this!’ It is madness to treat people with so little respect. For me, apps don’t work. So I am now concentrating on meeting people the old-fashioned way and being much more patient. Trying to build up friendships first. Since I always sabotage by text, I write emails. When I get invited to parties, I don’t stand in one corner, I do as Jane Austen advised and take a turn about the room. A friend of mine asked everyone she knows to set her up on blind dates. She’s met a lovely man and is taking it very, very slow. 

Finding true love has always been hard, Hodgson insists. ‘When it comes to finding love, remember that modern dating apps are a capitalist enterprise focused on solving not the love problem, but the money problem,’ she advises. ‘They have commodified love like never before, and commodification is the killer of romance, which needs genuine attention, vulnerability and then just an ounce of calculated dare to thrive.’

In my 20s, before dating apps had been invented, I had boyfriends. Real ones. Not pseudo sort-ofs who pop up once a year, dangle the prospect of boyfriend-hood over my head like mistletoe and then scarper three seconds after I’ve slept with them. I try not to blame myself, say, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be,’ but I won’t be downloading dating apps again. Frankly, I’d rather be off them and die alone. There’s more dignity in that.

Hail to the Junk Food President

I have a new column – writing about politics and food – for the excellent Mace Magazine, which also features top articles by William Boyd, Anthony Seldon, Rowan Williams, Sarah Champion and Ken Clarke…

‘You are what you eat,’ the old adage insists and since we live in an age where politics makes almost no sense perhaps it’s time we took a look at what our politicians stuff down their gullets: it may reveal untold truths about them as well as the chaos they’re presiding over. 

So let’s begin by deconstructing the plate of the most powerful man in the Western world. Donald J. Trump’s diet is – as People magazine once put it -‘populist, cheap, and maybe too salty for most people’s taste.’ As you might guess from the shape of him, the 45th President of the United States exists on junk food. 

There were ‘four major food groups’ served on Trump Force One during the American election campaign, ex-aides David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski note: ‘McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke.’ Trump’s most regular order was ‘two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish and a chocolate malted.’ The cupboards were stuffed with Vienna Fingers, potato chips, pretzels and Oreos. 

In addition to suggesting Trump is – by and large – composed of fat and sodium, this diet is also evidence of his rampaging paranoia. Michael Wolff claims his addiction to junk is rooted in his fear of being poisoned. He thought it safe to eat at McDonald’s since ‘nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.’ At nights, he likes to eat cheeseburgers alone in his room whilst watching three television screens and talking on the phone. 

Some argue all this connects him to voters. Trump may be excessively rich but he chows down just like a blue collar voter. ‘There’s nothing more American and more of-the-people than fast food,’ Republican strategist Russ Schriefer reckons.

Did it win him the 2016 election? Certainly Hillary Clinton saw food as essential to that campaign – she devotes a whole chapter of her book, What Happened? to what she ate. For breakfast – it was egg whites and vegetables and she carried hot sauce in her handbag for every other meal.

Like almost everything else about her the details seem singularly inauthentic. (Who eats vegetables for breakfast? Does she really like hot sauce or was this – as many commentators suggested – an effort to connect with black voters, perhaps, in the hope they’d overlook her Super Predator speeches in the days of Bill?) 

On Hillary’s plane there weren’t any Oreos – just a nutritionist called Liz who made brownies out of chickpea flour. While everyone’s heard of a Big Mac, Hillary snacked on ‘Flavor Blasted Goldfish.’ It’s worth noting that in the days the Clintons ruled the world, her husband’s diet closely resembled Trump’s. Now – like many a Goldman Sachs trophy spouse – he’s vegan.  

Ultimately, the more you read about what Trump eats the more fallible and human he appears. While we fear he’s got his finger on the nuclear button, actually he’s just pressing a small red one in the Oval Office through which he can order a constant supply of Diet Coke.

Thinking about all that fizz and pop inside of him he must – surely? – trump constantly. Does this explain all his hysterical outbursts? 

No one knows. 

But it certainly demystifies him – and the state of his politics.

In defence of Dominic Cummings and his secret penchant for feminist books

25th October 2019

David Cameron once called him “a career psychopath.” Marina Hyde, a “crap Rasputin”. And now the feminists are getting stuck in, branding Dominic Cummings a “demonic succubus.”

What’s he gone and done this time, you might wonder? Shockingly, appallingly and unprecedentedly – he’s been photographed toting a book bag for the Persephone bookshop, revealing a hitherto unknown penchant for obscure women’s literature. 

Some say Cummings is a genius – and he certainly is, when it comes to hurling insults. (He’s called David Davis “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”, Ed Llewellyn “a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant”, Cameron “a sphinx without a riddle” and Nick Clegg “self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest.”)

So one imagines that being denounced as a female demon who has sex with sleeping men will sadden him profoundly – surely they mean “incubus”? If our public intellectuals have no basic grasp of Latin what hope is there for bright young brains languishing in the state school system? Whatever happens Brexit-wise, his efforts at the Department of Education will always keep him secure in the heart of this inadequately educated comprehensive school girl…

Read on at The Daily Telegraph