London - I never really meant to start internet dating, but after a long-term relationship left me single aged 32, I didn't really feel like I had a choice. My break-up was a bit nightmarish: the girl was due to be the bridesmaid at our friend's all-American, taffeta ballgowns-and-doves-style wedding - you know, the kind of weddings they have at the end of American romcoms - and she failed to show.
There's nothing quite like being introduced to people as “This is Willard - the guy the bridesmaid stood up” to make you feel about a foot tall. I didn't even get the pleasure of being the most tragic story at the wedding, as one other guest's boyfriend had confessed to being gay on the flight over and subsequently ended up hitting it off with the vicar at the reception.
Getting back to the UK and taking stock, I realised my circle of single friends had dwindled as I'd got older, and I didn't want to date someone at work, as that's always struck me as complicated and potentially disastrous. I outlined my dilemma to my boss and she suggested I try online dating. She'd met her husband through it and assured me I'd be an absolute stud online, as I'm charming and normal, as opposed to most of the men on mainstream dating sites.
“Online dating is great for people like you, Willard - it's like we've finally invented a pair of tight jeans for being funny, or a push-up bra for being intelligent,” she said.
Unfortunately, while I was charming, intelligent, funny and normal, that gave me no guarantee that the person I'd meet would be the same. On my first online date, the girl thought she'd sexily nibble me over dessert: unfortunately, her “sexy nibble” was actually an incredibly hard bite and I ended up screaming in pain, bleeding all over the table and walking away thinking she was completely mental. It was only a week later, visiting my doctor suffering from headaches and nausea, my doctor (a lovely old posh Scottish lady) asked: “Hmm, have you been bitten by any animals, Willard?” It turned out the bite wound was infected. So yeah, an infected human-bite wound. Beat that for a dating story.
While this was clearly one of the worst dates ever, it wasn't the worst I've ever been on, or ever heard of. As I told my story to friends who'd also tried online dating, they'd tell me their stories of bizarre experiences, too. My favourite was a girl who told me she went on a date with a guy who was genuinely dreadful - a real “ahem, you had three rolls, I had none, so a I think a 35/65 split is more equitable on the bill” type.
The date was over in about an hour and she headed home, thinking, what an arsehole. He then texted her, saying, “I realise the date went badly, but was wondering if you were still interested in sex. I have a massive penis. Jim. XX”. And attached to the text was a picture of said massive penis. In fairness to him (she's shown it to me), it was huge - like two beer cans welded together.
I realised here was an area of human life many of us are experimenting with, that few people - and especially few men - were writing about. I decided I'd start writing a blog about it - in honour of being bitten on my first date, I called it “28 Dates Later”. Of course, writing about dating posed its own challenges. I simultaneously wanted dates that were amusing enough to blog about, but I also wanted a real chance of meeting the future Mrs Foxton.
Then I hit upon an idea; why not do a multitude of different dating sites? There were literally thousands out there. I figured I could get my amusing dates from the madder sites - such as BikerDating, Sea Captain dating or Godmother (which matches royals with commoners). At the same time, I could use the full breadth of all the mainstream dating sites and see which one was the best. To make up the number 28, I'd have to go on 14 dates from the strange dating sites, and 14 dates from the mainstream ones.
I'd assumed I'd meet normal people from normal sites, and odd people from the odd ones, but it didn't work out that way. For example, farmer dating website Muddy Matches sounds like the punchline to a joke, but actually turned out to be a brilliant way to meet plummy young ladies called Tamara who liked horseriding. On mainstream sites, I often found people who were strange - one girl who organised her dating via a giant spreadsheet, for example, and another who started tearfully talking about her suicide attempts by the second drink.
From the experiences of friends, I'd expected, as a bloke, to be doing all the chasing, but I found that wasn't the case.
On some sites, notably Jewish dating site J-Date and military-fetish website Uniform Dating, I was barraged with messages from confident women looking for dates. I still don't think I've got over the shock of a naval officer messaging me to say: “Bang bang bang cheeky boy, I like fine chess and handcuffs. Come at me!”
There were plenty of other nightmares - including another visit to A&E near the end with what I can only describe as a sex injury - but I actually found the whole experience of dating on the wild side overwhelmingly positive.
That's not to say all the mainstream dating sites were bad and all the strange ones were good - if people ask, I always say mainstream dating site MySingleFriend (where your mates write your profile) is the best one I tried, simply because it makes dating more fun to have someone to share it with and writing the profile less onerous.
It can get a bit much at times - I found I was spending about three hours a week writing messages and then going on two or three dates a week for six months. It's a big commitment - sort of like having a second job where you're paid in anecdotes.
I suppose by now you're asking: “Did it work? Did you meet someone?” The most common story I hear about online dating is: “I went on about a dozen dates, met one total weirdo, 10 people who were nice enough but there was no romance and then I met my husband/wife/boyfriend.” That matched up to my own - for every woman I met that I never wanted to see again, I met another I wanted to stay friends with, even if there was no romantic spark. I met approximately one woman I really liked for every 10 dates I went on - and after 25, I met a woman I really, really liked. I went on the last couple of dates for the blog, but I knew in my heart she was the one I wanted.
That was months ago and we've been dating ever since. It's getting fairly serious - she's met my mom, we've said the dreaded “L” word. So, in conclusion, online dating works. It's great fun and you should try it if you haven't tried it before - and if your first few experiences put you off, remember: 1) they probably aren't worse than mine; 2) there really are lovely people just like you out there.
You can read the whole of Willard's dating experiences at http://28dateslater.blogspot.co.uk. - The Independent