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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

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.