Date: 13th Aug 03
The dating process has always been fraught with difficulties. From bringing food to a prospective partner in the Stone Age, through high teas with a maiden aunt in attendance during Victorian times, to high-octane bad dancing in the twentieth century, the ritual has evolved.
But now British men and women who lack the time to conduct a gentle courtship have a new way to find a partner. Welcome to the world of speed-dating, where young singles can meet a prospective partner on a 'dating conveyor belt' that allows them three minutes to decide if this is Mr or Ms Right.
The idea, which started in America and featured in the TV programme Sex and the City, pitches men against women in an evening of frenzied, quick-fire dating.
As Britain's largest speed-dating evening was due to take place this week, with thousands of people at a top London venue, I posed as a single 24-year-old solicitor at one London bar to join other men and women in search of a new partner - fast.
Eleven tables are placed in a line, the girls sit down at the one allocated to them and the boys take turns to face each of them. After three minutes a giant bell rings and, mid-sentence or not, it is time to move on.
If you like what you see, you put a tick in the 'yes' box on a scorecard. If they choose you as well, your email addresses will be passed on a couple of days later. Entering the bar, I braced myself for the buzzer signalling the arrival of another weirdo and looked around for the neon, flashing arrow inscribed 'sad and desperate, queue here', while people pointed and laughed.
The girls, in fashionable dresses and snappy suits, were giggling as they attached their numbered badges for the evening. Accessories were everywhere: scarves, bracelets, matching handbags and belts - I even saw some pearls. Maybe jeans were a bad idea. A friendly face offered me a drink and the organisers started explaining the rules.
'All we are doing is increasing the numbers and accelerating the odds,' said Simon Prockter, organiser and co-founder of Speed Dater Ltd. 'There's no direct rejection; if you don't like them, you're out quick.'
Half the people I spoke to had doubled the number of dates they had last year in a single night. The men included a chef, a banker, a photographer, an engineer, a management consultant and a novelist. I kept eye contact with the girl opposite me so we could compare notes between dates; raised eyebrows for a possibility, a smile if they were good looking and a grimace when they made three minutes feel like three hours.
It is boring to ask 'what do you do?' or 'where are you from?' so I tried to find something interesting to say. 'What animal would you be and why?' suggested one lady. 'It's like a meerkat, but has rotating feet and jumps through trees' was one reply.
The men were just pleased they could stop approaching strangers at bars: 'You meet 20 or 30 single girls in one night. That is so hard to do in London,' said one. 'You can't talk to them at salsa classes,' said another.
Some people were there to warm up for a huge event at Vinopolis, in London this Wednesday and Thursday, which is due to attract 3,000 people over two nights.
The craze of speed dating is taking off fast in the UK. Speed Dater is organising two events a night in London and is launching in Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow next month.
The idea was started by a Los Angeles rabbi, Yaakov Deyo, to help Jewish singles meet each other. According to Adele Testani, president of HurryDate, the first company to take speed dating outside Jewish circles, the craze comes out of internet dating. 'It is now socially acceptable,' says Testani. 'Three minutes is enough, because you get a sense of what someone is like and can eliminate them if they're wrong.'
Prockter and business partner Ben Tisdall started up their company in the UK after hearing about the events in the US. 'In the US, a man will approach a woman directly at a bar, but here people are more reserved,' says Prockter. 'We don't make them stay at the end of the night and we try to ensure safety by never swapping phone numbers.'
Matt, 28, one of the men I met, said: 'I usually go out on about one date per month. After doing this once I had four matches and have dates lined up for the next few weeks. There is a good atmosphere; it's safe and it's really good fun, just like being at a party with lots of single women.'
I ticked six boxes and got four matches. Not bad in 66 minutes.