A funny thing has happened, since launching my new dating podcast, London Love Stories, five weeks ago.
The weekly series tells real-life love stories from across our capital city, from Sliding Doors moments on the Tube to fateful 999 calls. My main fear going into the recordings was that it would all be too fairytale, too sickly, too perfect, for wearied Londoners slogging home in the rain wondering why they've been ghosted for the 18th time in as many months. Will only smug, married-up couples want to listen to these rom-com-worthy meet-cutes set among the streets and spires of the world's greatest city?
The reality, to my delight, has been quite the opposite. In the week since we launched our first episode about a couple who had their own Sliding Doors moment on the District Line, it's been single listeners — many of whom say had given up on having their own love story — who I've received the highest number of messages from. It turns out we are a city of old romantics, really, when it comes down to it. We just needed a reason to believe that romance was still out there, somewhere amid the dating app-ridden chaos of 2023.
The seven episodes that make up series one certainly have that magic, spine-tingling factor we old romantics long for, whether it's electric glances on the back seat of a north London bus or a chance encounter in a Bermondsey pub that changed a nurse's life forever. But I hope they have the relatable factor, too. Yes, Richard Curtis-style romance can and does still exist here in our busy, polluted capital city — but we all play a role in making it happen.
I'll explain what I mean in my learnings, below, which you've probably already had a taster of if you happen to have crossed paths with me in the last month or so (sorry, housemates, promise I'll find a new subject to bore you with in 2024). It turns out keeping this podcast a secret was harder than I expected, when it's taught me so my lessons I've been desperate to share with the world.
So here they are: my lessons, my learnings, my conclusions and takeaways. They might not be revolutionary but I'm pretty sure you'll find them heartening, or at the very least relatable, whether you're lucky enough to have had your own love story yet or not.
It's never just about luck
There can be something pretty sickening reading about chance encounters on the District Line or West End theatre workers who just so happened to get put on the same shift at the same time. Out of a whole city of eight million people, what are the chances, really, that our person will just so happen to get onto the same carriage as us in exactly the right moment?
What this podcast has taught me is that there is no one person, there is no written-in-the-stars destiny, most of the time (sorry). Sure, there is luck in Aaron and Rachel's Tube meet-cute in episode one — both being on that same Tube carriage, a seat opposite Rachel becoming available, Aaron happening to have a spare business card in his pocket — but there's a whole lot of choice in it, too: Rachel following Aaron onto that Tube carriage, Aaron taking that seat, Rachel following up on that business card. The transient nature of public transport just forced them to be braver and make those choices more quickly than they might have done in another situation; than many of us might do every day, when a sexy stranger sits next to us on the Victoria Line.
Happily, London is packed full of sexy strangers (even if half of them do have their heads down), though the truth is slightly less sexy, I'm afraid — but hopefully more hopeful. There is choice in all of the stories in this series, whether it's Paige choosing to message Rob on Facebook in episode two, Ricky choosing to risk having his heart broken again in episode five, or Alice choosing to get off the bus for Elliot in episode seven, our bumper finale episode (I challenge you not to get goosebumps when you listen to this one).
It turns out we all have these opportunities — these potential meet-cutes, potential friendships, potential networking opportunities — in front of us every day, every time we take the bus instead of an Uber, every time we force ourselves out of the house to that party we can't be bothered to go to, every time we actually speak to the barman instead of scrolling on Instagram. It's what we choose to do with these moments that will decide what really happens in all our lives; who we end up meeting — or in just as many cases, who we don't.
Fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it: it's in our hands, really, whether or not you believe in all that written-in-the-stars stuff. We should all take comfort from that; take agency from it. I know I certainly have.
Timing is just as important as the person
It's as unsexy as the first point so I'll say it quickly: yes, you can meet the right person at the wrong time. And no, there is nothing you can do about it. Except to unhear everything I said in my first learning, above, and hold onto that everything-happens-for-a-reason, written-in-the-stars feeling after all: sometimes, if it's meant to happen, life will bring you back together when the timing is right, as retirees Lesley and Alan find out all too well in episode three.
The couple married when they were teenagers, divorced in their twenties and ran into each other again several years later. I won't give away too many spoilers, but it turns out they were each other's person, after all. They needed to grow into each other first.
I've thought about this a lot since speaking to Lesley and Alan a few months ago. Some of us will know the person we’re meant to be with for 10 years before we get together with them in a romantic way. That's not a sign we should’ve saved ourselves all the heartbreak and got together with them a decade ago. In fact, we probably needed all those rejections and breakups, painful as they were, to work out what we are looking for. We needed the failed relationships to see the good one that's was right in front of us.
Growing up is naturally an important part of this, if you ask almost all of the couples we spoke to for this series — that's why they all worked out eventually and their relationships with their exes didn't. You only have to look at the couple I interviewed for a Love Stories column several years ago, who had an arranged marriage: yes, they committed to someone who felt right and shared their values; but just as important was the fact that they committed to someone who was also ready to commit.
Sure, it's not the kind of racy concept you'll want to get written on a t-shirt, but it's important fact to hold onto if you're single and growing increasingly frustrated with emotionally-unavailable potential partners telling you they don't have time to meet for three weeks.
Just because that Hinge match sent you a fire emoji and has the same Spotify Wrapped results as you, that doesn't mean he's ready to start scrolling RightMove together and making small-talk with your grandparents. He might be, but you might want to actually check with him, first.
Endings can actually be beginnings in disguise
You'll have heard this time and time and again if you've been through a big breakup: your friends telling you everything happens for a reason; that it's just fate opening a new door. At risk of sounding like Elizabeth Day on How To Fail, those friends were probably onto something. We need failure, we need endings, we need rejections and that messy, doubled-over-in-pain heartbreak — even in Lesley and Alan's case, when they still ended up together eventually.
