In 1968, when friends learned I was off to India, they begged me to bring back Indian newspapers to see what they had often read about in incredulous newspaper articles, namely the matrimonial classified advertisements. No one foresaw this alien practice spreading to the West. There was, though, an important difference.
In the West, lonely hearts advertised on their own behalf, whereas in India it was the mothers of living-at-home eligible young folk who, unbeknown to them, promoted their offspring.
This mating routine was confined to India's affluent professional and commercial classes. Negotiations conducted by letters between mothers reached their denouement with the announcement to the unsuspecting offspring, "Your father has a business associate coming to dinner".
These regular occurrences ensured eligible young people were constantly encountering potential spouses, their eagle-eyed mothers first assessing the unsuspecting candidates as acceptable and then furtively watching to see if any attraction occurred.
Judging by the advertising, the critical credentials proffered by the girls' mothers on their daughters' unwitting behalf were fair skin, beauty, a university degree and a kind nature, this a euphemism implying she won't turn into a nagger, which unless she's a Martian, in time she certainly will.
With the boys it was a university degree, financial prospects and height. While all of this was seen as hilarious in the West, it was probably a damn good system, Indian girls then being heavily protected and not getting out and about as today.
Once the practice began here I confess to amusement at the characteristic constants advertisers credited themselves with. The women's ages were always 29, 39, 49 etc. No one was ever 31, 41 or 51. All were "said to be attractive", by whom we were not told. The men described themselves such that it was inconceivable they weren't set upon by hordes of women should they venture outside.
The standard interests listed were walking on the beach at sunset, dining out and going to the theatre. Dramatic theatre relies on such people for their audiences.
Indeed, back in the late 1980s I had a married manager who fell for a much younger woman and to everyone's astonishment, mine excepted, she ran off with him. I was unsurprised as she was an architect's wife and architects' wives are forever running off with rubbish collectors, stop-go sign holders and the like. Anyway, I recall him saying that one compensation for the marriage break-up distress was that he no longer had to endure bloody Downstage (a Wellington theatre), yet further evidence it's the domain of the bored.
The advent of the jumbo jet and thus mass travel in the early 1970s brought about a new phenomenon for older wife-seekers, namely the targeting of Filipino women. They're pretty, desperate to escape and have (for older blokes) desirable, old-fashioned home-making values.
In Manila for the 1975 Ali-Frazier fight, one night in the Hilton, Australia's then leading television boxing commentator whom I knew, walked in. Behind him loped a dozen ageing hayseeds, all, it transpired, backblock farmers. He came over to me moaning about what he'd let himself in for through agreeing, for a fee plus expenses and a ringside ticket, to lead a travel agency organised trip to the fight. They'd drunk beer non-stop, he complained, and was shuddering at the prospect of escorting them about Manila. In fact, he never saw them again for they all secured tarts and never left their rooms, not even for the fight. After the fight, in the hotel foyer packed with journalists, he approached me in a distressed state.
"What am I going to do?" he wailed. "They all want me to go down to City Hall and be their best man when they marry their tarts."
"You must go," I insisted. "These will be marriages made in heaven - perfect matching filling respective needs". So he did and I don't doubt they were.
Nowadays Russia and Ukraine have usurped the Philippines for the preferred bride-sourcing location. The Economist, reporting a scandal from Odessa recently, mentioned the hordes of middle-aged Westerners on the bride hunt. They're stunning girls but with their Slavic dourness I'm hesitant about marriages made in heaven applying.
A former Sydney girlfriend has a friend whose dating exploits via newspaper advertising fascinates me. I've met this woman and witnessed her extraordinary eating capacity. Chopped up with fried rice she'd feed a small Chinese city, as on my estimation she has a stripped fighting weight of about 200kg. She's in her 50s and had never been asked out. About five years ago she began advertising in the singles classifieds, this resulting in numerous "dates". The problem was she represented herself as 37 and the standard "said to be attractive". About 60 per cent of the "dates", on meeting her, promptly fled. The others went through the motions but never rang back. To all of this she remains unabashed and justifies her misrepresentation given that 90 per cent of the men lie about their age by about 10 years, tall men turn out short, a high percentage wear toupees and so on.
I'm assured by young people that today, using internet dating sites is both socially acceptable and the principal medium for meeting likely spouses. As photos are involved it cuts out some of the newspaper classifieds' misrepresentations.
More salient is news that a British study reveals the former seven year itch phenomenon when boredom sets in, has now halved to less than three years. It's a funny old world and never more so than in the ever-changing mating rituals of modern times.