In which Willard’s science experiment doesn't go to plan.
In which Willard’s science experiment doesn't go to plan.
I've done some strange dates in my time. However, without doubt, this was the strangest evening thus far.
It all started quite promisingly. My friend Martin, who writes about science and things for the Guardian, invited me to this scientist dating thing.
The idea was it was a speed dating event, for scientists. As well as the dating, there were a series of quite fun sounding experiments in human relationships. You were going along to simultaneously meet people interested in science and do science at the same time.
So, for example, once they'd done all of the speed dating blindfolded so things were completely based on your conversation; another time they'd done a thing with motion capture suits and body language. It sounded like a fun, interesting night out, and maybe a good way to meet the kind of intimidatingly intelligent lady I'm attracted to. Ideally a doctor - I mean, what better way to make my Jewish mum proud?
It was being held in a Trade Union Working Men's hall in deepest darkest east London. I probably should have looked at the phrase "Trade Union Working Men's Hall" and realised this probably wasn't the event for me.
I got off the tube and started to wend my way through the narrow streets. The bustling markets gave way to deserted streets, which gave way to row after row of boarded up terraced houses. The neighborhood was like a demilitarised zone.Eventually, after about 15 minutes walk, I got to the working mens club. It was like a bunker - huge oak doors reinforced with steel, steel bars over all the windows. Inside it was a glum place, all peeling paint, tattered home-made flyers for discos in 2010 and fused sets of fairylights.
Downstairs, in the basement "Ballroom", there were a set of plastic chairs, a bar where a burly barmaid with a beehive was serving beer, and a gigantic heart, crudely fashioned out of tinsel. Not the most promising venue. It had the air of a Butlins holiday camp in a fallout shelter. And not a ritzy fallout shelter either.
Two cheery, exceptionally enthusiastic women greeted me, checked my ticket, and gave me a massive sticker with my name on it. Because nothing says cool like name labels! A few minutes of chatting to them revealed to me this wasn't just going to be fun, it was going to be SCHEDULED FUN! You can't have fun without a timetable, right? It was about this point that Martin, demonstrating the renowned reliability of Guardian journalists, texted me to cancel. I was on my own. Fucking lefty bastards.
People started drifting in. There were a bunch of pretty attractive women, and a bunch of male scientists. I'm not saying they lived up to a particular stereotype, but there was only one other bloke who looked like he, rather than his mum, bought his clothes.
Anyway, looking at the schedule, we had a half-hour lecture on the psychology of dating from an expert, then an experiment invoving looking at objects we'd brought with us that summed up our personality, then the speed dating. We took our seats and our man with the PhD got started into his lecture. Not only did he habitually clear his throat to such an extent I thought he might be trying to pronounce words in one of those Eastern European languages that Stalin banned, the material he delivered was a straight lift from the pages of the Game.
It went a bit like this:
"Hruumphh. Ummmm Hi. I, ummm, I'm like, writing my PhD on the secrets of Ahhruumphhh....ruurummppphhharrhhhmmmmppph a group of fascinating geniuses. Men who describe themselves as Ahhrrruumpppphhhh pickup artists."
<Pause, flip through dense Powerpoint slides, pause to visibly rub himself, continue>
His PhD was in looking at the bible of the Rape Jedi and seeing if it was true. He described women like fish in a Jack Cousteau movie - strange, mysterious, unknowable creatures of the deep - and I could tell there hadn't been a lot of field research on his part.
It was so strange, for the first five minutes I thought it might be character comedy or performance art. There was no analysis of whether all the tricks to attract women were true or not, just verbatim repetition of the Rules of the Game, accompanied by a Powerpoint covered in spangles and glitter. The Powerpoint was incredible - the sort of thing an eleven year old girl might design after an afternoon of watching My Little Pony while overdosing on Skittles.
After that five minutes, it dawned on me that he was TOTALLY SERIOUS. He wasn't pretending to be a weird academic studying a self-help book as though it was Marx - he was the real deal. There was no diversion into what might work for women on men, despite the 50/50 male female ratio. Just half hour an hour of how to manipulate and deceive the ladies, delivered by a man who had "I want a Fritzl dungeon" written all over him. I was seriously worried that at any moment he might flip to a slide of the glittery suits he'd made from his victim's skins or something.
Despite the horrified looks from the organisers and most of the audience, he ignored signals to stop, and just plowed on with the full lecture. At the end, he got to the end of his presentation, and asked "Ahhrhahhhump...Any questions?"
There was a moment of silence, and I put up my hand. He pointed to me, and I asked "Isn't this - and the whole pickup artist scene - all just weird misogynist bullshit?" He didn't really get a chance to answer as there was a spontaneous round of applause from the ladies. We then broke for drinks, where everyone expressed shock and dismay at the guest speaker's performance, then we all launched into looking at the objects we'd all brought with us. The men looked at the women's objects, and vice versa. I'd brought my BBC issue flak jacket, which was misidentified loudly by someone as a "fishing vest". Wrong kind of rugged manly appeal.
This might have been interesting, but mid-way through this, a group of rowdy seventy year old working men insisted on pushing into the venue, and sat in the corner in a group, drinking bitter and heckling the nerds. One had his wife with him, who sat at separate table, playing patience. Maybe married life isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The one object that really caught my eye was an old school mix-tape. I hadn’t actually seen a cassette tape in ages; and for people of a certain age, mixtapes are the sweetest gift. I picked it up, and was pleased to see that the person who had brought it had superb taste in late 90’s Britpop. The game was afoot.
Finally, the speed dating kicked off, and we started to rotate around the tables. The women were all interesting, but seriously underwhelmed by the quality of the men. “It's like dating the characters, rather than the cast, of the Big bang theory”, said one woman.
After a bit of hunting, I found the mixtape lady. We sat down, got to chatting. She was impressed I'd guessed hers was the mixtape, and she'd pegged the flak jacket was mine right away. She was a teacher – observant, pretty, interesting, great taste in music, but regretting coming to the scientist dating thing immensely. I asked her why and she replied “The last bloke was picking his nose and his bum at the same time as he walked over.”
That’s not a bad epitaph to the night as a whole. As soon as the speed dating was over, everyone rushed for the door, despite the fact that a really good comedy duo, Robin and Partridge  were booked to play. I think everyone was desperate to avoid being stranded in the mutant haunted wastes of East London before the last tube left. I stayed and watched the desultory spectacle of two great comedians performing to an audience of grumpy drunk heckling old men before I left.
As I sat slightly shellshocked on the train home, I totted it up. I’d gone to a science experiment in a bunker, where the MC was a misogynist obsessed with glitter, which had been gate crashed by rowdy pensioners. Still, I lived in hope that the mixtape lady would email me and we could go on a date for more than four minutes.
Sadly, she didn’t get in touch – but these days, I'm pretty relaxed about not being everyone's cup of tea. For all the strangeness, it wasn't a bad ego boost – I realised that compared to some men out there, I’m quite the catch…