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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.