The problem we identified was that television was isolating. Television was replacing communal activities such as singing and dancing, or even just meeting up to talk to each other, and none of us liked it. But the lone radical who got rid of his television didn’t suddenly find himself have the fun times of old. He found himself lonely. Because he found himself surrounded by people who were no longer available for singing and dancing because they were watching TV.
This was the first time I had ever realised that technology could be isolating, and remember, this was in 1986. We had just gained our fourth TV channel.
What happened since then you all know. People didn’t, en-masse, decide top get rid of their televisions. The got bigger and better televisions. They put televisions in the kids’ bedrooms. They got portable televisions, VHS recorders and DVD players so that they could watch television even when there was nothing on the one-hundred channels that were now available; they got video on demand, and films through bit-torrent, and iPhones with earbuds so that even out in the street they could be as cocooned by entertainment, and as isolated from other human beings, as they are at home.
We got computers too. In 1986 there was only one way to meet other gay men in Cambridge – it was called a pub. It was a tacky pub with glitter-balls and a scary tranny with glitter eyeliner who vetted you at the door to make sure you really did like a bit of arse-action before she let you in. But inside it was a friendly, rowdy place. Lesbians mixed the latest Stock-Aitken-Waterman tracks in one corner of the room, people played pool at the rear. If you were shy, it didn’t matter, because on a friday night everyone was there – the place was packed solid, because there was nothing else to do, you couldn’t help but meet people.
You would meet them whilst waiting at the bar. Someone would say, « Sorry, are you in front of me? » and if they were cute, you’d say, “Yes, but please, go first ». And then they would smile and buy you a drink as well. Or at the pool table, « Are you playing the winner? » someone would ask, and if the winner was cute you’d say, « Yep ».
In 1986 once you had a drink with someone there was a fifty percent chance you’d go home with them, and in 1986 once you went home with them, there was a fifty percent chance you’d go out with them for a week, or a month, or a year.
In 1991 I moved to Nice. L’Ascenseur (the door to the bar was a recovered elevator door) had a pool table too, and I met my first french boyfriend there (it lasted three weeks) and then my second french boyfriend (it lasted five years). Some people seemed to be using Minitel to meet people, but I tried it and it didn’t work. Going to a friendly bar was still, in 1994, the way to go.
Minitel ≠ Internet
But the minitel became the internet, and by 1997 when I split up with Laurent, l’Ascenseur was half empty, and something bad had happened: people had stopped talking to each other.
I tried going back a few times, but would sit at the bar alone, nursing a pint of beer, and then, embarrassed by the silence, swig it down and go home.
I signed up to GayVox and found lots of cute looking guys just gagging for a guy like me. People seemed to be friendly enough, but when you went to meet them they were not as they had described, and trying to find a boyfriend suddenly started to seem like hard work. Online they were all fit and healthy and emotionally stable. Out in the real world they either failed to turn up at all, or were depressed or rude, or self obsessed, or sex addicts. Luckily a friend from my Ascenseur days introduced me to a guy – it lasted two years but eventually fell apart because he preferred spending time with a bottle of rosé (or three) to spending it with me.
By 2008, the Ascenseur had been turned into a sex club called the Eagle, the pool table replaced by a dark room with floors sticky with spunk. I went there, just in case the same friendly crowd still hung out there, but they didn’t. A sad looking guy with shocking lipodystrophy told me that he didn’t go to the Eagle to « meet people” but offered to fuck me in the back room instead. That he didn’t even consider fucking someone to be « meeting them » seemed to me to be a sign of the times. I didn’t take him up on his offer and I never went back.
iPhone ≠ Computer
And now here were are in 2012. I have had accounts on Grindr, Scruff, Gayromeo, Gaydar, Recon, Bearwww, Guardian Soulmates and OKCupid (ooh, I hear you say – I haven’t tried that one yet) and yet I have been single for four years.
The bars in Nice are now sex clubs (which I hate) or lounge bars (where you can’t sit comfortably on your own because the seats are in groups of four) If you do go to a lounge bar on your own you don’t meet anyone – the chairs around you remain staunchly empty. People have lost the ability to talk to strangers, and if you try it, they look at you as if you’re some mad bag-lady chatting to herself, and walk away.
In the nightclubs people arrive in groups of five, already E’d up, and dance with their own group. Everyone knows that the place to find sex these days is in a sex club or on the internet.
And they’re right. The internet works perfectly if you want to find sex. In fact it has become so specialised for finding sex, that the protocol has been reduced – in France – to the bare minimum. « Slt – A/P? » is the typical opening line these days. People don’t even have time to type all three words in full: « Salut. Actif or Passive? »
The problem is that I don’t respond to people who talk to me like that, whether it be in the street or online. The same goes for the other standard opening, a photo of an erect penis.
Would I chat to someone who got his dick out to me in the street? No. Am I going to talk to him online? Nope.
And when you do end up talking to someone nice these days, the chances are — internet being the medium — that they are on the other side of the planet.
Yes, the wonderful, friendly, creative guys are always in America or Australia or northern Finland, and the main reason that this is where the great guys are is that you can’t meet them. Like the dead, our eternally absent virtual boyfriends, separated from us by thousands of miles, make so few mistakes.
I’m fourty-eight, and I have been single for four years, and it’s been hard. It’s been so hard, that I’m starting to wonder why I have bothered looking after my health so carefully, why I have made such efforts to stay alive as long as possible, and I understand entirely that we have made life so miserable for ourselves that more and more guys simple aren’t bothering anymore. People talk about barebacking as if it’s some great mystery, but why bother staying healthy, why bother growing old, if all that awaits you is a lonely room with a hundred megabit fibre optic connection?
What’s hardest of all, is that I can’t see how things are going to get better.
Parisian friends say that my main problem is living in the southern Alps, and perhaps that’s partly true, but I can’t help but notice that most of my Parisian friends are single too, most of them have been searching for boyfriends for years just as I have.
And when I do spend time in Paris, or Nice, I actually feel worse – I actually feel more desperate there these days, almost suicidally so. Because there is truly nothing worse than sitting alone in a room, knowing that you’re literally surrounded by people, behind every wall, above you, below you, and that, you’re still alone despite it all.
At least up here in the mountains, it seems normal to be alone. At least here I can convince myself that I’m not really alone, I’m just surrounded by nature.
So I’m forty eight, and like so many others, I’m scared. I never thought I’d get to fifty and be single. I never imagined that I could be almost as old as my father was when he died, and still be casting around for love. I’ve got so much to share with someone, so much to give, and yet, as gay singerHolcombe Waller sings, « I don’t know how to find you, I don’t know how to recognise you ».
He could add to that, perhaps, « And I don’t know where to meet you. »
Because Grindr, surely isn’t the answer. And though, like TV in the eighties, we’d all happily give up the whole online dating thing if only everyone else did so at the same time, the sad, hopeless, terrifying thing is that we all know they won’t. We all know that’s not going to happen. There will just be more and more channels, and more and more lonely people sitting at home watching their screens doing nothing more than hope.