Most of us don't end up getting back together with our exes like they did — and for good reason. Most of the time we need love to fall apart — even if it’s in a dramatic, soul-crushing kind of way — to give us the blank slate for working out what we do want; to start again; to find the path we’re supposed to be on, as theatre workers Arif and Ricky discover all-too-painfully in episode five.
But it's not just the big, I'll-never-be-happy-again breakups that can be the making of us. A lot of the time, it's the smaller failures within relationships — the tussles, the micro-breakups, the will-they-won't-they moments — that actually go on to plant the deepest of roots for a successful relationship.
Without them, we'd be missing out on those running-through-the-airport moments, those I-made-a-mistake-it's-always-been-you! moments we see in the movies — or in Elliot from episode seven's case, turning up on Alice's-doorstep in the middle of the night. See, I told you you'd get goosebumps.
App culture has made us lazy
It's fun to sit around blaming apps for the reason we're all single and lonely and not talking to each other in-person anymore — and there's a lot of truth in it. The apps have made us lazy, they have made us mistrusting, and they might mean half of us have lost faith in ever having our locked-eyes-on-the-District-Line moment.
But Hinge and Bumble aren't actually the problem here.
No, the problem isn't the apps themselves but the culture they've created: what they've done to our collective behaviour. Why risk getting rejected approaching that redhead you eye-flirt with at Blank Street Coffee every morning when you can go home and scroll, swipe and get digitally-rejected from the comfort of your own sofa? And isn't it creepy to approach people in person nowadays, anyway?
Ask any one of our series one couples and it turns out talking — yep, actual face-to-face, not-through-an-app talking — is actually not that creepy and actually quite fun. It can change your life, even, if you approach the situation like you would any other interaction and treat it with manners, respect and a good old British sense of humour (and perhaps steer clear of Aaron's opening line "hi, are you German?"). Obviously, it helps if you've got a bit of Dutch-courage behind you, as Rory and Charlotte discover in episode seven.
Tick-box dating can never replace chemistry
Rob, a Met Police officer we hear from in episode two, says deleting the apps was the best thing he did before meeting his now-wife Paige, a paramedic with the London Ambulance Service. It's not that he and Paige wouldn't have swiped for each other if they'd crossed paths on an app — they had a shared sense of humour, a caring side, similar values.
It's that the convenience of the apps had stopped him looking up at the opportunities that were presenting themselves in his life every day. Call it fate, luck or simply pure coincidence, but he met Paige (in-person) the very next day.
Ritchie and Laura, a couple of SpareRoomers we'll hear from in episode four, have a few things to say about app culture, too. The reason they got together during those dark days of the pandemic isn't solely because they had nothing better to do than bake sourdough together; but because they didn't have the tick boxes of dating apps to distract them from that invisible thing called chemistry.
Unlike Paige and Rob, Ritchie and Laura didn't have a whole lot in common on paper. In fact, the pair of them had very different backgrounds and completely opposite political views. They'd probably have dismissed each other quickly on the apps; judged each other, even. Fortunately, lockdown and living together gave them the luxury of time to realise that they had much more in common than any app would have shown.
Again, this is probably a frustrating thing to read when you're single and swiping. You can't see chemistry on an app and you probably don't have the luxury of time to get to know someone as a friend first. Which is why you've spent the last three months voice-noting your BFFs about another Thursday night wasted with a my-type-on-paper person without any kind of spark. But isn't that just the culture we live in now?
I hope my podcast can be proof that there's potential in all interactions, however small they might seem — the learning here is that we need to create as many as we can.
Yes, it's a cliché and yes, your mum's been banging on about it for years, but the lesson in this case is simple, really: go out! Join that club! Say yes to that work opportunity or flat move or whatever invitation it is feels a little scary but you know deep-down could actually be quite good for you.
And this doesn't just apply to romantic relationships, focused as much as we are on these in series one. If we all remember to look up a little more (don't sit on WhatsApp — listen to a podcast!), we might just meet that friend who will one day introduce us to our future partner, or that work connection who will one day offer us our next job.
Londoners will do crazy things for love
Screw all those London-is-the-loneliest-city-in-the-world stereotypes and definitely forget those reels about romance being lost forever. Or at least reserve judgement until after you've listened to the whole of series one (your gift for reaching the end of this article is a little teaser of next week's episode: it's only with rom-com king Richard Curtis himself!).
Call me an old romantic, but after months spent interviewing Londoners of all shapes, sizes, races and religions, I'm inclined to believe Richard is right: love, actually is (still) all around, buried as it might seem beneath all the winter gloom and news-cycle doom.
And it turns out Londoners will do pretty crazy things to find those moments in real-life, not just in the movies, whether it's getting on their bike in the middle of the night like Elliot, lying to their flatmates for the best part of a year like Richy and Laura, or just some good old-fashioned Facebook stalking like Paige.
London is a city of old-romantics at heart, really.
Aaron didn't know Rachel would be single or open to talking to him that day when he asked her if she was German on that District Line — but she was. Alice didn't know Elliot had mutual friends and a mutual dream of moving to New York that when she chased after him with her big wheelie suitcase in Archway — and he was, too. Actually, all our couples had the propensity to be pretty damn romantic when they needed to be, even if they did occasionally trip up or ask an embarrassing question or forget to ask for the other person's number along the way.
It's like with anything in life, this whole love thing: sometimes you have to see (or hear) things to believe them. So buckle up and listen in and tell me you're not a romantic by the time you reach the end of our bumper finale episode in a couple of weeks' time. I hate to say I told you so.
London Love Stories with Katie Strick is out now, wherever you get your podcasts. Click here to listen to our latest episode, Heartbroken In The West End, and make sure you follow the podcast channel, so you don't miss an episode.