It’s a Sunday ritual to flick straight to the personal advertisements spread of weekly newspapers. Whether or not you’re on the hunt for love, a lonely hearts column has the ability to make your heart swell or cheeks blush.
These darling snippets display an art of courage from the applicant and hopefully, a corresponder. Yet due to the rapid rise of online dating, the lonely hearts column’s future, much like its applicants, is uncertain. But before love in print is forever lost, this Valentine’s day, It’s Nice That celebrates the craft of the lonely heart. We’ve read countless newspapers, spoke to couples who found their sweethearts, and advertising reps burrowing away in offices to help singles meet their match. To visualise these passion hunters, illustrator Michal Loba has also interpreted a selection of our favourite singletons.
Back in the early 2000s, Anne Jones was a “sexy Dorset Doctor”, hoping to meet someone new. Due to her job in a small town on the south coast of England she was a recognisable figure in the community, so the photographic element of online dating wasn’t an option. After placing an ad in The Sunday Times segment, Encounters, Anne went on over 50 dates between 2003 – 2006, but eventually found love with Martin, a fellow divorcee who lived down the road.
Anne speaks of her experience with lonely hearts with zest. Despite countless disastrous dates, they are now fond memories. Personal advertisements were a new adventure for the doctor. “The reason I did it was because I didn’t really have any dating experience. When I was younger every relationship I had was a very serious one. I didn’t have fun going out with people, actually dating.” However after her divorce it was difficult for Anne to just pop out and meet someone. “I couldn’t go out anywhere because I was a mother. I’m a working person, where would I go? So, I tried lonely hearts. I can’t tell you enough how much fun I had doing it.”
“He was very cringe. He arrived with a folder of facts about himself, all the companies he owned, what car he had and so on. Within half a second I was thinking I’ve got to go…"
– Anne Jones
Each of Anne’s possible suitors would leave a voice message in her PO box, all of which she would listen to systematically to weigh her options. “I used to have this A4 folder of all my responses. I’d get into bed, listen to each of the messages, write them down and decide who to call back. The five to ten responses I’d receive a week would result in many a late phone call, with sometimes pretty strange men.”
In Anne’s experience, no one’s appearance would ever match their telephone dialect. “I was once talking to this man who had ever such a lovely voice,” she reminisces. “Then, when he turned up to meet he had a peg-leg and hadn’t told me. I tried to be nice about it of course, thinking you mustn’t discriminate. But he started to fondle me, in the middle of the day. I had to run and I was so glad because I knew, because of the leg, he wouldn’t be able to catch me up!”
Another date was vastly less intense. “The funniest one was this really old man who had all his hair on one side, you know when men are balding so they flop all their hair over. It was dyed as well,” she recounts. “He was very cringe. He arrived with a folder of facts about himself, all the companies he owned, what car he had and so on. Within half a second I was thinking I’ve got to go, I can’t do this, so I just left.”
After these experiences Anne decided to remove her lonely hearts ad altogether. However, the unique quality of Martin’s message, her future husband, was so endearing she gave it one last chance. “It was quite funny because he couldn’t figure out the voice messaging system,” she says. “In the end I had three messages from him each saying, ‘I don’t know if you’ve got any of this, or you’re going to, but I’ll try again’. I thought it was all very sweet.”
A doctor too, Anne and Martin clicked instantly. “We had friends in common, the conversation flowed very easily. He arrived in a sports car which was always a big plus for me and he immediately told me he loved Bach, which I do too.” Nonetheless, Anne recalls that initially there wasn’t a physical attraction. “I didn’t fancy him at all. But then I thought, there’s lots of things we have in common and you can never really decide on a first date. I knew, from all my experience, that it didn’t mean I wouldn’t find him attractive at a later point.”
Her instinct was correct. A few more phone calls passed, and after Martin met Anne’s daughter, “we went on a long walk, I thought how nice he was, and that was that”. Anne and Martin have since been together for ten years, getting married after six years of dating in 2012.
On the other side of the lonely hearts world is Alistair Anderson. Back in the 90s he was a graduate attempting to gain a career in advertising, when he applied for a job at the company that runs lonely hearts ads in newspapers around the UK. 20 years later he’s still writing them. “I took the job, and I’ve never looked back.”
Drawing from his lengthy career in personal advertisements Alistair assesses that “sex, death and taxes are the only consistent business models”. Although, the exercise of creating a personal advertisement isn’t as simple as copy and pasting the applicants’ desires. It’s a laborious process of transcription and adjustments for countless ads, but for 30-seconds reading time, their value is immense. “Newspapers knew that they needed the service because of the enjoyment it gives, even if you’re just browsing,” says Alistair. “Think of the peculiar value of it, people love it.”
“Artwork had to be friendly, soft, it had to encourage the confidence that if you were to put an advertisement out, a response was guaranteed.”
– Alistair Anderson
When Alistair began to run the operation, lonely hearts were at the height of their popularity. “We received thousands and thousands of calls a day, each transcribed in a big sort of call centre,” he explains. Yet this volume of unlucky-in-love users meant the descriptions became repetitive in nature, so it became Alistair’s job to emphasise the character of every individual. “From a reader’s point of view they would see a varied group of people. From a commercial eye it would allow a higher chance of the reader seeing someone they like, therefore replying to the advert, creating revenue.”
As a result the graphic design of lonely hearts became a resource to differentiate. In terms of marketing, Alistair had to make the page as appealing as possible. “Artwork had to be friendly and soft, it had to encourage the confidence that if you were to put an advertisement out, a response was guaranteed.”
For our illustrator Michal Loba, identifying these personal characteristics was also part of his approach to visualising lonely hearts users. “My approach was to first find any information about how they look, how they describe themselves. Then I was looking for their fields of interest, to find at least one element that would define the illustration.” Before this project Michal had never actually read a lonely hearts column but jumped at the chance to draw these characters. “I thought it was fun to draw them having only the information they shared in lonely hearts columns. It’s clear they wanted to appear as cool as possible, I wanted to point that out.”
As lonely hearts columns altered into online websites and now apps, Alistair’s job has modified too. He set up Flirt Finder, an online website that applies the same personable context of the printed advertisement. However Alistair welcomes this change: “I’m not a ‘back in the day’ kind of guy. It’s a lot better now, in the 1990s–2000s you were more hemmed in, but now there are a platter of choices.”
Alistair’s ability to evolve his job is a credit to his enjoyment in helping people find their other half. “I quite like it as a business, ultimately my job is really rewarding. People find love and you’re responsible for that. It’s human nature to want a chat and a moan or a laugh; we provide a service to find someone to do this with.”