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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt