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“F*ck it in its candy-scented holes” – Helen Razer on Valentine’s Day, heartbreak, and dating in Melbourne

Rose Johnstone

Valentine’s Day is, for many loved-up (read: smug) couples, a day to celebrate love, eat elbow-to-elbow in restaurants with other smug couples, and exchange overpriced greeting cards.

But what about the recently single? Or those stuck in an endless cycle of non-committal dating? Surely there is no better person to comment on both of these states than Helen Razer. One Melbourne afternoon, Razer’s partner of 15 years decided it was time to leave for good. Heartbroken, Razer – a bestselling author and journalist – embarked on a challenge that most would consider madness: going on 100 dates in less than a year. The result is a part-memoir, part-treatise on love, heartbreak and relationships that is at times simultaneously painfully raw and laugh-out-loud funny.

None of us have found the secret to relationships, break-ups and the pursuit of love, but we figured Razer might have come close to discovering it. Or at least has figured out which Melbourne bars are best for scoring.

Let’s start with a rather broad question: what are your thoughts on Valentine’s Day, Helen?
My thoughts on this market-fuelled custom are not, I’m afraid, particularly original. As we all know, blah blah, its chief purpose has long been to give a boost to retail and hospitality. That intimacy, like all our social relations, comes to be expressed through the exchange of commodities is a shame. But, I guess we’ll have to deal with this coercive shite until the revolution comes.

What advice would you give to single people on Valentine’s Day?
I would advise feeling very smug about being actively excluded from this market ritual. Who are these couples who feel compelled by a calendar to make a private, often a public, declaration of their love? Fuck the thing. Fuck it in its candy-scented holes. Who, in the name of edible undies, finds so little everyday occasion to express their affection for another that they must make a big deal about it just because the people at Hallmark cards command it?

Did dating this many people in the one city give you any insights into the peculiarities of the Melbourne dating scene?
The thing a lot of millennial folk don’t know is that there was, for many decades, no dating scene in any Australian city before the internet. Back when I was a girl in the ’80s and ’90s, a Skippy simply got so drunk, they’d fall into somebody’s trousers at the pub. People with other cultural backgrounds, of course, approached finding a mate differently. So, because the ‘dating scene’ is so new in the dominant culture and really has no ritualised history such as that we might find, for example, in the US, it hasn’t had time to find peculiarities. It follows the technology. It follows the personalities of the people involved.

Of course, there did seem to be a bit of a tendency to suggest a particularly hard-to-find bar or have knowledge about *the* place to get fusion tapas, or whatever. We take pride in our food and bar culture here, and I didn’t meet a single single who wasn’t at least a little keen to come up with something so cool, it was yet to be discovered by even Time Out!

Did you find that there was there a higher success rate on dating sites and apps, or more traditional ways of meeting people?
Most of the people I truly connected with in an emotional sense, I had connected with first online. These were not just people I met on apps/dating specific sites, but on other media like Facebook and Twitter. I, being in a fairly desperate state of heart, was open and loud about my decision to date. I just set aside all fear of rejection, which was relatively easy for me as I had just been rejected by my life partner, so every other threat of rejection paled. I was just like “date me or don’t date me, whatevs”. Being the sort of person that I am, ie, a writer, I guess I felt an initial text-based exchange was better for me. But, I was also very open in everyday life to meeting potential mates, and I had some great experiences with these people, too. I like the lack of ambiguity that online provides, though. When you are anonymised or relatively anonymised by the medium of text, you can say, “I am looking for someone for realsies” or “I am just looking to get stuffed with cock” and that declaration is there and it is made outright. So, you can always point to it if things start to go awry and be all, “but what about our contract!” The time efficiency thing provided by the internet was important to me, too. As I am well over 40 and will soon die.

Did you find that many people have deal-breakers when it comes to dating?
I certainly had deal-breakers, which I wrote down in my profiles and then promptly excused. I didn’t want to go out with anyone with a history of addiction, for example. Forgot that one quick smart. People have their ideals, then they have the lives that they actually inhabit. In other words, I was, like most people are, fairly flexible with limits.

I found myself starting to read by means of subtext what others’ limits were. Quite a few men seemed to not want ‘unreasonable’ women. Being an unreasonable woman, I simply did not contact them. Quite a few women seemed to crave someone who was solvent. Being jobless at the time, I did not contact them, either.

I think when you spend a little time either reading profiles or messaging people directly, you learn to read the code. A bloke who doesn’t want an ‘unreasonable’ woman is usually a commitment-phobic pussy. A woman who wants a high-income provider is also likely to be an arsehole; in my view, at least. Reading subtext is compulsory. Read it. Then try to avoid confrontation, as funny as it can be, with those you are likely to find offensive.

