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.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.