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The Hill – interviews Mary who – in the words The Times Literary Supplement – “could match up an Anais Nin or Spike Milligan without much difficulty”

the-hill-mary
Can buy me love!

Jane Turney talks to Mary Balfour, agony aunt and owner of three Kensington dating agencies, about the business of love and romance

“If you are looking for a new job you do not expect to find it by chance, you go to a recruitment agency or look in newspaper adverts. It is the same with finding a partner …We are a new social service”

You might think that Mary Balfour, owner of three Kensington based personal introduction agencies, might have met her own husband through an agency or a newspaper ad. But no, she fell in with her next door neighbour… meeting him up a ladder!

If only life could be that simple for us. But it’s not, which is why in increasingly busy and fractured times introduction agencies are such good business. According to the Association of British Introduction Agencies, between 200,000 and 250,000 people in the UK are signed agencies at any one time — and this excludes internet sites!

Certainly business seems to be booming for Mary, and her clutch of upmarket agencies for ‘thinking people.’ First there’s Drawing Down Moon, which was set up in 1984 and currently has 1500 members on their books. Here clients choose potential partners by perusing handwritten profiles and photographs in files marked “Men” and “Women”. Then there’s Only Lunch, where staff match you up with compatible, like-minded partners and set you up on a date, even choosing and booking the restaurant.

All you have to do is turn up and remember the Christian name of the person you are meeting (not good if you are a control freak!) And the baby in the business loveandfriends. com, an internet site (like the others, for well-educated people), already boasts more than 15,000 members even though it’s only been set up and running for 18 months.

Clearly the image of the introduction as a last resort for ‘sad losers’ is off the mark these days (the vast majority of Mary’s clients are creative professionals with degrees), but I wondered why they have become so popular of late. A recurrent problem is a lack of opportunity to meet people …“People think it’s their fault but it’s not, it is the society we are in,” says Mary.

“This is the first time in history that women have been allowed to buy and own their own property and have been able to on their own. It has changed the whole nature of relationships – instead of the economic nexus there is the emotional nexus. Because the emotional connection is so important, you have to meet many more people to find the right one.”

Mary, a former head of the Wornington branch of the (then) Hammersmith and North Kensington Adult Education Institute, points out. “If you are looking for a new job you do not expect to find it by chance, you go to a recruitment agency and look in newspaper adverts. It is the same with finding a partner We are a new social service.” But what chance do you have of meeting ‘the one’ if you try an agency? “Everybody we match up is going to be compatible, because they will have the right educational and social background, interests in common, attractiveness and energy levels roughly on a par …we will have got all that right, it is just the fine tuning and chemistry — which can take months to develop.”

Mary says one of her jobs is to make people take a broader look at potential partners: “You’ve got to be open, adventurous and flexible. I always say if you get 60% of your shopping list, that is brilliant — people who want 100% from day one are going to be disappointed. Our job is to stretch people’s horizons.”

Mary won’t give figures as to how many people form successful relationships through her agencies (how do you define this — marriage, or short term but happy relationships, or even long term friendship?) but says:

“Joining a dating agency is the best thing you can do for yourself because you might not meet the person at the agency, but it does put you in dating mode. There is nothing nicer than dressing up and going out on another date with a human being, even if he isn’t the man of your dreams and you decide not to see each other again, you can still have a good conversation, food, a good bottle of wine and enjoy yourself. …It is about networking, you are increasing the number of possibilities to meet single people.”

So, if you haven’t got a partner lined up for Valentine’s Day what are you waiting for? Mel Gibson found his spouse through an agency — so it’s got to be alright for the rest of us!

Courtesy of The Hill Magazine