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.



Spectator Life

In the heart of west London, there is what is thought to be a hidden paradise. Private gardens, surrounded by white stucco mansions pristine as wedding cakes, where children roam through landscaped lawns and pampered pooches piddle against the trees. Where pop stars puff through their exercise routines out of sight of the paparazzi and, by night, the ghost of Hugh Grant attempts to scale the iron railings, muttering ‘Oopsidaisy’, with all the other plebs who can’t get in.

In reality, though, it’s hell. Notting Hell, to be precise: a place where homeowners sitting on a pile worth merely £5 million battle with those whose homes are worth more than £20 million. Here, dingdongs signal not the doorbell, but all out war — between parents and pet owners, party animals and pedants. It’s bankers vs billionaires, Brits vs Yanks: All struggling, tooth and nail, to acquire the biggest house, build the largest basement, raise the brightest children, enjoy the wildest sex, and throw the party to end all parties.

‘A communal garden is the ultimate house trophy, an unambiguous symbol that you have “made it” — especially for the Americans,’ explains the author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog. ‘They infuriate the native Brits because they drive the prices so high only the richest can afford to live here. And once they get here, these hedge-funders and finance guys don’t just compete at work; they compete at home, too. They have to own a “wow” house, with the absolute best swimming pool/Jacuzzi/slide/aquarium/zipline/cinema set-up.’

Alas, even the most spacious Georgian villa rarely comes with room for a frigidarium — a posh name for a cold spa — so incomers dig deep into the clay beneath their homes to build what are known as ‘iceberg’ basements. Trophy wives battle yummy mummies, and vice versa, over planning permission — with Filipina maids caught in the crossfire. The conversions, which often take years, bring builders, trucks, dust and noise, interrupting morning mindfulness meditations and ever more exhibitionist yoga routines.

Communal gardens were invented to provide oases of calm in the middle of the city — but the mania for building below ground has unleashed chaos.

One long-term resident irked by all this is the novelist Rachel Johnson, who grew up in Notting Hill, and whose neighbours include celebrities such as Rita Ora and Ruby Wax. In 1992, Johnson bought a ‘falling-down semi-detached house off Elgin’ for £385,000 and now sits pretty in a house worth more than £4 million, simply by virtue of never having moved.

‘Five householders at the last count were putting in double basements in Elgin Crescent alone,’ Johnson complained in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘My husband says that when you live in a place that you can’t afford to shop in it’s time to move. But I won’t.’

Still, it makes for comic material and Johnson has now spent eight years eviscerating the vulgarities of the super-rich in her Notting Hellseries of novels. The latest, Fresh Hell, opens with a murder in an iceberg basement.

‘It’s all fiction!’ bellows an exasperated Johnson, when I ask her about how she gets her inspiration forher fabulously pulpy books. ‘How dare you ring me up like this?’

So, alas, no actual lesbian sex scenes chez Elgin like the one depicted in Fresh Hell, which is hotly tipped to win Johnson an unprecedented second Bad Sex Award. (‘My whole body was buzzing, as if I’d run away from a charging bull and hurled myself over an electrified fence only to find myself at a cheese-rolling event…’)

But there’s no shortage of real-life shagging, according to Notting Hill Yummy Mummy. ‘Due to all the building work, many women spend far more time with their workmen than their partners,’ she says. ‘This causes a lot of affairs. One woman got pregnant by her architect and initially tried to pass the baby off as her husband’s.’

The French contingent is typically relaxed when it comes to les liaisons amoureuses. Russian oligarchs, meanwhile, like to keep their friends close — and their mistresses around the corner.

Gossip is rife. Aberrant behaviour is closely monitored — and stamped on — by a network of residents’ associations. (The TV producer Peter Bazalgette was living in Kensington Palace Gardens when he launched Big Brother, which no one thinks a coincidence.) Barbecues and ball games are strictly verboten.

Elderly residents can be particularly crotchety when it comes to screaming infants and yapping puppies. They remember the bad old days: when Jimi Hendrix overdosed at 22 Lansdowne Crescent and you’d step outside expecting to get shanked, rather than pistachio cronuts. One of the most contentious issues is tree-felling. Typically, residents of houses that are south-facing prize the beauty of the ancient trees, while those in the north-facing ones rant about the lack of sunlight.

One garden square somewhat lacking in more hysterical shenanigans is Stanley Crescent. Its residents’ committee, stuffed with energetic, enthusiastic Americans, not only throws a convivial annual fireworks party — to which plenty of outsiders are invited — but permits (horror of horrors) football. It is so child-friendly that when the Obamas moved into the White House and wanted a really good set of garden swings, they copied the one in Stanley Crescent.

It is believed in these parts that the number of children you have indicates how much money you have, since the bigger your brood, the more you have to fork out on private education. So there are a lot of children in Notting Hell. With several birthdays every week, the fiercest rivalry of all is reserved for children’s parties. Parents outdo themselves to create the costliest, most original extravaganza.

Bouncy castles are erected, private pony rides laid on, gardens are transformed into fairgrounds complete with Ferris wheels and candy floss machines. Every-thing is outsourced, so there is an arms race for the best children’s entertainer. Magicians, clowns and face painters are passé — what you really need is a troupe of acrobats, or the ‘insect man’ to awe children with creepy crawlies. One celebrated birthday party had the young guests dress up as knights to embark on a quest around the garden to find and slay a dragon — the dragon being a giant piñata.

Party bags — which used to consist of a piece of cake, a party popper and a pencil sharpener — are now bags of loot to rival the ones they hand out at the Oscars. They contain gifts that in less affluent areas of the country would be given as main birthday presents: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, a Play-Doh kit or a Disney character. The parents must also be taken care of, with champagne and canapés.

Still, whatever jealousies seethe in garden squares, there is no shortage of people desperate to get in. Houses cost 25 per cent more if they come with access to a communal garden. And one day soon the residents may even forget their squabbles and unite to counter a greater threat to their lifestyle. Kensington & Chelsea council periodically mutters that more access to these sacred spaces might be granted to people who live locally but who can’t afford the adjoining homes. When this was last raised in 2008 it was a suggestion repelled most vigorously. Paradise might not mean a garden, these days — but letting the oiks in? Well, that would be hell on earth.