It's not that I'm totally hopeless with women, more that I'm clumsy. I seem to have reached my early 30s without the ability to read the signs that can take you from initial attraction to intimacy.
Even when I have managed to get a date, it usually turns out to be a disaster, like that time I threw up into a litter bin or introduced a total stranger to my friends thinking she was my date. And having just broken up with my long-term girlfriend, I felt I needed some expert help before embarking on my first date for years.
I needed to learn some new moves, so I signed up for a weekend flirting course. Picture the scene: I arrived first thing at a down-at-heel hotel in Bayswater and asked sotto voce where to report for the flirting weekend.
Upstairs, sitting on the edge of an uncomfortable sofa, I watched people pass by, trying to guess who I would be flirting with, hoping it would be that Italian girl with the really tight jeans. Eventually, a group coalesced near the coffee machine, talking quite openly about the course. Perhaps my non-participation was being duly noted and was part of the whole experience.
I sidled over and tried desperately to make small talk.
Needless to say they were all much better at it than me. Suddenly, the doors to the nondescript conference room swung open and Peta Heskell, our coach, an ultra-slim red-head in her late 40s, fizzing with energy, announced: "Let the flirting begin."
I had hoped that the course would arm me with top tips on reading body language, useful chat-up lines, hints on how to move things in the right direction and loads of flirting practice with fellow flirtees. Heskell, however, had other ideas. I regard flirting as playful; putting on a show and keeping your real self hidden at all costs. Make her laugh, make her feel special and, above all, be a good listener and you are halfway there. But no, according to Heskell, all this is irrelevant if we haven't learned to love ourselves; we must find our inner magnificence and only then would we attract the partner of our dreams. To move this process along, we were told to imagine that we were gods and goddesses, go up to everyone in the room, shake hands with them and exclaim: "Hello you great big beautiful god/goddess!"
I have rarely been so embarrassed. If I had known that this was a taste of worse things to come, I would have walked out there and then. Heskell was assisted by a crack squad of facilitators, who all appeared to have special powers. Martin - he of the deep, mellifluous voice - turned out to be a hypnotist. Sasha was a martial arts and dance expert, and Mackenzie, an American girl, was just totally flirtatious. Any flirting action that took place over the weekend - and there turned out to be very little - centred around this flirtpot.
Over lunch I had an opportunity to get to know my fellow flirters, find out what they thought of the course and maybe do some flirting on the side. Actually, I tried to sneak off on my own, but they insisted I join them. It turned out that they were a bunch of well-educated, professional people who were completely at ease with each other. I did notice, however, that they all seemed so terribly earnest. Those constant attempts at humorous banter that usually occur when British people are thrown together were entirely absent.
They certainly needed help to access their inner flirt. And so after lunch Sasha attempted to break down our inhibitions through the medium of salsa. Dirty dancing, totally sober, in a brightly-lit room was just too much for me. I was by far the worst dancer. Richard, a kindly divorcee with a great 'tache, took me to one side and told me that, with practise, I may just be able to dance. I'd passed the point of embarrassment, and that's when I finally started to relax and enjoy myself. The next day I felt my defensiveness and my English reserve drop away. I began to open up and smile with my new friends, although no flirting had yet occurred.
These courses are not suitable for those who want to learn about the mechanics of flirtation, or those with a low tolerance of new-age mysticism. My fiercely rational 25-year-old self would have hated every moment of self-revelation and did occasionally reappear to sneer at my hippy-like exuberance. There was a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but the very process of spending a weekend getting to know and like a group of strangers did indeed make me feel less awkward about dating again. And a good deal of Heskell's advice made sense, such as how talking and smiling at everyone you come into contact with prepares you for flirtation, or learning to love the inner you makes rejection much easier to take. She was also painfully accurate on the difference between arrogance, which results from insecurity, and true self-confidence. I realised I was the former.
Later that evening I met my date. After a screening of The Philadelphia Story, over a couple of late-night cocktails, we found ourselves flirting just like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. I couldn't help but wonder whether this was down to Heskell and her flirt ninjas or whether I was just with someone I happened to feel relaxed around. In truth, it was probably a bit of both.