PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD OCTOBER 2019
In one of the more unusual moments from the long and often weird history of Reality TV, Ulrika Jonsson recently appeared on Channel 4’s First Dates Hotel. It wasn’t, as you might understandably expect, the usual thing of a faded celeb pulling a stunt to catapult themselves back into the public eye.
No, Ulrika’s motives were more personal. Simply put, she’s now 52, single again after a divorce, and finds it hard to get back into the dating scene. Apparently – as I gleaned from a number of follow-up articles on the subject – this is not uncommon for people in middle-age.
The funny thing about all of this, from an Irish perspective, is that any of us in our fifties, or even our forties, who endured the misfortune of a relationship break-up wouldn’t then be “returning” to dating at all. That’s because the cultural ritual of dating didn’t really exist in Ireland when we were younger. I couldn’t imagine going on a date at the age of 46, mainly because I have no experience of this from my twenties.
Our social history in those days, romantically speaking, could essentially be boiled down to this: you went out, you had a few drinks, you chatted someone up in the pub or made a beeline for someone during the slow set in a nightclub, then the pair of you snogged and whatever else took your fancy.
If you liked each other, on an emotional as well as physical level, you might agree to meet up again. If you got into the habit of meeting up regularly, you were now said to be “going with” each other or “doing a line”. After a few years of this, you either broke up and returned to the drink/beeline/snog carousel, or you got married and settled down to a life of blissful domesticity.
Either way, the concept of “dating”, as such, was foreign to us. Literally so: it was the sort of thing that characters did on American TV shows. We’d sit there, slightly agog, as someone asked someone else out for a meal, or hey let’s check out that new band.
Sure, we did stuff like go to dinner and gigs with our sweethearts. But that was only after we’d already got into the “going with” groove. The idea of asking someone out on a date wasn’t just strange and intimidating, it was borderline incomprehensible.
The sole exception to this was if you already knew the person – through work or what-have-you – and might casually suggest heading for a few beers after work. I dunno, like, whatever you think yourself? I’m really not that bothered. Look, I’ll be in the pub anyway, so if you happen to drop in, grand.
But why was dating such an alien concept to us? Why, to be blunt, were we so terrible at it? I’ve put on my cleverest hat of all to work this out, and come up with these five reasons:
Generation X coolness.
For my generation, at least – born roughly between 1960 and 1980 – nothing was as important as being seen to be cool. You couldn’t come across as too eager, in anything. And asking someone out (on a date!) was definitively too eager. You had to pretend to be all easy-going and indifferent and coola-boola, hoping all the while that, at some point in the evening, you’d “accidentally” bump into that girl you’d been in love with since Freshers English.
Ireland was a great place in a lot of ways in the 1990s but we didn’t, perhaps, have the brashness and self-assertive confidence of yer average Beverly Hills 90210 character. Deep down, most of us probably expected disappointment. We expected to be rejected: not a good start-point for a culture of dating. One revolving around alcohol, on the other hand, injected us with bravado and a grossly inflated sense of our attractiveness to others. Booze put the “courage” in “Dutch courage”!
Hanging around your friends’ flat, drinking cans of own-brand beer and cider while watching Aliens on VHS for the 19th time, is relatively inexpensive when you’re young and penurious. Dinner for two at a decent restaurant was not so. Doing it regularly was simply not feasible.
Lack of options.
No joking, there really weren’t that many places to go on dates when I was younger. Ireland didn’t have ice-cream parlours and coffeehouses and soda fountains. (I still don’t know what a soda fountain is.) We had the pub, the cinema, and that was about it. But of those pubs, there were many…
…and the fear of being thought to have them. “Who’s your man think he is, asking that girl out on a date? Look at him there, ringing a restaurant to book a table? Thinks he’s better than the rest of us. What does he know about restaurants? ‘Tis far from dates he was reared, etc. etc. etc.”