28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Twenty Five, My Friends Sold Me to a Finnish Superwoman

In which Willard finds he doesn't quite have enough in common with James Bond.

So, I'm getting close to the end of the adventure, and starting to confront the very real possibility that I'll be single at the end of it, barring some sort of incredibly convenient narrative twist (but more on that later). 

I'm also deep into making a quite difficult documentary film, and working on a number of big investigations and articles for newspapers, so my dating (and writing!) time is limited, despite the end being in sight. That said, when you start to get comments on your serious, proper articles like "I don't think it's too much to ask that you spend more time going on and writing about amusing dates and less time investigating large-scale wastage of public money. Priorities, man" ... you know you have to get back in the game.

So, like anyone flailing around in this sort of situation, I turned to my friends for help. Fortunately, there's a website set up for just that situation - My Single Friend (MSF).

The idea is, "we" (we all being all the smug married happy people in the world) all have that one friend who is single and you can't understand why. Or, more likely, you totally understand why this hapless goon is single, but are willing to lie to a stranger in order to make up the numbers at your exquisite dinner parties. 

The gimmick, and the difference between it and other sites is you don't write your profile, your mates do. This avoids the crushing humiliation of actually writing yet another dating profile, plus makes online dating less of a solitary activity, and more of a fun thing you do with friends.

I'd heard only good things about the site, so I was looking forward to trying it. It's popular among ladies - partly because it's a good way of bonding with and actually helping a single depressed mate over a bottle of Lambrini, but also partly because it's quite hard to get someone to fill out the profile unless you really are friends with them. Getting even a good friend to actually follow through on writing it is quite hard - it's surprisingly difficult to convince someone to write a 400 word essay about why you're great, no matter how many times you've held their hair back while they are sick by a Bristol Kebab van. 

The reason that makes it popular is the requirement to actually have some friends (and the fact it's a paid site) acts as a good sieve through which the neanderthal misogynist element that hangs around the periphery of most dating sites is filtered out. In case you're late to the blog, here's a good recent example of that sort of thing, via the excellent Ms. Holly Brockwell.  

Mind you, that might not always work. I think my favourite MSF anecdote came from a friend in telly, who found herself very drawn to a man on the site, after he was written up beautifully by a lovely female friend of his called Zelda. After about 5 dates, the friend asked the man, who she had by then fallen for quite heavily, "when am I going to meet Zelda?" The bloke rather shamefacedly admitted she'd already met Zelda - because he'd made Zelda up. However, the friend forgave him, and reader, she married him. Maybe I should just cut out the middle man and have "Zelda" write my profile too.

"She" could mention how I'm just like Ernest Hemingway, except with the body of a bronzed greek god. Or, you know, maybe be a little more honest. However, I (perhaps foolishly, as things turned out) decided not to cheat. 

Now, I have a wide group of friends who have been following the blog since the beginning, all of whom have been clamoring to help out. The question was to whom should I entrust the responsibility? This was, after all, the dating equivalent of giving away one of that pair of keys you use to fire nuclear weapons at Russia. As an aside, I've always imagined the British versions of those keys would be a bit shit - that the person handing them over would say "Oh, you have to wiggle them a bit to make them work. There's a knack to it. Try some Vaseline."

I sat down and tried to figure out who should I anoint as my herald. A male friend? A female friend? A gay friend or a straight friend? Someone I knew from work? From University? From School? An arch-leftie? A Swivel-eyed Tory? A relative?

No, scratch that. It should never be a relative. Firstly, if I wanted to go down that route there'sThe J-Mom.com (where your Jewish mother writes your profile), and secondly, I'd spoken to one friend who told me her sister had written her a profile saying "Well, she likes tupperware". Hardly enticing.

A single person might know the dating scene better, but a happily married person might be better at actually knowing what people who settle down are looking for. Decisions, decisions. Egalitarian that I am, I let anyone who wanted to write me a profile do one. This is how I, (Sigh), ended up with 5 profiles on My Single Friend.

One thing I realised fairly early on was that some of your friends should definitely not be writing your profile, even if they aren't related to you. The key sign will be, that person is a dick. There was one profile, written by the male model chum I've mentioned before, which led with "Do you love to laugh? And fuck? Then Willard is the man for you!

I mean, yes, I was looking for a woman who enjoyed both laughter and sexual congress - that is to say, "a female human" - but I could see that this wasn't a profile that was going to work. Or was it? He's much more successful with women than I am. 

