The great thing about classified ads is that they have not usually been created by an agency — so what you get is the advertiser’s own best efforts to announce themselves, and what they have to offer, in just 20 words or so.
You can glean a lot from what they say, and not always in the way intended. Take this particularly telling example from the Spectator personal ads a couple of years ago: ‘Looking to meet woman on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy).’ That he added (and paid for) the last three words tells you more than he could ever understand.
Others are far more engaging — like the ‘charismatic ageing French rock star’ who, via a regular ad in the London Review of Books, offers to write bespoke songs for any occasion including birthdays, anniversaries etc. The self-deprecation betrays a firm grasp of English humour. Can he really be French?
Thanks to the internet, there are far fewer printed classifieds these days — but those that remain are often deliciously idiosyncratic. Another intriguing LRB regular is the lady who offers to paint your portrait without having seen you. She apparently divines your looks via voice energy over the phone, and in this she is doing something similar to what we all do when we read the classifieds: we imagine the people behind them and even construct little lives for them in our heads.
When I come to the latter pages of The Spectator, for example, I find it almost impossible not to glance down and check that Mr ‘Relax! I’ll write it for you!’ is still plying his speech-writing trade. When, a few years ago, the ad changed to ‘We’ll write it’ I was quite perturbed. Who was this Johnny--come-lately interloper? But wait! Maybe he had found love — a lady writer to share his life and work? The ad has occasionally reverted from ‘We’ to ‘I’ and caused me no end of anxiety on his behalf.
Classifieds like these have a way of getting under your skin, and scanning for them becomes a tic you struggle to suppress. My father obsessed daily over the ‘Deaths’ column of the Oldham Chronicle: ‘Just checking I’m not in it!’ When he did eventually feature, I knew it was just what he would have wanted.
Small ads are almost as old as society itself, and have for millennia offered exquisite thumbnail sketches of life as it was lived. A 3,000-year-old notice from Thebes appears to have been written by a draper wanting his slave back. It reads: ‘For his return to the shop of Hapu the weaver, where the best cloth is woven for your desires, a whole gold coin is offered.’
Similarly, the walls of Pompeii are covered in scratched or painted ads revealing the teeming minutiae of the city’s daily life: theatrical notices, property rentals, lost and found, a wide variety of small traders and, inevitably, prostitutes — in other words, exactly the same categories of ad that would later become popular in printed papers.
The first classifieds of this kind are said to date from 1704 when, in the first edition of America’s first newspaper, the Boston Newsletter, the publisher placed his own ground-breaking notice: ‘To all persons who have any houses… vessels, goods, wares or merchandises to be sold or let, may have the same inserted at a reasonable rate.’ It worked, and the next edition carried an ad for two lost anvils. It was joined in the next edition by two more — one for stolen clothing and another, a house to let.
Thus were traditional classifieds born and, from the start, it has always been in this section of a paper that you can discover a sense of community with fellow readers. Look in The Spectator, for example, and you will find that subscribers are keen on renting properties in Italy, especially Tuscany. They like France, too, but are less keen on Spain. They also enjoy smoked salmon, silk pyjamas, and may well have a Rolex they might want to sell to a man called Harry. These ads speak of lifestyles a little beyond my means — but then, are not dreams the lifeblood of advertising? And so to the Spectator classified which has long compelled my imagination: Nina’s flat in Paddington. For many months her ad invited us to a discreet W2 apartment where we could ‘Luxuriate!’ and enjoy the unspecified attentions of an ‘experienced and fully qualified English therapist’. I suspected Nina acquired quite a loyal following, not least because her tagline later changed to ‘Adeste Fidelis’.
Constructing this life from her 20 words was a distraction indeed. I imagined high-ceilinged Victorian rooms, impeccably furnished (just a hint of French boudoir), and no shortage of Pol Roger and smoked salmon in the fridge. I visualised Nina, too.
Her ad was not unusual, but its placing in The Spectator was. Her clients would therefore be discerning, possibly influential people. MPs? The odd stressed-out member of the cabinet? How the troubles of their hard-pressed world would fall from their shoulders as Nina opened the door to her Paddington flat, a twinkle in her eye and a glass of something expensive in her hand!
But then, after years of happily nurturing these rather lurid imaginings, I felt quite bereft when her ad suddenly disappeared. What had happened? Did the lease expire? Or had she retired — to Tuscany perhaps?
Some of you will know the answer.