So, for date 16, I'm back on normal websites. Or should I say "normal" websites.
For this one, I was using a website called "Plenty of Fish" (or POF, as it's known in the trade). It's one of the bigger, and more popular dating sites; it was certainly one of the first. However, unlike say, Guardian Soulmates and My Single Friend, I didn't know anyone who'd used it successfully. A few people I know from online dating had described it to me in very negative terms - "Plenty of Freaks, more like", was one veteran's take on the site.
Indeed, I must say this accorded with my own experience. While there seemed to be a huge amount of profiles on the site, very few of them seemed active. Whether this was because they were profiles people had made and then forgotten about (presumably because they'd found "the one"), or whether they were fake profiles, I wasn't sure. However, once I started being messaged by a woman who bore a startling resemblance to a famous porn star, I started to get suspicious.
Obviously it wasn't the porn actress. It was either a) someone real foolishly using a salacious fake photo or b) an out and out scammer. I decided to play along for a couple of days, and yes, surprise surprise, she was based in Prague at the moment, and if I could just wire her the money for an expensive plane ticket, she'd pop over and go on a "sex-date" with me.
Yeah, of course she would. Now, of course, it's possible I have turned down a sex-date with a hot slutty Czech babe, but it occurs to me that if a person wants to go out with you, they probably don't ask for the fat cheque (Czech?) first. Or if they do, it's not really "dating", is it?
After a few weeks on Plenty of Fish, I started habitually google image searching any picture of a woman I was attracted to; and sure enough, many of them came from things like magazine shoots and so on. It seems like the absolute mecca of fake internet dating profiles. Why? Well, it's absolutely free, and the profiles are very low effort to create. It's just box-checking, and then uploading a picture, so minimum scammer effort. Simultaneously, it's pretty huge, so there must be a decent supply of marks you can con out of plane tickets and cash.
After a little while, I managed to get a date off the site. She was a lawyer, at a big firm, seemed nice on the internet. We arranged to meet in a lovely cafe in Holborn, at lunchtime. I arrived five minutes early, as is my habit, and sat down. I didn't order anything, because on these dates, it's always better to wait for the other person to arrive before ordering.
So, I sat at the table, with a copy of "Business in Great Waters" by John Terraine in my hand, and sat reading about U-boats, waiting for my date to arrive. 10 minutes passed, still no sign. I was now in the weirdo position - I was giving every woman who walked in a quick look up and down, thinking "Is this her?", and smiling at them, like a loon. Ten minutes later, with her being twenty minutes late, I began to tweet friends about how late she was, asking if they thought she was late or was standing me up.
After about 40 minutes, I gave it up for lost, ordered a massive home-made organic scone, and carried on a twitter conversation over lunch with a comedian who knew a surprising amount about U-Boats & a lovely lady novelist, so it wasn't a total loss. Indeed, between the two of them they were a pretty great date...
I messaged her again, asking what happened, and she gave me an excuse that sounded deeply unconvincing. Over the next week, I asked her a few questions about what she did, where she worked, googled her, made a few calls, and surprise surprise, the person who had been messaging me didn't match up to her work profile picture - and when I dropped an email to the solicitor at Linklaters she claimed to be, that lady had never used online dating - mostly because she was married.
I have to say, after this experience, I was pretty much done with Plenty of Fish. The site was clearly full of fake profiles, and scammers. It's also badly laid out and full of bad copy like asking you to "sum up your personality in one word' and then offering you 'Hopeless Romantic', 'Starving Artist' and 'Music Snob' as ahem, "one-word" suggestions.
Then, out of the blue, I got a message from a very pleasant sounding lady. She was another Guardian reading Tory (there's three of us, it seems) and get this - also Jewish. She was an undergraduate at Cambridge, who had worked for a big campaigning charity that I wholeheartedly approved of before leaving to go back & do the university thing. If I'm honest, it all seemed a bit too good to be true. Nervous, I arranged for us to meet at a pub in Chiswick, near where I work.
Struggling blinking into the light out of an edit suite, I arrived about 15 minutes early, and sat reading my book (The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, by Christoper Duffy, in case you're interested). 25 minutes passed, and I was looking at my watch and thinking, "Bloody hell, not again". 5 more minutes ticked by, and I started writing an angry "Why do you think my time is worth so little?" email.
Five more minutes, and I literally packed my books into my bag, and was getting up to leave, when in walked the lady, looking flustered and apologising profusely for being late. She was, I'm glad to say, exactly as advertised - entertaining, mildly right wing and Jewish enough to be killed by the Nazis, but not Jewish enough to say no to bacon sandwiches. It was, to all intents and purposes, like dating a fascinating, younger, female version of myself.
We sat down, and starting ordering drinks. She confessed fairly early on that the reason she had come on the date was because her brother, who is a fan of the blog, had begged her to track me down & date me "because he is desperate to have you as a brother-in-law". So, no pressure then...
We got talking, and had a great chat about favourite novels, writing fiction in general, the way your own experience shapes your writing. I'm firmly of the opinion that if Tolkein said "it's just a book about goblins", then yeah, it's just a book about goblins, but she argued back that everything is in the eye of the reader, really, and I'm almost sure's the first person to convince me there's some merit in the argument. It was one of the best conversations I've had on a date - certainly the most intellectually stimulating.
Of course, being an Oxbridge undergrad, she got around to asking me the inevitable "You *seem* clever - why didn't you go to Oxbridge?" question. So I told her the story. It's a good one - there's a Nazi war criminal called Baron von Mullenheim in it - but I don't really have space to tell it here. The lady in question was entertained. Maybe if you go on a date with me, you can hear it too:)
She admitted she'd never been on a "date" before; she saw dating as something pretty antiquated, like steamboats, top hats or jousting. She was, she said, much more the sort of copping off with someone in a club type. Of course, that's the nub of the whole issue.
Once you're at the age where you realise it's ok to admit you think nightclubs are shit, once going home at ten PM to watch Game of Thrones DVDs under a duvet sounds better than staying out until dawn talking to a Scandinavian blonde who's fallen down a K-hole, then you have to find other ways to meet people.
Hence, online dating.
Anyhow, after a fun evening, and a great deal of gin, we parted company. Just goes to show, there are great people on online dating sites, even on POF (Plenty of Fakers), and that as ever in the online dating world, persistence pays off. She's a lady I'd love to see again; I'm sure I'd have seen her since if she didn't live among the dreaming spires, and wasn't in the middle of exams. I may live to make her brother a happy man yet.