28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Five take two, Cupcakes with the Veteran

In which Willard ices cakes with a dater of great renown.

So here we are, date 10.

Or is it? Well,I'm sure regular readers will remember about 5 dates ago, when I asked out a girl who I thought was lovely via twitter, and she, perfectly reasonably  said no. "That doesn't count as a date! You're just trying to weasel out, the blog isn't called 27 dates and one rejected offer later!" some of you cried.

Well, as I knew when I wrote that piece, thereby hangs a tale.

It all starts a couple of years ago. A lady called CTS had started writing a dating blog called 52 First Dates.  At the time, back in 2011, I was happily in a long-term, seriously committed relationship - reading CTS's blog made me laugh, and it certainly made me glad I wasn't out there in the nightmare wasteland of the Internet.

I was with "the one", you see, so there was no chance I'd ever have to do Internet dating (the thought! Isn't it only weirdos who do that?), but I was certainly glad to be reading dispatches from the front line. The blog was very successful; it won lots of awards, contained tons of brilliant, witty writing. It wasn't all smiles and laughs; there was a genuinely chilling dark side to some of the men she met, but she wrote about it with a clarity and bravery the journalist in me admired.

At the time, I remember thinking what a great idea a long-running online dating blog was, and wondering if I'd ever be able to pull it off. And even if I could, would I? As I sit writing this at 4.30 am in a black cab on my way to meet the author of 52 first dates, to go on a date with her, I guess the question in my mind still is "maybe".

You see, the lady in question, who I asked out on twitter a couple of weeks back, was the lady who in a way, is the inspiration for this blog. Certainly, 28 Dates wouldn't exist if I hadn't read 52.

"But how did I end up going on a date with her? Didn't she turn you down?" I hear you ask. To be honest, after doing 52 online dates with all manner of weirdos, I could understand why she never wanted to touch a dating site, or meet a man "from the internet" (which I suppose I now am - how the mighty have fallen) ever again.

Well, after she had politely turned me down, a new post popped up on her blog - she was going to do a truly heroic endeavour - a 24 hour solid, round the clock, dating marathon for charity, dating 25 men in a day. She was asking for volunteers to be part of her platoon of suitors.

I'll be honest, I was in two minds as to whether to apply. The competitive part of me, and the part of me that wanted to meet her, said "Yes, go for it. Seize the day". The sensible, worries-too-much part of me said "What if she says no, again? What if it's like the Odyssey and at the end her husband and son murder you?". As you might expect, the foolish "but think of the story!" part of me won out, and I sent her an email, asking to be one of her dates.

She got back to me right away, and said she'd been intending to contact me & ask if I wanted to join in. Of course, I said yes. As you might expect, scheduling a dating marathon is quite an endeavor - she asked me what time slot I wanted, and I replied "Give me the weirdest, hardest to fill slot." She also asked that so the dates didn't become just talking all night, to bring something to do - she especially wanted to be taught any odd skills we had.

I wracked my brains for what to do. Most of my skills revolve around talking, making people laugh, surviving weirdness or writing, and I suspected she was better at all of those things than I was. Obviously, manly man's man that I am, I fell back on my culinary skills, and offered to teach her how to ice cupcakes. Yes, I know, ladies, form a queue.

Thus, at 4.30 am, I stepped out into the cold London night, got into a cab, and drove across London to meet a woman whose adventures I'd read about for two years. I had with me six un-iced cupcakes and about a pound of buttercream icing in a piping bag. I was off on a competitive date, with 24 other men competing for the hand of one lady, like some kind of post-modern Odysseus (At least, I hoped I was Odysseus. I'm probably more like Amphinomous). Even by my dating standards, this was odd.

I got to the venue, which was packed to the gills with comic Reliefers, doing their 24 hour challenge marathons. It was absolute bedlam. On the main stage in the theatre, comedian Mark Watson was sweating buckets onstage, 7 hours into a 24 hour gig; two delirious, luxuriantly bearded men were staggering around the theatre bar, 18 hours into an attempt at breaking the world record for the world's longest hug. People were singing. One chap was watching Beverly Hills Chihuahua on a 24 hour loop. By the time I got there, he was watching it for the 4th time, this time in Spanish "for variety". There were folk in various states of undress lying asleep on chairs and the floor.

I think the closest atmosphere I can immediately conjure up to describe it was something like Jabba's palace in Star Wars. You know, totally bizarre and otherworldly, but kind of exhausted & sweaty at the same time.

Anyway, in the middle of this, I met CTS, and she's just as charming in real life as she is as a writer. Also, as I had no idea what she looked like, I'm very pleased to report she's very pretty indeed. How she's single after 52+ dates, I have no idea.

We got chatting, and inevitably, we ended up sharing dating war stories - less about the dates themselves, and more about how weird the process of being known for going on bad dates is, about your dates reading about themselves and others online, and about how strange the world of being a date-blogger is. She told me she had originally started 52 first dates in league with a gay friend, who had met the man of his dreams after about ten dates, leaving her to forge on into the wilderness alone.

As well as sharing tales, we also iced cupcakes. I'd brought pink & yellow buttercream icing, as well as assorted sprinkles and things, and we happily piped out some deeply camp cakes. There was one lovely moment where we toasted each other with freshly iced cakes. Cupcake breakfast as the sun rose - we were living the dream. (I'm massively indebted to Ellie of Ellie's Bakehouse in Peckham, who helped me out with cake expertise at the last minute. You should all go there for baking lessons!)

As my time drew to a close, CTS asked me to write down a final thought on the experience, so I dashed something down on a piece of paper & handed it to her, as her next suitor arrived. I had a great time, and I hope she did too - I guess I'll find out when she writes it up in a week or so!

It's worth bearing in mind that at the end of today she'll have done 77 online dates; almost more today than I'll do in my whole dating experience. Just for comparison, at the time of writing, I've done about 16 dates in total. I recently interviewed some war veterans, who told me what it was like to join the Dambusters in 1945; sure, they were good pilots, but they were meeting these people who had done 4, 5 times as many missions as they had. Obviously, no-one is asking me to bomb a nazi rocket factory, but still, afterwards I had a vague idea of how they felt.

I'm at home now, writing the experience up - but she's still at the grindstone, and will be until eleven PM tonight. She's a lovely, bold, devil-may-care, heroic, swashbuckling (if slightly crazy) lady and she deserves to raise a fortune for charity.

You can follow the remaining dates online via Twitter @ C_T_S; donate to her here or text "date52 £5" to 70070 and show her (and me) some love. Back to normal service next week!

Last week's promised dates - Guardian Soulmates & Cougar Dating - are still pending approval from the ladies in question. One drawback of being ethical is of course, it makes a timetable hard to stick to!

A cupcake. 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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.