Despite capitalism's best efforts, you can still have a meaningful Valentine’s Day

Amid the terrifying tat and horrible heartbreak, genuinely heartfelt gestures do still have a chance.

Valentine’s Day, with all its trials and tribulations, is surely at risk of a rebranding – and Singles Awareness Day, or SAD for short, has already been suggested. Ever since Chaucer and then capitalism upped the ante and transformed the religious feasting day into a commercial celebration of all things saccharine, the run-up to Valentine’s Day is always wrought with anxiety. Did you spend enough money, or not enough? Did you pick the right gift? Or, perhaps more depressingly, why are you alone after yet another year? Why don’t you have someone special to present with commercially-motivated, manufactured romance tat at a restaurant with uncomfortably close tables festooned in glittery heart-shaped confetti?

The mass genocide of roses, the polyester petals on the bed, and the admonitions by magazines to spend £400 on a new set of luxury lingerie as “a present for him” (but which presumably you wear) are all examples of how humanity throws itself forcefully into idiocy every time 14 February comes around. All too often, the date can turn the most soft-hearted romantic into the most hardened cynic, especially after years of being given the same teddy clutching a heart. By the time a woman is 25, it’s not uncommon for her to have a whole cupboard wherein they lurk like the murderers in some Valentine’s themed Nineties teen horror, just waiting, knife in hand, to go for the jugular. All this manufactured love certainly can be difficult to bear (sorry).

Could it be that, with so many clichés abounding, actual romance really is dead? Much has been made of the 7p Asda Smart Price card (the Asda Smart Price logo is emblazoned within a green heart, and inside the message reads: “My love for you is priceless!”), being a sign that romance is dead, but it seems more of a PR stunt than a genuine attempt to make V-Day affordable for all. Meanwhile, a New Zealand robot-themed card for computer science enthusiasts that states: “You’ve Downloaded My Heart” is actually quite sweet, and certainly more heartfelt than much of the tat on the high street. Indeed, one couple’s annual quest to present one another with the vilest cards that graphic design can offer always turns up some corkers. A mutual appreciation of ugly fonts – now that’s love, that is.

As far our own experiences of Valentine’s Day are concerned, they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag. Holly had her expectations crushed early, when her first serious boyfriend presented her with a “To My Husband” card for laughs and then split the bill with her over a Pizza Hut buffet. Meanwhile, her own sickeningly romantic and ridiculously expensive gift languished back in the car, only for it to be driven away by one of his drunk friends. Rhiannon, while living in Paris, found herself on a blind date with two identical twins that her Texan friend Amberley had met on Craigslist. The twins, who were somewhat diminutive in stature, took both girls to a boat on the Seine which turned out to be the venue for a traffic light party. Somewhat insultingly, both twins picked green, and Rhiannon went home, only to find a recent ex waiting outside her apartment in his car, reeking of Stella.

The best way to find out whether or not Valentine’s Day was as an unedifying experience as it has been for us was to ask the general public, who predictably responded in disgruntled droves. Leonie described her worst Valentine’s Day as being the time that “my ex couldn’t afford dinner so we went to McDonald’s. Both our cards were rejected (we were students). I cried with hunger.” Meanwhile, Eve recounts how, while working at Sainsbury’s, she received a card from a “chicken boy Dan”, whose identity still remains a mystery. Singletons complaining about receiving cards from their parents purporting to be from their pets were at fever pitch this year, although by far our favourite “joke card” anecdote came from Lauren, who said: “my sister sends me a card ‘from’ Les Dennis every year because I once kissed a picture of him aged 6.” We do love it when someone invests time and effort in mockery.

Alongside the hilariously eccentric there were also tales of heartbreak and woe. Rejection at an early age was a common theme, with rather a lot of romantics having had their efforts mocked and derided by crushes from their schooldays. Joseph said: “Thirteen-year-old me gave a girl a rose in the playground and said that I liked her. She threw it on the ground, stamped on it, and walked off.” Meanwhile, Georgie won the award for the most devastating realisation. Having had sex in a hotel room, her lover left to buy a bottle of wine. “He never came back,” she said. “I paid the bill. I later discovered he was married.” Illness was also common, with Captain Frantastic’s boyfriend “giving himself food poisoning from a badly reheated Gregg’s steak bake”, while Megan “went into anaphylaxis and spent the day in hospital after I had an allergic reaction to eating too many love hearts.” A contributor who wishes to remain anonymous because of their work with children said: “I decorated my bedroom like a garden and planned an indoor picnic. Took some acid when my boyfriend arrived, had a bad trip and cried until I passed out.”

Of course, there were also the fatal errors and misjudgements: the card which said “you mean everything to me” after a mere three days of being together, or the letter Louisa received “about how wonderful I am in many ways, but which signed off with a cockle-warming ‘and now that I’ve said all these things, maybe you’ll agree to anal?” Perhaps even more dispiriting was Stacey’s present of a biscuit which had once read “I’ll be your slave”. Unfortunately the “s” and the “e” had fallen off.

Then there’s the steam carpet cleaner offered as a present, or the 58p in coppers shoved inside the card. It’s difficult to know where to pitch your Valentine’s day gifts, as the advice is always changing (“giving something is better than giving nothing” has been replaced in 2013 with “the last thing she wants is cheap flowers”). In the media they’re seen as almost almost exclusively as the domain of the woman, with men complaining loudly about supposed female expectations. Yet the most successful Valentine’s Days we’ve heard of seem to be the ones which ignore corny tradition entirely and concentrate on who the person you love really is, whether that means a hamster given instead of chocolates, a snog in a grimy alley with your work colleague (Lorena and the gentleman in question are still together after 21 years) or the best friend who turned up to your job at Spud-u-like with a giant bouquet of roses (the New Statesman’s very own Laurie Penny.) All of which goes to show that, despite capitalism’s best efforts, the most important aspect of all remains the person performing the gesture, and the love you feel for them, whether it’s platonic, romantic, or your mum pretending to be your gerbil. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Did you spend too much on the gift? Are you alone for another year? V-Day is fraught with emotional problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad