Last week, a press release dropped in my inbox announcing the arrival of a new concept speed-dating night called "Shhh". In a nutshell, it's silent speed-dating; no talking allowed, the idea being that it will create "a deeper, instantaneous connection" between lonely people looking for love (or a fuck). My immediate reaction was exhaustion. Londoners, not satisfied spending their entire weekends photographing street art in car parks or eating cronuts in onesies, seem to have roped their love lives into the endless quest for novelty.
Chit-chat aside, I had some reservations about the "full-on" nature of the Shhh experience. Even in my most intense relationships, the idea of someone fixing me with some dreamy, thin-lipped pout-gaze does something to my acid reflux. But then I am also very conscious of dying alone. So off I went.
The press release boasted that this was for "people who want to find deep connections, without the mask of predictable conversations". Already, my throat was drying. I love predictable conversations! Small talk is my foreplay. I want to know what supermarkets you have in your hometown. I want to mull over the day's precipitation.
I would be boarding the love train at The Jam Tree in Clapham, so called because the cocktails have little blobs of jam in them, which is precisely the kind of thing that has seen Clapham essentially secede from the rest of London and become a kind of fuckwit caliphate run by Time Out.
I bought myself a beer. Enter Adam Taffler, the heavily lip-bearded ringmaster of this circus of solitude. He summoned the men into the room with his whispery voice; it sounded like paper. The dating games were about to commence.
While I was hoping to get straight down to some eye-ballin', Adam wanted to get our juices flowing with some office-away-day style exercises. He got us all to stand on one side of the room before telling everyone who has had a one-night stand to walk to the other side of it. Off we trotted, leaving three little mice all by themselves on the other side.
"Notice who is around you," said Adam, rubbing their vanilla sex lives right into their boring faces. The rest of us looked on, relieved. In this frigid-shaming exercise, I found myself lying a lot. Nudist beach? 'Course I bloody did! Sex outside? Who hasn't! And off I scuttled, betraying my uptight comrades like a sexually advanced Judas.
Light ritual humiliation out of the way we got down to the good stuff. To the soothing tones of Zero 7 we shuffled around the room in a sort of rehabilitation exercise for dead-eyed commuters. Adam managed to simulate a sort of "Mindfulness while changing lines at Green Park" atmosphere, and soon got us to train our gaze up each other's bodies towards the eyes.
Once we'd all had a good gander at each other's dick and tits, things got a little more "hands on". We were asked to get in a circle and give the person in front of us a back massage. A rather frisky lady in a wrap dress got right to work on my tight shoulder knots and I'm not gonna lie, it was very sensual. I laid my own clammy paws on the bloke in front of me and gave him my signature spine thumbing.
Backrubs complete, I was feeling relaxed and ready to get gazing, but there was yet more finger fun to be had. Adam asked us to close our eyes and try to connect a digit with a member of the opposite sex, while he cranked up Pachelbel's Canon to full volume. I opened one eye and spotted a young girl with one arm folded across her body, eyes open purposefully trying to get a purchase on the finger of the hot blond in the room.
For me, there was a lot of rejection. Adam asked us to thank our partners a lot and there was much hugging. I didn't get the hugging memo, and was routinely left hanging for a high five. At one point, I also miscalculated the end of a game and was left blindly pivoting round the room with my index finger in the air.
Say what you like about Adam's methods, you couldn't deny the good vibes. The room was rippling with the kind of warm awkward laughter you get when someone gets their head trapped in the tube doors.
Though these flirty games felt like a cross between a GCSE drama warm up and a pilates class, there was an intimation that all this was rooted in science. Adam would sometimes defer to his assistant "science guru" who was quite unconvincingly nicknamed "The Doctress", but later admitted he was just "sort of making it up", which made me wonder why The Doctress was even there. The daters of The Jam Tree gave no fucks either way about science; they were just there for the whacky.