Once, a few years back, we were standing in a nightclub toilet, when in walks an attractive lady. He says "You realise this is the gent's toilet, right?" She replies "Yeah, I know". He says "So what are you doing in here then?" She says "Looking for a man like you". He smiles, gestures at a toilet cubicle. She smiles. They then depart into it to get naked. I was pretty astounded at the time; indeed, years later I'm still astounded. Then again, I think there's a reason he pulls in Nightclub toilets and I don't. I have different charms, lets say. Ones less obviously displayed in a muscle vest.

I suppose that's the nature of online dating in a way. It's best for people like me who are a good at being charming in print. A well-written dating profile is the closest I'm going to get to a push-up bra for a good sense of humour, or a tight pair of jeans for being well read and interesting. Handing over the rights to show that off to someone else felt odd, especially if they seemed to be screwing it up.

You are also relying on your friends to not say something unflattering about you. And lets face it, they know you well enough to know all the unflattering things about you. Some of them are honest enough to say those things, the damn fools. 

Another of my profiles, written by a smug married couple, included the line "He's lovely, brilliantly chaotic, always dropping everything to rush off on some sort of adventure...that means he's not the most reliable of people. He missed our wedding!" Thanks guys. Way to make me sound like a good bet. You might as well have written "AVOID AT ALL COSTS - DEADBEAT DAD IN THE MAKING". They did at least have a big section on what a good cook I am, so at least the kids will get well fed on the one weekend in four that I see them. Of course, I probably would have had to sell their beds to pay the rent that week or something. 

Of course, you're not completely at the mercy of your friends. You get a right to reply at the bottom of the friend's profile - where I could point out I'm not some sort of cataclysmically unreliable chancer (anymore). My excuse was pretty much that there was a different Willard, an evil Willard, but I killed him.

What you basically need is someone who knows what a single woman on a dating site is looking for. And someone who likes you enough they are willing to l̶i̶e̶  gloss over your flaws.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that came from a single female friend - in this case my long suffering chum Janine. Yes, the lass I was talking to on facebook chat at the start of this blog. Janine wrote a profile that was appealing enough I wrote my right to reply saying "Well, I pretty much agree with Janine, to be honest." Janine, by the way, is very much one of those people I haven't got the slightest idea why she's single. Well, to be fair, she *does* love country and western music. But, if you can see past that flaw, (or, god forbid, share it) and if you're an exceedingly handsome, charming man, preferably Irish, who is reading this, and fancies a date with her, drop me a line via the blog, and I'll see what I can do.

So, all of the profiles were running, and I sat back and waited. They all generated interest. The male model's profile did, to be fair, attract quite a few women with a serious amount of cleavage, very few of whom could spell. Janine's was by far the best. Within a week of turning it on, I'd spent the money to get a full account, and arranged a date with a stunning Scandinavian lady. Well, I *think* Finland counts as Scandinavia, anyway.

She - slightly bizarrely - invited me as her date to a dinner her company was holding on HMS Belfast, which is an old battleship (well, heavy cruiser) moored near Tower Bridge. Now, normally, I think dinner first dates are a bad idea, as it's much harder to escape quickly if things go wrong. However, she seemed nice enough, so I thought what the hell. When was I next going to get the chance to meet a beautiful woman on a battleship? It's not often you get to go on a date where the venue is festooned with 6" guns. I was a little worried this might have ended up another one of those super weird dates - battleship, foreigner, work do all rang alarm bells, but it was fine in the end.

It was quite fun - we ended up arriving early, sharing sparkling wine, and spent most of the evening chatting happily, with only occasional smalltalk with other guests about other things. We chatted about Finland - I surprised her by knowing quite a bit about the Finnish concept of Sisu, which is a basically untranslatable nordic concept, all about being tough and stoic while terrible things happen. I didn't know that it could come in good and bad varieties, and that a cowardly person could be described as having "Bad Sisu", which had a Finnish word which I can't recall and even if I could probably couldn't find all the accents required to type it.

Inevitably, the nature of My Single Friend means you end up talking about the person who recommended you. She'd been recommended by her smug married sister - but of course the conversation turned to why if Janine thought I was so great, isn't she dating me? Well, sometimes you can like a person, without there being any spark of romance.

Which sadly was also true of this date. She was very sporty - into snowboarding, hang-gliding, running marathons and rock climbing. It's fair to say, I'm not really into any of those things, as I'm not James Bond. 

She lamented the shortage of well-read, successful, interesting men who love all those things, and I sympathised, all though I suspect to be good at all of those things you'd need to not sleep very much, or possess a great deal of Sisu. 

She was certainly all of the above, so presumably there's some eugenically perfect chap (currently, no doubt climbing a mountain while reading Camus' L'Etrangere) out there for her. However, it certainly isn't me. 

So back to the wasteland, and once more on my own...


HMS Belfast [Photograph: Getty Images]

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.