Saturday, May 28, 2011

Classified: the Secret History of the Personal Column

There is no longer any shame about being a lonely heart. Upmarket newspapers feature columns of classified ads in which men and women, straight and gay, seek wives or husbands or other thing we won't go into. The most literate are in the London Review of Books: “Well-educated 31-year-old London girl with sultry Mediterranean looks seeks sparkling conversationalist to take her out on an old-fashioned date. Age unimportant, opera tickets optional, good manners essential. Restaurant suggestions and your obscure intellectual passions to kismetxy.”

Apparently, more than 26 million British people used internet dating sites in 2007. There were 14 million users of Facebook; 12 million used Bebo. Classified ads make fortunes for newspapers and magazines – or used to – and can transform the fortunes of their lonely readers.

According to H.G. Cocks, who lectures in history at Nottingham University, the personal column has not always been so uncontroversial. One setback involved Link, founded in 1915 by Alfred Barrett and the first magazine devoted wholly to ads for lonely hearts. Six years later it was suppressed for corrupting public morals. R.A. Bennett, editor of Truth and an anti-prostitution campaigner, complained to Scotland Yard about some of its ads. One was from an “intensely musical” 24-year-old man looking for a “tall, manly Hercules”. There were others using similar code words in their quest for illegal homosexual connections. Soon afterwards the police arrested a man who was found to be carrying passionate love letters from another man and it emerged that their love affair had been kindled in the pages of Link. Barrett was charged with conspiring to enable the commission of unnatural acts and with corrupting public morals by introducing men to women for fornication. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

Link may have been the first magazine for lonely hearts but Cocks shows that advertising for a wife or husband has been going on for centuries. He awards the first classified ad – a statement of ecclesiastical rules for the Easter festival – to William Caxton in 1477. But the first lonely hearts ads were published in the 1690s and matrimonial advertising was booming by the early 18th century. As they still are, they were often used to avoid parents or by men and women who were at odds with traditional forms of courtship and morality – at first homosexuals and lesbians, more recently others.

Those in authority, whether religious, political or military, have worried about what is going on between these consenting lonely hearts.

A few women who answered classified ads have got themselves murdered, for instance. Are the ads being used for white slavery? (In some cases, yes.) The military thought it was good for morale when Pte AC White, of the 1st Rifle Brigade – the loneliest man on the Western Front – was sent 800 presents, including 15 tuckboxes and 15 tins of sausages after a personal ad. But when a driver called Pennery, of the Field Artillery, got three sacks of post, one with 3,000 letters, it was too much and they worried about clogging up the post. They worried too that enemy agents would encourage soldiers to give away military secrets and the government banned advertising that invited officers or men to communicate with strangers.

Certain themes persist through four centuries of lonely hearts advertising. One is that however sexually advanced the age seems, there are always hundreds of thousands of lonely men and women in search of a wife or husband or partner. There are also thousands looking for other things. Another is that there are lonely hearts in all social classes.

Cocks believes that the internet has continued and accelerated the trends pioneered by Alfred Barrett. The benefits of anonymity and the opportunism involved in making use of new media, he contends, are still a way of getting beyond traditional types of authority, usually that of the family. The teenagers using Facebook are bypassing parental or social authority in the same way as the women who used personal ads in the 1820s – but self-revelation is now encouraged.

In telling the stories of those who use them, Cocks shows how personal columns were not only a vital way of making friends and meeting lovers but also of forging a community when homosexuality was still illegal, when being single past the age of 21 was seen as embarrassingly shameful and when the difficulty of divorce could make marriage seem an intolerable burden.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Queen Victoria would not have been amused.

The enormous Cunard oceanliner Queen Mary was supposed to be named after Queen Victoria.

The head of the Cunard Company visited King George V and told him that the new ship would be named after "the greatest of all English Queens."

Before he could get out another word the king replied, "Oh, my wife will be pleased."

And the "Queen Mary" came into being! lol True story!

Socratic Tea Ceremony! Priceless