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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.