With Valentines Day looming once again, all of a sudden you cant seem to move in our shops and restaurants for big red hearts and flowers everywhere. All very well for the countys contented couples, but what of Surreys lonely singletons?
Well, with that in mind, it seemed like the perfect time to speak to one of the countys top experts on how to find love in the frazzled 21st century. Thats how I come to find myself sitting in the reception of a dating agency in Haslemere. Not, I hasten to add, because I am a client.
The perfect match Actually, truth to tell, Berkeley International is not anything as routine as a dating agency. Preferring to refer to themselves as an upmarket introduction agency, at this small office just across the road from the police station and next door to a supermarket, the team specialises in getting together some of the countrys most wealthy and well-heeled couples.
At the centre of it all is the charismatic Mairead Molloy who tries to help those leading very busy lives, with little time to devote to relationships, to finding that special someone though identities are, understandably, confidential.
We have lots of famous people on our books and a lot of them are A-listers, says Mairead with a grin. If you could see the names, you wouldnt believe it!
Still, as she herself adds brightly: Money cant buy you love. Maybe not, though it can help you look for it. With annual fees for clients starting at an eye-watering 7,000, plus VAT, membership to this exclusive agency doesnt come cheap.
At Haslemere HQ As we catch up over coffee, Mairead chatters animatedly about the company she has run for the last six years. You might imagine the boss of such a firm would be a Sloaney London type, all twinset and pearls. Instead, you meet a bubbly Irish woman more comfortable in a smart shirt and jeans, at least around her Haslemere HQ.
Its a bit of a surprise, actually, that the firm is in this attractive Surrey town and not at some ritzy London address. However, Mairead doesnt like being in the capital much, preferring the friendly environment of Haslemere.
I feel really at home here Ive never felt that in London, she says. And the people I have working here are nicer. More straightforward than city girls. And its nice to pop round to a local pub for a drink after work.
Nothing in Maireads background appears to qualify her as a posh matchmaker. She was brought up in rural Wexford, and had a very traditional Irish childhood.
I was one of five sisters, and it was all very old-fashioned, she says. I went to a little country school, with 11 of us in the class. Our life was dominated by the Catholic Church. When I was 16, girls like me couldnt take the pill, have a termination, or even contemplate ever getting a divorce.
Yet the young Mairead didnt rebel against the rigid standards at the time. Back then, she was happy to get her first job in a Wexford building society, and marry an Irishman when she was 24. But then life began to change.
Showing an early entrepreneurial spirit, she and her husband set up a computer company in Ireland, before moving on to Cannes on the French Riviera where they bought a hotel. The marriage didnt last, but the hotel business prospered and Mairead still lives in Cannes when she is not commuting to and from the UK. When over here, she stays in west London with one of her sisters, who became a doctor.
The whole dating thing came about in 2003 when she visited England for the first time to discuss a different venture with the man who owned the agency, and he persuaded her she was the person to build it up.
The dating minefield It was easier to meet people 20 years ago, she says. It used to be that you would find someone of the same background, the same culture, and youd meet that person probably down the pub. Now people are so busy, its a total nightmare. Were even starting to get clients in their mid-twenties.
So even the young, it seems, are finding the dating game more difficult. The divorce rate has risen sharply in recent times, and more and more people are finding it hard to build relationships that last. Mairead quotes some sobering statistics: When married men have affairs, leave their wives, Id say 80 per cent of them try to come back within a year. You dont know what youre losing until youve lost it. Quite a few of her clients are wealthy Surrey women whose husbands have departed with a younger model.
So, for those who are either divorced, separated or single with plenty of cash, remembering Berkeleys fees how does the introduction process work? Well, a phone call or e-mail to their office results in a brochure being sent. Then, if someone wants to pursue the idea, there will be a discreet meeting over coffee or a glass of wine for Mairead to size up the potential client.
What is being looked for in a partner gets noted down, sometimes in terrific detail. Dating ads so often demand that tired old requirement GSOH Good Sense of Humour so does Mairead get to hear that a lot? She rolls her eyes. Oh, yes
Beyond the predictable preference for an amusing partner, it seems the majority of people are just looking for something more than a brief encounter. Most want somebody nice, someone they can build a life with, she says.
There are some 800 names on her client list, balanced just about 50-50 between men and women. The majority are between 35 and 50. She rejects about a third of those who contact Berkeley as either completely unsuitable or likely to misbehave.
For those who are taken on, Mairead and her team of three in Haslemere will sort through their lists and eventually try to match up suitable couples. No photographs are sent out. Contact phone numbers are provided, and the rest is up to the clients. There is no limit on the number of meetings. But no one gets a refund if a relationship doesnt blossom.
Love is in the air The firms definition of success is if a relationship lasts more than six months and apparently almost three-quarters of Maireads clients do manage it. With all the romance in the air, I assumed the two bunches of flowers in the office had come from grateful customers who had found their soulmates. Not so, although happily-suited clients do often send chocolates. Many boxes of them which means a constant struggle to resist scoffing away. These days, Mairead is working hard to expand Berkeleys operations, opening up in America and around the Continent, including that playground of the rich, Monaco. She did try Dublin but found her countrymen and women reluctant to consult third parties on the rocky road to love.
Now 41, Mairead is coy about her own love life, though she does smile broadly when she declares that men over 60 can be lovely. There are no rings on her fingers, but there is a French boyfriend, and she says: I do feel sorted out. I am really happy now. She has no children. Ive been too busy. Ive just never had the time. Im an entrepreneur, I suppose and slightly mad.
Mad or not, this fizzy, determined businesswoman is relieved the agency is coming through the recession quite well. When Lehman Brothers went down last autumn, we took a hit for a while. But you know, when the economy is bad, people feel vulnerable and lonely, and they think: Ill do something about it.
If they are well-off enough, that something can be a chat with agencies like Maireads. Apart from the endless chocolates, a measure of success is the wedding invitations that often arrive. Mairead has one on her desk as we speak, sent by a couple who will soon be getting married in New York. Two satisfied clients brought together by this modern-day Cupid.