QFT Singles Night

Joseph Nawaz braves the bear pit and comes out smiling

Ah, singles nights: awkward looking, slightly sinister men and earnest, hopeful divorcees of a certain age, mingling with all the ease of an out-of-date bottle of kaolin and morphine. The redemptive tinkle of the ‘three minute’ bell the only thing punctuating the inevitable failure of your stuttering sequence of non-sequiturs.

And then what follows? The long walk to the next table, the next woman and the next humiliation. Seconds out, round two… Then there’s the calamitous consideration that just a couple of tables along might be an ex. Belfast is a small place after all and not all your exes are necessarily pleased to see you, especially within the claustrophobic confines of a speed dating encounter. The horror, the horror!

Joseph NawazWhen I blithely offered to attend the QFT’s rather spiffy movie-themed singles night on behalf of CultureNorthernIreland, none of these rather dreadful propositions occurred. As the hour drew ever closer, however, the creeping sense of existential dread took over. Happily though, I was bolstered by a couple of rather selfless friends offering to join me on the evening 'for moral support'. Even then it took a couple of stiff drinks and not a little cajoling to get us all moving in the direction of the QFT.

One friend in particular made the ultimate sacrifice, forfeiting watching a ‘crucial’ Northern Ireland match to accompany me. It was a touching and - if you’ll pardon the expression - loin-girding gesture, the classically celebrated love two men can have for each other where one gives up his Saturday footie to accompany the other to a 35-50 singles night.

Unfortunately, I forgot the oft-quoted maxim that ‘all men are b*****ds’, as I’d only got as far as the front door and signed in before the pair of them had buggered off in terror. But not before they’d taken a camera phone snap of me haplessly holding a big card with the legend ‘singles night score card’ emblazoned across it, lest there be any confusion on Facebook as to my tragic state of affairs.

To be fair, my friends’ ‘fight or flight’ instinct turns out to be a perfectly predictable male response in the face of such public exposure. QFT press officer and singles-night organiser Sarah Hughes explained to me the difficulties in getting men to sign up, something that was certainly evidenced during the evening by the uneven gender balance and the rather sinister/hilarious ‘holding area’ for spare women – where they waited until a table became available.

Women appear to be perfectly happy to take part in such evenings, simply because they’re more emotionally open anyway and don’t take it quite as seriously. Men, it would seem, prefer to furtively hunt in the shadows, and behind the protective veil of online anonymity. If that seems like a general statement, then check the statistics for yourself. Online dating is the domain of bedroom males, whereas in the non-virtual world of speed dating, women rule – and that’s no bad thing.

The evening begins with the surreal terror of a lifestyle coach pointing out body language techniques and what we should all be looking out for as 50 people simultaneously sit on their hands and try not to make eye contact. After that comes the easy bit – the talking to people bit.

The truth of the matter is, once the terror subsides and the free glass of bubbly kicks in, speed dating is actually incredibly addictive. The format of three minutes a go and no expectations turns out to be fun, as you meet a string of very nice people who mostly have a sense of humour - a definite pre-requisite for doing this in the first place.

There’s always the exception though. One person tells me off for straying from the QFT-imposed rule that we only talk about movies, saying, improbably, that she hadn’t any response prepared to being asked if she’d done this before. But the bell rang and the next person arrived. If only real life were like this!

The neat modifications that the QFT make to the format, such as women moving from table to table to the men as the movie theme of the evening, makes it all the more enjoyable. And the screening of definitive romcom When Harry Met Sally, on its 20th anniversary, is also a nice touch for a singles’ bash, although how the movie’s happy ending went down with the auditorium of hardened singles I don’t know.

Nearly every woman I spoke to had brought a friend and almost all said it was their first time. All agreed that they had no real expectations for romance and said it was only a bit of fun. Of the men there, I can only say that most of the women I chatted to seemed to think they were a fairly normal bunch.

The clichés about the creepy males who attend these events did have some foundation in truth, however. There was one bloke who seemed to induce unanimous unease (not me, I’m delighted to say). A straw poll during drinks after the event proved that nearly all the women found ‘Barry’ (name changed to protect the guilty) had been offensive, rude and 'quite scary'. But that’s the lottery of these things. And that’s why singles nights should be classified under ‘good clean fun’ and not, as some men might think, ‘public exposure as a desperate emotional recidivist’.

We are what we are guys, just accept it. Women already have. What speed dating isn’t, it would seem, is a sure fire way to romance. Then again, what is? That’s the hard bit you have work out for yourself, the easy, fun bit is doing things like this. Nobody will stare – I promise.