28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Three, the Nerd and her Iguana

In which Willard encounters a fiscally prudent herpetologist.

So, for my third date, I was theoretically back in the realms of "normal" dating. I could steer away from the completely ridiculous niche sites that I'm doing for your benefit, dear readers, and concentrate on actually trying to find someone who I might be able to fall in love with. Yeah, maybe I am being unrealistic - but that's why I'm actually doing this.

Of course, it's me, so it never ends up that way - here's the Facebook chat to a mate this particular foray out into the wastelands of the internet produced:

Don't worry, we'll get on to exactly how a reptile of the family iguanidae got involved in a date. To be fair, it was probably my own fault for going on a website called "Geek2Geek".

Now, it was my desire to meet someone I might actually have something in common with to choose this particular dating site for a "normal" date - I am pretty unashamedly a bit of geek myself. I'm also not the kind of "soft" geek who is like "oh, yeah, I saw Lord of the Rings once, you know, erm, hobbits are cool". Not the kind of person who owns two "ironic" Star Wars T-shirts. I'm the real deal. World of Warcraft account; weekly 2000AD reader; I used to blog about model soldiers, for goodness sake. I occasionally write bitter reviews of how I feel "let down" by notable sci-fi writers.

I've never been lucky enough to date a girl who did anything more than really tolerate my hobbies - indeed, my longest term girlfriend once turned round to me in bed (we were living together at the time) and said "If I asked you to choose between loving me and toy soldiers, what would you choose?" I of course, replied "If you really love me, you wouldn't ask me to choose". Which obviously meant "FUCK YOU, MODEL SOLDIERS".

Not really. If she'd asked me, I'd have very reluctantly boxed them up and sold them, but I'm honest enough to admit it would have really hurt. I'll admit to a certain jealousy of friends who have lovely wives they can sit down and play X-box with, or curl up under a duvet and watch Aliens for the 200th time. I suspect Geek2Geek may not fit everyone's definition of a normal, mainstream, dating site of the Match/Soulmates variety - or does it? My own gut feeling is this sort of person, of whatever gender, is pretty common these days. I recently discovered one of my most stunningly attractive female friends is an avid roleplayer, for example (tragically, she's not attracted to men).

So I figured I could meet someone in that bracket. Now, I wasn't looking for someone with identical likes to me, just someone who might not react with abject horror if I said "so how about we go to that Alien movie marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema". Geek2Geek's community is pretty enormous, and although it's clearly bigger in the US than the UK, there were plenty of people in and around London. Within a week of trying, I'd arranged a date.

So, after work, I popped to a local pub and sat waiting for the person I was due to meet. She was 28, worked in "digital engagement", and in her profile picture, looked lovely, smiling, and obviously enjoying the great outdoors with flowers looped into her hair. Thus, I was a little surprised when someone who looked nothing like the picture tapped me on the shoulder and said "Hello, are you Willard?" Now, I understand in this online dating game, it's common to lie on your profile, but using a flattering photo from 8-10 years ago probably does you no favours. Yes, the person may meet you, but when they meet you, their initial reaction is always going to be "you don't look like your picture".

Indeed, where she'd had the picture taken (I thought it might have been at a music festival), she talked about how much she'd "had" to photoshop it. So, yeah. Digitally manipulated photograph. At least she was definitely on the level about her computer skills... So, we got to talking, over a couple of drinks. She talked about:

  • Water Filters - she does social media for a well-known brand of water filter, so, to be fair, this was in response to "so, what do you do for a living?". But her enthusiasm for them was, erm, palpable.
  • Social Media Jargon - She did at one point say, "I really love how you've diversified your personal brand", non-ironically.
  • Pensions - She LOVED personal finance. Loved it. I learned a great deal about retirement planning, the NEST scheme, SERPS and tax relief. It's fair to say, as a freelance journalist I didn't have much to add to this, but the look on her face when I told her I didn't have a pension at all at 32 was pretty priceless. It was the sort of look people reserve for those who say things like "So I said to the doctor, psychotic episodes be damned, I'm coming off those pills!".
  • Her beloved pet Iguana, Jolyon. Now, I have nothing against exotic pets, but I just find reptiles a bit repulsive. Well, I'll be honest, totally repulsive. She had photos of it (sorry, him) curled up on her duvet, with her in the bed, which to her was super cute, but to me were like some 21st century Hieronymus Bosch nightmare vision of hellish torture.

So, after about an hour, I explained I had a really important article to write the following day, made my excuses, and left, but not before saying "We should totally do this again, as friends." Pretty sure it was mutual; neither of us walked away from that date thinking "OMG that was the ONE". Probably for the best; even writing this, the idea of being woken up by a giant lizard crawling over me is making me shiver.

Now, I'm sure there's a fiscally prudent herpetologist for her out there somewhere on Geek2Geek; it's fair to say, that is not me.  So, back into the wilderness, it seems...

This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's disastrous dates so far over the next week.

This is exactly what Willard's date looked like. 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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle