Ollie McAteer explores the world of online dating in Horsham

JPCT 240413 S13170546x Horsham. Ollie McAteer. Alone in pub -photo by Steve Cobb
JPCT 240413 S13170546x Horsham. Ollie McAteer. Alone in pub -photo by Steve Cobb

By Ollie McAteer

Ten pm rolls around and a slew of messages light up my phone. It’s about this time of night girls - and the occasional guy - get in touch to flirt.

Their chat-up lines range from a safe ‘hey’ coupled with a kiss and sideways smiley face, to the downright detailed and frankly quite scary.

“You’ll make good conversation if you’re a journalist,” presumes a potential date from Pulborough. But I don’t reply, there’s too much pressure to make good conversation.

Not to worry though, you can be picky when there are this many women searching for love.

Hundreds of Horsham district locals are a member of free online dating agency Plenty of Fish (POF). Some I recognise from my school days, others I work with. That particular discovery was awkward.

I joined two weeks ago and armed myself with all the necessary tools to snag the perfect date.

I’d done my homework on these sites, and briefly became a member of one notorious for meetings of a certain variety, but left soon after feeling physically dirty. Plus my free trial ended.

So POF it was.

An egotistical spiel about my life and several of my finest mug shots later, my profile is complete. Time to fish. And the smart phone app makes it so easy.

It feels like I hit the ground running when I spark up a conversation with a girl apparently no more than 250 metres from my front door. It doesn’t reveal your exact location, but I find the distance concept strange. It’s not as though I’m going to step outside and start pacing the metres in search of her.

She’s keen to get together. I suggest a drink at a local pub the following day, purely because it’s on my walk home from work and fairly cheap, but I don’t tell her that.

Details are barely finalised when a message pops up from someone else: “Claire wants to meet you.”

These days you don’t even have to engage in conversation because a demeaning tool on the agency’s app allows you to view photos of potential daters and tick yes or no. Romantic.

Her profile says she’s looking for an ‘intimate encounter’ only. I arrange to meet her too, at a different pub two hours after my first date. There’s a lot of scope for something to go wrong here, but the indescribable thrill of online romance makes me throw all thoughts of danger out the window. Partly because it’s so fantastical it doesn’t feel real.

Two in the bag. Everything’s set. I’m a serial dater - less than 30 minutes a member.

But it swiftly goes wrong.

An hour before my first date she pulls out with some lame excuse about not having a car to get there.

That’s okay, I think, good job I planned a safety net date for the same night. I send intimate encounter Claire a message to check she’s still on for what I assumed would be a very seedy liaison. No reply. Undeterred I head to the pub in Horsham town centre and wait, and wait, and wait.

I’ve been stood up. The realisation makes me giggle, which must have made me look even more like an alcoholic with a pint and a glass of wine now to myself. Nursing a bruised ego I polish off the drinks and retreat home.

What I need after that is some man time and I look forward to my squash game at the weekend. But the bloke I’m meant to be playing blows me out as well.

The following days I exchange more flirtatious messages with a number of women but nothing comes of it. I have countless conversations which seem to go nowhere and just fizzle out. It’s like the majority of women on POF are only using it to seek reassurance that they’re appealing to the opposite sex. They get their ego massaged and leave. It’s emotional prostitution.

A girl mate of mine, however, tells of a completely different side to online dating. She joined POF around the same time I did and has had countless approaches from local men with all manner of propositions.

“A 58-year-old said twice that we should have a purely sexual relationship, he said he was a very good lover, could provide financial support and had kids all over the age of 18,” she explains to my disbelief. Fair play to him though - that’s bold.

“Another was an inmate saying that he wanted someone - a lover - to write to and form a relationship with whilst serving his sentence.”

Yes, apparently criminals are dating online. It’s nice to know those behind bars aren’t as lonely as I thought.

Amongst these odd men there are, she assures me, some decent guys looking for that special someone. She’s been on a number of dates and is currently seeing someone from the site.

Out of interest I switch my search option from women to men. Scores of topless men stare aggressively at me. I really hope these tasteless photos are not what women are looking for. Descriptions of themselves make my face crinkle. They are disgustingly self-centred and littered with spelling mistakes.

Ten days pass and I accumulate 46 views on my profile, an invitation to a swingers’ party in Surrey and two failed dates. Make that three. But I’ll retain some pride and not go into detail on that one.

On Sunday evening I decide to cut my losses and delete the account.

But the option to kill off my page seems impossible to find when ‘Emma91’ sends me a message.

We arrange to go out on a date this weekend.