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.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.