A pro-active friend in her fifties, recently divorced, has decided to organise a restaurant dinner once a month for friends, and friends of friends, who are single. This could be a depressing and wrong-headed thing to do, but I think it is brave, imaginative, even magnanimous. Given that old-fashioned match-makers are a rare, almost-extinct breed (with the exception of my indefatigable cousin Mary, the last one of her ilk in all England), I have thought of doing the same myself. But I have been put off by stories of a complete dearth of willing men. I have heard of so-called ‘posh’ dating agencies being so desperate for men to sign up that they have taken to approaching suits in the street; charging women ten grand or more and men nothing; claiming to have a gender balance on their books but in reality having about three million women and 13 men; and so on. Yet these places somehow ‘boast’ a clientele of ‘High Net Worth Individuals’.
I do not have £10,000 and nor would I want a HNWI. Fancy yachts don’t float my boat. The single women I know ask only for someone who is functionally literate, relatively stable and not yet in possession of a colostomy bag. My friend is not making a penny. She just wants to cover the cost of supper and booze, which, in the agreeable places in London that she chooses, comes to about £50 a head. The food and wine is not really the point.
Naturally enough, there is a waiting list. No wonder. There is no other club like it. Gold-diggers need not apply. The supposedly similar ventures, set up by women who trumpet their own (slightly dodgy) Sloaney credentials, proudly boast of clients in Monaco who have had Ralph Lauren makeovers. These do not appeal to anyone I know. A beautiful divorced woman told me that if some ‘humourless arsehole of an oligarch has several billion in the bank but is a bully who has never read a book, he knows where he can stuff it’. She is dabbling online and has been on dates with two normal and functioning men. I cannot be bothered to sign up as I’m told it’s a full-time job weeding out the weirdos. There is something acutely demoralising about the thought of dressing up and walking into some pub, shaking hands with Bob from Bromley and knowing instantly that there is about as much chance of a spark as on a dank log covered in moss and woodlice.
Much more fun are my friend’s suppers. Because she is a friend (her brother is one of my all-time favourite people who kindly secured my place on her ever-increasing list) you just know, walking into the pub or restaurant, that everyone will be able to string a sentence together (not a given on many a dating site) and be interesting and entertaining, at least for the duration of a two-course dinner. I have loved sitting next to a well-known and twinkly biographer and a brilliant, charming divorcee who was honest and hilarious about his panic attacks.
Strangely, but very definitely, sitting down at a table of 20 or 30 unattached folk is utterly different from doing so with a gang of attached ones. Everyone has been a little bit buffeted by life — whether via divorce, widowhood or never having found the right person. Even if the conversation is general and not personal, the atmosphere is one of lessons learned, empathy, humility, humour. It is a refuge from smug marrieds, who aren’t all smug, of course, but many of whom, try as they might, don’t ‘get it’. At the club dinners, not every-one is looking to hook up with someone or to get married. They are there for the craic, but also for the relief of all being in the same boat together, and for a night out without judgment, condescension, pity or prurience.
I loved the puffy man, who I bet was buttoned up not so long ago, who spoke of the pain of his recent widowhood with such eloquence and stoicism; and even the politically suspect fellow who had been married for decades to the love of his life until she announced — as he was washing-up after a particularly good celebratory lunch with all the family — that she was leaving him. He was utterly perplexed and heartbroken but managed, still, to be funny about it.
The evenings have been great. Open and supportive, rather like AA meetings. But with alcohol and without the earnestness. And, thank God, plenty of jokes.