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Forget about looking for “The One” and have fun with the many, says Laurie Penny

The idea that everyone has a soulmate whom they are destined to love for ever is both implausible and cruel.

I've finally done it. A year after first being ordered to do so by a succession of damp-eyed friends, I've finally finished One Day, the bestselling Hampstead duvet novel that has now been made into a slushy Hollywood blockbuster.

I originally put the book down because the two central characters, who meet on the last day of university in 1988, are both so eminently slappable that I didn't care what happened to them over the next 20 years. Emma's "bluestocking" cleverness does not stop her falling in love with a dim, arrogant borderline alcoholic in the way one might fall into, say, an enormous plothole. And Dexter is the sort of good-looking, overprivileged tosspot whom one could well imagine being made "decent", over the course of 20 torturous years of late-night phone calls and missed connections, by the love and loss of one good woman; but a faster, simpler alternative might have been to hold his head down a toilet till the kicking stopped.

Nonetheless, Dexter and Emma are each other's One True Love, and the pursuit of One True Love, as we are doggedly informed by almost every film, book, pop song and cereal packet that deals with adult emotional interaction, can never be thwarted or questioned. So, they marry, move in together and open a little artisan deli that sells "jars of duck confit", and so overwhelming is the weight of expectation that one of them just has to die in a tragic bicycle accident. The savage predictability of this ending, which I could not bring myself to dignify with a spoiler warning, bears out the tendency of the One True Love philosophy to disintegrate in the face of real life, which has an annoying tendency to carry on after the book is closed and the cameras stop rolling.

The relatively recent cultural narrative of The One - the idea that everyone has a soulmate whom they are destined to love for ever, and that your life will always be incomplete if you fail to meet, mate and move in with that person - is not only implausible, but also cruel. It implies that those who do not find their One will somehow never be complete, that those who divorce, who live and raise children alone, or who find alternative arrangements for happiness, have somehow failed as human beings. To my mind, that's a decidedly unromantic idea.

It's not that I don't believe in true love. I've been in it several times, if only for 30 seconds on the night bus home from Hackney. There are, I am convinced, people out there for whom only the girl they met in Year Ten French or the boy they met in the back of the sticky indie disco will ever do, and no other relationship can possibly compare. I know couples like that, and I'm happy for them.

The three Ms

Those people - and I really feel as if saying this might get me shot with heart-tipped Tasers by the love police - are in the minority. Now that we are not obliged to choose between celibate loneliness and yoking ourselves for ever to a person we may grow to despise, most people's lives contain many important relationships, and sometimes those relationships fade or fizzle out. That may not fit in with the dominant ideology - that monogamous marriage is the only possible healthy way to live, love and distribute welfare benefits - but it's a more accurate map of the human heart, which is not a cartoon symbol, but a complicated tangle of meat and blood.

In One Day, every other person with whom Emma and Dexter interact romantically is drawn as an inadequate no-hoper; in real life, however, human love is not a scarce resource. I don't mean to advocate casual sex, polyamory, housing collectives and late nights drinking bad vodka with bisexual activists as alternatives that necessarily work for everyone, though they've always done so for me. The point is that the three Ms - marriage, mortgage and monogamy - do not work for everyone, either, and there's no reason why they should.

The gap between passionate, everlasting, all-consuming romance and meaningless rutting remains relatively unexplored by the publishing and film industries but, to paraphrase John Lennon, a great many people live in that gap. In real life, while we're all busy chasing The One, there is a superabundance of romance, friendship, partnership, sex and adventure to be had - and that's the most romantic thing of all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear