Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland

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Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, David Rose, book review“Animal in Bed. Probably a Gnu”

Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland is a collection of personal ads placed in the London Review of Books which have been gathered together by David Rose, the editor of the journal’s lonely hearts column for many years. The collection contains examples that are typically laugh-out-loud hilarious, often sad, sometimes so ambiguous as to represent a waste of the advertisers money and frequently deeply troubling. Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland opens a window on the psyche of a sub-group of book-loving, self-deprecating intellectual snobs who clearly make up the advertising readership of the London Review of Books.

I’m not familiar with this journal – I’ve never seen it, never read it, never gone looking for it. I started the book thinking “Wow! What an amusing set of people – these could ONLY be English” – yes, I do mean English. I don’t think the Welsh, Scots or Northern Irish (thankfully) are quite so obsessed with the oneupmanship of doing themselves down in public. As the book progressed I started to imagine nightmare scenarios – dates with people who might REALLY be as dysfunctional as their ads suggest (rather than just being funny); a ‘Come Dine With Me’ week of eating in the homes of these misfits; even being caught in the window seat of a train or plane with one of these oddballs next to me. I was left thinking that it’s healthy to laugh at yourself but surely not to go quite so far as some of these people. In the space of a slim book of just over 170 pages I went from thinking “Hey, it’s great to be English” to realising that there really are some smug self-satisfied (and sexually unfulfilled) twerps out there and maybe people should all move somewhere else where the mating game is a bit more caveman-like.

“Not good at parties but tremendous breasts”

The first rule of advertising is to know what you’re trying to achieve (or maybe that’s the second rule – the first is don’t get caught, I’m not sure). For an ad to work you need to be clear what your intended impact will be – there’s a mnemonic of course, but isn’t there always, and it’s called AIDA. Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. This is why when watching television you’ll sometimes find yourself thinking “I don’t have the slightest idea what that was about, but it was visually compelling” (think generations of Guinness adverts) or you’ll get the loud man from Cillit Bang at the other end of the scale practically dragging you into the store and forcing the bottle into your hand. Many of the LRB advertisers clearly don’t understand how this works though many are great at getting your attention – for example one canny but overly honest woman writes:

“I put the phrase ‘five-header bi-sexual orgy’ in this ad to increase my google hits. Really I’m looking for someone who likes hearty soups and jigsaws of kittens”.

Many ads are very eye-catching but fail totally to give any clue about their meaning. The ad which gives the book its title appears exactly as stated Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland – no clue whether male, female, hetero-, homo-, bi- or asexual – no indication. It no doubt gave readers and the editor a giggle but it’s fair to say they probably didn’t get too much bang for their buck, so to speak.

“…very funny in places, but a lot of that humour is spoiled by over-clunky and unnecessary explanatory footnotes.”

I have the neat little hardback with dust jacket. If someone in your life has ever placed or responded to a lonely hearts column, this might be a handy little stocking filler. Mind you it’s more likely to hit the mark if the aforementioned lonely heart is well read and a bit of an intellectual snob. There’s no humour in some of these if you don’t ‘get’ the references. That’s part of the problem and the thing that annoyed me about David Rose’s treatment of the topic – his incessant need to annotate the cultural references. Rose lives in New York and seems at times to be killing a lot of the humour by analysing or explaining it for the sake of his adopted countrymen. Here’s an example:

“Lacklustre, melancholic and depressive rock-climbing PhD (M, 29) unable to get a foothold in anything seeks woman with those funny metal things that stab into crevices and stop you from plummeting to a certain death”

This ad gets a one hundred and fourteen word footnote about the history of the Russian who invented the ‘camming device’ and how he and his team got arrested by the NKVD before later going on to national glory. I’m sorry but I just don’t see the need. We all knew exactly what the guy meant and when he’s hanging off the dangling rope of his relationship history, I have a funny feeling he’s not looking for a lady who specialises in Stalinist era sports political history.

Another advertiser writes:

“Your’re so vain. I bet you think this ad is about you.” before requesting a woman like Carly Simon as his soulmate.

Cue over a hundred words about the speculation over who the song was about when I doubt there’s a person alive (and interested) who doesn’t know it was Warren Beatty. Double Cue me with my hands in my head screaming “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, make him stop, make him stop. There are 160 of these footnotes and the made me want to tidy my sock drawer and campaign to bring back book burning.

“My life is a mind-numbing cesspit of despair and self-loathing. Just f*** off”

The book is structured to give us a mildly interesting but badly laid out introduction in which the author explains how his mother wanted him to work at the post office but instead he went to the LRB and shared his life with the small ads column. There then follow 17 short chapters in which he seems to be trying to link together ads which illustrate certain themes. With the exception of the excoriating final chapter entitled “You know who you are” in which advertisers ‘out’ the bad behaviour of past loves or recent dates, I didn’t always pick up on the key themes. As an example of that last chapter I offer:

“My last affair ended with a round of applause from a crew of stand-by paramedics. Woman, 39, seeks man who knows when to wear his Medic Alert Badge, carries his own emergency injectable adrenaline kit, and isn’t too scared to say “Actually, I don’t feel like Lobster tonight”.

The book ends with an unexplained appendix listing all the Miss World holders from 1951 to 2008 and an index of first lines, no doubt to help you find that killer ad that you want to share with all your soon-to-be-very-bored friends.

Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland is undoubtedly very funny in places, but a lot of that humour is spoiled by over-clunky and unnecessary explanatory footnotes. As a general rule of thumb, any 20 word ad that needs 200 words to explain it, isn’t as funny as the editor thought it was. Poor and clumsy editing gets in the way of the natural humour and insanity contained within the covers of this book. But the greatest feeling I have when reaching the end is “Thank God that I’m married and hopefully will never have to place or respond to any ad of this kind – no matter how funny or how charming”.

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Sexually, I'm more of a Switzerland
by David Rose

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Written by koshkha