I know a load of people like to post screenshots of their unfortunate Tinder interactions. Like “here’s a shot of this needy woman” or “here’s a shot of this sexist man”. What we don’t see, however, are the truly tender moments of fleeting intimacy, which can happen even with someone you never meet. I even experienced this sort of togetherness on a triple X app, where I was talking to other divorced-and-horny people. This is, in part, why I decided to write a book about the experience. I wanted to offer a look at how, even in a world full of fuckwitted things like Valentine’s Day where our every interaction is touched by the market, that we can still be people who say lovely, wise or helpful things to each other.

What are some of the worst places to go on dates in Melbourne?
I would say “to a friend’s place”. I took a date, who I’d been ‘seeing’ for a few weeks, to a party at the home of my friends, Ross and Erin. Actually, I fucking introduced him to some of the people I like best in the world. This was my rebound dude, and I was completely and wrongly convinced that he was besotted with me—to be fair, he certainly gave me strong indications that he was. Anyhow. I had idealised the possibilities for our future at a really impossible pace, and so I began weaving him into my life.

I think it’s better to contain the places where you take a new person. It feels a little clinical to set aside places where you are less likely to coincide with your everyday life, but I think it minimises future problems.

What are some of the most romantic places in Melbourne?
Personally, I find the expectation that a particular place can evoke particular emotions is bound to end in disappointment. Some of the most ‘romantic’ moments in which I have ever participated have unfolded on public transport. Once, my partner applied tincture to a fungal infection on my big toe. That was pretty romantic.

To prepare for victory too completely is often to ensure that your love battle will be lost. Then again, I am a very self-important person who likes to think of herself as above cliché. Obviously, I’m not, and I would say that a girl going out with a girl for a manicure is very intimate and fun—may I recommend the Collingwood hotspot Blonde Tiger? As little as I actually appreciate visual art, galleries are also quite hot. This is because the lighting is flattering and the hospital cleanliness of the walls always makes you think of its filthy opposite.

The CBD is, in my view, a good choice. It’s neutral. Fortunately, our CBD bars are fantastic, as everybody knows. For older folks, Supper Club is pretty sweet. Cabinet, just behind the Town Hall, is also lovely, and seems to be a place where people of different sexualities, cultural backgrounds and ages gravitate. Madame Brussels is comic, chic and camp and the famous Miss Pearls continues her good work of blessing romance.

I wanted to avoid alcohol when I was dating, and there are plenty of people who steer clear of it for life. So low-lit Moat, at the bottom of the State Library, is good. It’s licensed, but you don’t feel a compulsion to piss on. And there are so many bonza CBD cafes where no grog is served at all.

I would also like to put in a good word for the AFLW, where hugging one’s date can be excused as a moment of team pride, rather than as a case of having drunk too much.

To those who have recently experienced heartbreak, would you recommend this technique of rapid-fire dating?
I am really opposed to the idea of role-models, or inspirational stories, as I make clear in the book. I also make it clear that this stupid decision to attempt to date 100 people was something done in haste and desperation.

But, depending on your reaction to your breakup, it could be a useful thing to do. I have friends who have shut down, sexually and socially, after a divorce/breakup, and often, their hibernation is necessary, or at least healthful in the short-term. For me, a socially anxious, deeply monogamous hermit, acting against type seemed to be a good choice.

I will say that I had this enormous sexual appetite, and I was led by my vagina rather than good sense into the world. It wasn’t really a choice that I made, but one that my id made for me. But I think the outcome of being quite social, and quite sexual, was good in several ways.

When a breakup/divorce happens, everything changes. Whether you want it to or not. You are transformed. My attitude, or at least my response, was one of ‘go with the change’. I should say, for the benefit of the broken-hearted, that this change makes itself felt in many ways, not just in the terms of your sexual or social behaviour. Because I was no longer financially responsible for another person, I began to take more risks in my work.

You must temper this, of course. I did some dumb stuff in a time of change, which I embraced a little too wholeheartedly. I put myself in some stupid situations, both professionally and personally. I pulled the ripcord on my political views, which were not ever a welcome feature in my relationship, and I started screaming at everyone about the Marxist revolution. I told my employer to get fucked. I, a BDSM naïf in terms of practice, asked a Top to put me in cuffs and have sex with me without a condom. Fortunately, he was a really nice scene-ster who told me to stop behaving like I had just read Fifty Shades and get some therapy before I decided to take on kink.

No one should behave as recklessly as I did. I got myself into a position where I had no work and very little hope. If I hadn’t, largely, met such considerate people, I might have been emotionally and physically hurt. I would say, though, that you need to embrace the change, because it’s happening in any case. Breakups suck, dude.

The Helen 100 by Helen Razer (Allen & Unwin)is on sale now. RRP $29.99.

Helen Razer's 'The Helen 100' cover

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