After the end of the first half, we were advised to hush our beaks until part two kicked off, so daters legged it to the bar to order large white wines in Parseltongue. By the time the bell rang, I'd sunk two pints of Kronenbourg and ready to eye-fuck the living daylights out of a stranger.
The first customer in my one-stop love shop was a kind looking bloke in a T-shirt that read "Boom!", who just minutes before I had forced to do the Macarena in one of Adam's "mirroring" exercises.
He seemed to be finding the whole thing a right laff until I fixed him with my glassy booze gaze. Looking for meaning, I ended up transfixed on the fleshy bits in the corners of his eyes, the pink, wet bits that look like the skin of peeled fish, while his eyebrows tried to engage me in conversation.
After a sobering minute, number 12, a zany characted, used his paper for a game of noughts and crosses. The next one burped and blew it towards me. The one after that I don't think realised his face was twitching at the mouth. Or maybe he was just chewing a hangnail.
The surprise of the night was a Joop-soaked man in a suit who somehow managed to look me in the eye and lick his lips without grossing me out. I was absolutely sure he was excellent in the sack. As he rotated round the room, the Mexican wave of giggles from the girls suggested more knicker twitching was occurring. Double ticks for the lip-licker.
Just as I was starting to feel more loose in the hoose, the playlist took a cruel turn. On came "How to Build a Home" and an adorably smart guy in his mid twenties sat down in front of me, smiling. His eyes were straight-off-the-bat good guy vibes. He looked like a nice, normal, attractive bloke politely asking for love. He looked like someone who deserved my respect and I felt really cross with London as a city for putting us both in this humiliating position. I wondered if he wanted to build a home with me. Then I felt sad for not wanting to build a home with him. Then I wondered who the fuck I was going to build a home with. Was I drunk? I don't know. But suddenly, I felt more profoundly single than I have ever felt in my entire life.
The poignancy of this moment was only heightened by the sound of one of The Jam Tree kitchen staff bellowing, "I NEED THREE CHEEEPS, I MISSING SIDE ORDERS."
After the staring, it was back to awkward mingling where I checked with Rachel, 29 (who was giving it all a go after giving up on Tinder), if I was drunk. She wasn't sure, but she said she felt tipsy, commenting, "It's just way too intimate." No one was giving her the horn, she said, "because their anxiety was very palpable, which makes me feel on edge".
Talking to Adam, the organiser, afterwards was refreshing because he seems to feel genuinely passionate about what he does. Apart from his - frankly inexcusable - paisley trousers he's a nice guy trying to address, in his own gimmicky way, a vain, cold, anaesthetised dating culture.
I suggest to him that however good your eye-gazing, like any dating concept, attraction still boils down to desperation and bangability. He called me shallow. Then I asked Adam if he's banged loads of bad bitches because of his great eye game, to which he replied, "I looked into some people's eyes and I felt full" - with a smile on his face - so I took that as a "yes".
Shhh dating appeals to what Adam calls "people who want to broaden the envelope of human experience". Even though I didn't find a man to broaden my envelope, I still felt a big feeling, which is something. The only problem was that it was the overwhelming feeling of being alone. It was like I'd flipped a lid off something and was now about to emotionally congeal like warm houmous at a picnic.
Any single person in London is bullshitting you if they don't admit they're operating somewhere on a sliding scale of loneliness. It all boils down to how readily they'll expose themselves to the kind of visceral vulnerability that comes with speed dating and intense eye contact. In an age where we all pretend we're not looking for the real thing, there's something perversely pleasurable in airing your clean, single laundry, letting your status wash over you instead of pretending you're too busy for love, or too successful, or were just having too much fun to have noticed.
If joining Tinder acknowledges a socially acceptable discontent with flying solo, then taking the same feeling by the horns in public can't be bad for us. There is certainly something admirable about metaphorically writing "looking for love" on your balls and then exposing them to a room full of people, even if you do need a novelty dating concept to do it.
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