Saturday, February 12, 2011


Valentine's Day is an optional extra in our calendar of "days". Unlike Christmas, you can ignore it. You can walk past the rack of cards with scarlet hearts and frilly lace edges without feeling guilty. People can be fond of each other without making a tawdry, commercially-driven, once a year fuss about it.

It used to be taken seriously, with a pagan festival of the (northern) spring celebrating the mating of birds and, by extension, the courtship of lovers. Somehow a priest called Valentine got involved. He infuriated the Roman emperor Claudius II by trying to protect Christians who were being persecuted, so Claudius had him rather nastily clubbed and beheaded. In due course Valentine was declared a saint – the patron saint not of lovers but of epileptics.

In Britain the names of the girls in a village were placed in a box and drawn out by young men in a kind of lottery. The couples remained "Valentines" for the year but were not necessarily expected to marry each other. It wasn’t just rustics either. People of all social classes made something of it – although not everybody joined in. A nobleman wrote sniffily that "a lady of wit and quality ... would never put herself to the chance of a Valentine, saying she would never couple herself but by choice."

In the seventeenth century it wasn't choice but chance: your Valentine was the first person of the opposite sex you saw on February 14th. In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded his intention not to visit a particular friend on that day in case he was claimed by the daughter of the family. On another occasion he remarked that he had painters in the house and was obliged to keep Mrs Pepys busy in case she met one of them by chance.

There was a practical reason for this. Gentlemen were expected to give their Valentines presents of gloves, stockings, garters or trinkets. The custom died out, perhaps because men resented having to give presents to women they hardly knew. True lovers continued the practice, however. Women composed poems and embroidered pieces of silk with messages, and men gave presents of books, jewellery and pottery. Sailors at sea carved bone and ivory into corset stiffeners and bobbins for making lace, decorating them with lovers' knots, flowers and sweet words.

Nowadays the age of romance has been replaced by bumper-sticker philosophy, and instead of hearts and flowers we find "Make love not war" sprayed on walls, foot-noted perhaps by pithy additions: "I'm married, I do both" or possibly, for those who remember their Latin, "amo, amas, amat it again". There is more cynicism. "It begins when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink" has acquired the status of an aphorism. Not that this view is new. Two centuries ago Jane Austen was clear-eyed about romantic expectations: "Happiness in marriage” she said, “is entirely a matter of chance".

But St Valentine's Day is not dead. Caring but undemonstrative chaps can sidle home to their wives or girlfriends with some small token of love without having to say anything mushy. It is still a day for flowers, chocolates and soppy cards. A picklepuss might point out that it is easy enough to send a card on one day of the year but what really counts is how the sender behaves the rest of the time.

For those who cheerfully ignore Mother's Day and Father's Day as commercial rip-offs, and would ignore Christmas if it weren't for the children, St Valentine's Day will pass by unnoticed. But there will be a few romantics who will wake with a leap of the heart and watch for the postie with more than usual eagerness on February fourteenth.

Friday, February 4, 2011


The other night a man on the phone doing a survey wanted to know my views on the national economy. I suspected that the “survey” was a ruse to sell me something. Probably a cheaper mortgage, or an opportunity to invest in something that required me to attend a meeting and be harangued by excited young men brimming with positive thinking. By question three I was laughing and we agreed that the survey was possibly the most ridiculously useless exercise devised by people running out of ideas, and we could stop wasting my time on it. My opinion was valueless as I was not an economist. And anyway, remember that George Bernard Shaw observed that if all the economists were laid end to end they still would not reach a conclusion. My golden rule of economics is based on the Micawber theory: spend less than you earn and save the difference.

However, lack of knowledge doesn’t stop people being an expert on everything. You only have to listen to talk-back radio. (No don’t – it will drive you mad.) Therefore, to save other surveyors bothering me, here are my views on a few subjects that I, like everyone else, have expert views about.

Teenagers scrambling their brains with alcohol
Stop telling them that they are having the best time of their lives. Grown-ups say make the most of it, soon you will be settling down with a job and family responsibilities. Can you imagine being seventeen and thinking that life isn’t going to get any better? Can you imagine contemplating the dreary prospect of the next sixty or so years all being downhill? No wonder they take to booze and look for cops to taunt into chasing them down motorways. I bet they’re whooping and hollering all the time until they smack into that power pole. How can we let this happen?

Smoke detectors
We know they save lives. Against that, we know that we are driven nuts when they go off every time we make toast and we have to flap at them with something flappable to make the racket stop. So maybe we take out the batteries. Until yesterday, I didn’t know that the new ones come with hush buttons. That single piece of information could save even more lives. And while we’re on the subject …

I tried for years to stop smoking. None of the usual tactics worked. This one did, like magic. Cancel the counselling session. Throw away the pills and patches. Don’t throw away the half-empty packet of cigarettes. Put it in a drawer, handy and available. You can stop smoking easily if you know you can have a cigarette if you really must – so you don’t. You just keep putting it off.

Another time I may offer advice on how to fix leaky houses, the best way to lose weight, the most effective beauty treatments, and how to coach the Black Caps to victory.

The picture is "Harbour"