With ever more academics turning to dating agencies, Harriet Swain grabs a glass to mingle with some real talent
It's singles night at the London Review of Books' Bloomsbury bookstore and the shop window is all steamed up. Inside, clutching glasses of wine, LRB readers peruse the shelves looking for love, or cram each other into corners to discuss their favourite reviewers. In the middle of the shop, a Chinese musician tinkles at a zheng.
December has been a big month for highbrow dating. First, the LRB announced its first divorce resulting from a match that began in its personal columns - no hard feelings, the marriage lasted two years and the husband was re-advertising. Then the British Library held a "mingle" evening attended by more than 400 people - slogan: "In love with science but want to share your passion?" Then came the Bloomsbury bash - only the second of its kind - which quickly sold out.
Services aimed at the intellectually discerning dater have blossomed, from Ivory Towers, "the intelligent dating site for graduates of all eras", and Blues Match, "Bringing Oxbridge People Together", to the cult personal columns of the LRB . These have a permanent queue of hopeful advertisers and have spawned such gems as: "They call me naughty Lola. Run-of-the-mill beardy physicist (M, 46)", and others a lot longer, including "far too many related to the University College London classics department", according to LRB advertising director David Rose.
Is there a sudden panic about the falling IQ of the gene pool? Have university suppliers received a job lot of Viagra? Or have academic-types simply woken up to the realities of 21st-century dating?
Certainly, organised dating has become more acceptable generally. According to Parag Bhargava, spokesman for the Association of British Introduction Agencies, 6 million single people have signed up with introduction agencies. "They have become almost an essential part of life for anyone looking for a partner," he says. "Over the past decade or so the stigma has gone. If you are looking for insurance, you go to an insurance broker. If you want to buy a house, you go to an estate agent. If you want to date someone, you go to a dating agency." The UK dating business is reportedly worth £50 million.
Mary Balfour, managing director of Drawing Down the Moon and co-owner of Love and Friends, both of which she describes as the thinking person's dating agencies, says the market is growing because of people's increasingly private lives. People now stay at home watching DVDs rather than go to church or a ball where in the past people would meet partners, she says. She argues that academics have just been slower than most to realise that they need help, in spite of the fact that they probably need it more than most. "Doing research in libraries and writing stuff up and looking in archives is a very lonely business," says Balfour, who herself is married to an academic (he happened to move in next door). While lecturers meet up from time to time for staff or departmental meetings, there is little opportunity for more intimate contact.
This is more true in some subjects than in others. Michael Clarke, a sociologist who has studied the regulation of dating agencies, says: "On the arts, social sciences and humanities side, academic life is fairly individualistic, whereas the science side is very team based and probably offers more opportunities for romantic liaisons."
But then scientists need all the help they can get because they just aren't that sexy - at least not according to those attending the LRB evening. A female artist, who claims to have carried out extensive research on the subject, pronounced them "very good in bed but generally slightly autistic". A male freelance academic in philosophy and psychology insisted:
"Scientists are all nerds. They really are." One young female academic extolling the virtues of the British Library mingle, stressed that, in spite of the science theme, it seemed to attract very few scientists, which in her eyes was a good thing.
A spokesman for the British Library seemed reluctant to admit that there were many academics at the event at all, although the mingle had been advertised primarily through higher education library networks and listservs, and although researchers using the reading rooms were encouraged to join in. For him, the exciting thing was that most people who attended had never stepped inside the library before.
Even many academics don't seem to find much sex appeal in their own profession. "Are academics interested in exclusively being matched up with other academics?" asks Clarke, until recently a reader in sociology at Liverpool University. "I rather doubt it."
Balfour says: "Not every academic wants to meet another academic. They want someone with the same background but they may want someone completely outside what they are doing, possibly someone doing something a bit more exciting."
This doesn't stop them wanting people with an outlook very like their own, says Balfour. "Although opposites attract in terms of personality, in terms of background, social class and aspirations, they don't." Her agency's compatibility questionnaire is so detailed that it categorises 20 different types of humour "from Woody Allen to bodily functions" as well as establishing what newspapers they read. For academics, she says, the Daily Mail would be a no-no.
"They are looking for people who, like them, are different," says Jackie Elton, managing director of Ivory Towers, where teaching/lecturing/researching is the top category of client, making up more than 20 per cent. She says academics tend to be more questioning and want to debate "intellectual stuff" as well as describe where they stand culturally. "On the average dating site they will say, 'I'm a good bloke and I want someone to spend some time with'," she says. "An academic will describe it more in terms of sharing interests. And I don't think many of them do clubbing."
She says it is important to them that the people they meet are on an intellectual par - something that is harder to establish than it used to be because simply being a graduate doesn't signify as much as it used to.
This desire to corner a niche market of people for whom university life and discussion with intellectual equals is important is responsible for the rise in tailored dating services. As using agencies has become more acceptable and their number has grown, so competition between them has become more fierce and the need to stand out from the crowd more intense.
"All introduction agencies tend to specialise, whether they say so or not,"
says Clarke, who adds that most also target professional people because that's where the money is.
In the case of academics, however, one reason to use an intellectually targeted dating agency is that the size of their brain is likely to be of more interest to a potential partner than the size of their bank balance.
"They don't have the same kind of money as people in the commercial sector have and they would want to find someone who understood that," Balfour says. "We won't get gold-diggers on our site."
Not that the minds of academic daters are always on higher things. Beneath the dating rituals of Chinese musical instruments, canapes, science-based party games and intellectual discussion, something a little less civilised lurks.
"Mike", a politics lecturer, recalls that the closest he came to a clinch at the first LRB singles night was when a woman threw herself at him, no longer able to stand up. She later vomited at Victoria station. Others describe scenes of rampant snogging among the bookshelves. Male academics are like any other men, Mike says. What they want are attractive women.
It's nice if they're intelligent too but, when it comes to chemistry, the sexual kind is really all that counts.