It was a Saturday afternoon and I was sitting with Lucy in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. The date had started well but I was feeling a little uncomfortable with our location.
Everyone in the online dating world describes themselves this way, as if it is normal to walk around in a constant state of giddy delirium. The pressure to be unblinkingly optimistic is unrelenting.
I have always considered the South Bank to be a dreadful little enclave. It purports to be a cultural wonderland but is crammed full of dreary chain-restaurants and nondescript bars. We had just eaten outside Bella Italia beneath a rooftop bar. There were some smokers above us and cigarette ash kept floating down into my limp linguini. I swore the first time but Lucy frowned so I pretended to find it amusing.
This is the problem with dating: it seems to involve lots of petty lies. On a date I always say everything is ‘fine’ regardless of how I actually feel. I pretend to like most things and never express a strong opinion (unless it is a positive one). I do this to appear agreeable and easy-going – the modern ideal. Everyone in the online dating world describes themselves this way, as if it is normal to walk around in a constant state of giddy delirium. The pressure to be unblinkingly optimistic is unrelenting. Of course, the reality of life in London is not quite so sunny. The bland cheeriness of the Antipodes does not translate here – it exists only in the realm of ‘inspirational’ tweets, Instagram selfies and Facebook updates. In reality we are an island of sardonic, piss-taking jokers, and this works for us. How are we ever going to improve our lot if we blithely accept rubbish, passively shrugging off life’s hardships with a chipper no worries? Unconditional amiability has never been the Londoner’s way – we do not put up with nonsense, or surrender to mediocrity. And yet online we feel compelled to airbrush this benign cynicism – the very thing that makes us so interesting in the first place.
Lucy and I were sitting on a hard wooden bench, drinking white wine from plastic beakers. On the opposite side of the bar was a couple with a guitar. The man was a lank-limbed youth with a beanie hat and beard (always the beard, I thought). The girl was similarly attired in a hat and ironic T-shirt.
“What is it with these ridiculous hats?” I said, “when did it become acceptable to wear a woolly hat in warm weather?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy said.
“Look, he’s wearing a hat with a t-shirt. Surely, if you were cold you would put on a jumper before you put on a hat. What next, a duffle coat and speedos?”
She didn’t say anything so I repeated myself, the second time she nodded.
The girl opposite placed her hands in her lap and started swaying.
“Oh god,” I said, “she’s going to sing.”
And sing she did. We only caught a slight warbling, like a distant caterwaul in the night. The man nodded approvingly as he strummed his battered guitar, emblazoned across the front were the words ‘this machine kills fascists’. He turned and smiled at the girl.
“He is definitely trying to get into her knickers,” I said.
I turned to Lucy with a knowing smile, she had been nodding along.
“I actually think they’re rather good.”
I straightened up.
“Oh yes,” I said, “they are good – in a way.”
The man removed his hat to reveal a quiff shorn on the left side, right up to the parting. A fastidious short-back-and-sides with a wild unkempt beard: Errol Flynn on top, Zach Galifianakis down below.
“He’s got balls doing that,” I said, “not sure about the middle-class lumberjack thing though.”
Lucy gave me a sideways glance, I was not being easy-going. We left the bar and walked along the South Bank, ending up in Waterloo. The drab backstreets sucked away my remaining good cheer.
I said, “I’m sorry, but they were crap.”
Lucy had been checking her phone, “sorry, who?”
“That couple with the guitar. I mean, who are they to thrust their mediocre music on us? Do they think they are going to be spotted or something?”
“I don’t think it really matters,” she said.
“It does to me.”
Lucy said nothing – such pettiness hardly deserved a response. In retrospect, I think the pressure to be easy-going was too much to bear. I was not being agreeable – I would even go so far as to say I was being disagreeable. The world is not a big playground and I do not skip through the day cheerily deflecting life’s problems with a colourful grin. London is a pleasingly anonymous city. It is the most real place I have ever known – and I would not change it for anything.