I remember cycling to my then girlfriend’s house. It was the furthest I had ever cycled. It was a fresh, bright morning and quite invigorating. In my backpack was a gift-wrapped box which, when opened, would bounce up little plastic butterflies. Handiscraft which would have made Blue Peter proud. I also had a standard issue rose or two. I then proceeded to sit and wait outside my girlfriend's bedroom window until she opened the curtains (with some gentle nudging from me via text) until: SURPRISE!
Many years down the line I remember opening a present from my then girlfriend: a beautiful wooden-sculpted statue of two people in an embrace. “What a lovely, thoughtful present.” I would have thought to myself if I wasn’t a dick at the time. “Okay… well this is nice but you’re going to get me something I wanted, right?” is what I actually thought. As we walked around that day I steered us off towards GAME.
After grand gestures turned to meals out, which turned to meals in, which turned to a bland exchange of presents - Valentines had become an excuse to treat myself.
I don’t know at what point I was able to take a step back and see how I had gone from the romantic to the capitalistic end of the scale, but at that point I put on my Angry Cynic Hat, climbed upon my high horse and decided that Valentine’s was load of tripe.
Upon my high horse (Terry is quite a tall horse) I could see that society had created the expectation that on the 14th of February, mostly men should surprise women, and the expectation that mostly women should be expectant of a surprise from men (society is confused in how LGBT couples fit into this expectation so chooses to ignore them). Upon my high horse I sat and wondered if anyone knew why we did this. Was it the remnants of a mating display? Whilst animals are watching their nature programs do they think the male of the human species has it easy when they can just roll up to a petrol station and buy some flowers to attract a female? The peacock spider must be livid.
Saint Valentine’s Day began as a religious celebration to honour the roman saint Valentinus. One of the most popular martyrdom stories created about him told how he would marry soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and also how he healed the daughter of his jailer. There are also records of romantic poems being sent throughout the middle ages:
Your desert can none other deserve,
Which is in my remembrance both day and night.
Before all creatures I you love and serve
While in this world I have strength and might.
Valentine’s, as we know, became really popular in the 1700’s when some bright spark realised that instead of people coming up with their own poems, or getting them from the The Young Man's Valentine Writer, they could just mass produce them on cards. Jump ahead a couple of centuries and the cold hands of capitalism got its hands around Valentine’s neck and now £1.9 billion is spent on chocolates, flowers and plastic handcuffs. Valentine’s moved from religious to romance, to forced romance with a light sprinkling of tat. Personalised Marmite jars anyone? To me, Valentine’s conjures up images of dimly lit Chinese restaurants with sickly pink tablecloths, tea lights and roses on the table.
The worst thing about Valentine’s (if you think my high horse is tall you should see the height of my ‘Angry Cynic Hat’) is that there’s something pathetic about being told by other people when you should be romantic and how you should do it. Society has created the equivalent to a recommended yearly allowance of romance and it’s sad to hear conversations about people being in trouble for not treating their partner on the 14th. I can’t think of anything more romantic than being romantic on any other day than Valentine’s day.
It’s not much better being single. You’re constantly bombarded with sickly marketing, pointless Valentine themed products and ranty blog posts, like this one, reminding you of your terrible burden. Luckily South Korea has you covered, on Black Day (April the 14th) if you are unfortunate enough not to receive chocolate on February 14th or March the 14th (depending if you are man or woman) then you are shepherded by the gentle push of marketing to go out and wallow in your singledom by wearing black and eating black food.
So how can we make Valentine’s day better? Well for a start we can give Cupid the cold shoulder. He’s basically the personification of a date rape drug - shooting his arrows and forcing people to be in love without their consent! Terry Pratchett had the right idea: the only way to kill a god is to stop believing in them and the same probably applies to Cupid and his cronies.
On a more serious note, we have to look at where we get ideas for romance. It has to be media and marketing which set our expectations. Why else can we only declare love for each other in the pissing rain / at the airport / at a press conference after a string of mishaps set-up by Richard Curtis - the puppet master of love? Love and romance isn’t something we really share or talk about in everyday conversations. That’s because romance is something more than a mating display. Romance is being nice to someone, giving something or helping someone. It’s a way of saying I see you and I know you. Romance is personal.
In Amanda Palmer’s book, ‘The Art of Asking’, she tells the story of her father-in-law’s death. Amanda wasn’t able to console her husband as they were both in different countries and busy with tours. She had this thing where she liked him to say words like tomato, banana and schedule in his ‘stupid english accent’. So she asked her assistant, who was in the same country as her husband, to be the last person in the queue at his book signing. Her assistant proceeded to place a tomato, banana, schedule on the table and received a heartfelt smile. This blows plastic handcuffs and a dodgy dinner date out of the water. If romance is dead, it is because society has beaten the heart out of it.