By Kate Smith
Don’t get me wrong: when I was at school, getting a card on Valentine’s Day mattered. Anything was better than the indignity of the empty pigeonhole, even a card from my dad, (except when he signed it). It wasn’t about real love, more like love bites, a cheap way for us to demonstrate our popularity, publicly.
I’m more interested now in the language of love, the words people use to express their feelings, and the connection with St Valentine, perhaps an ironic patron for lovers given that he was probably celibate. Valentine was a bishop, or a Roman Priest, or a conflation of both, or just a fiction, and he was martyred on February 14th. He has become the most popular saint in the calendar, both in England and France. No doubt if saints have pigeonholes, his is the fullest.
Manufacturing new and increasingly mawkish ways to say "I love you" is a word dearthing task. In Britain, more than 15 million cards will have been sent this year. Cynics might say that we pay the greetings-card alchemist to turn our base feelings into precious, golden love. But if love-language is currency, doesn’t Valentine’s Day devalue our coin? Through overuse aren’t we doing the opposite of the alchemist, rendering our sincerity hackneyed, worthless? (And as the philosopher Tina Turner asks: "What’s love got to do, got to do with it?")
Romantics might take a rosier view. Valentine’s Day gives permission to the otherwise shy, undemonstrative man to vent his feelings. It’s the alcohol that loosens inhibitions. And not just for men: historically, Valentine’s Day was the only day on which women could propose to men. It’s the celebration of the unspoken, the casting off of British reserve.
In this sense, Valentine might be considered the love child of Courtly Love, which was the medieval romantic literary convention whereby the lowly, lovesick man courted the noble, unattainable woman. The convention allowed a dialogue, a whole new language, to develop between would-be, mismatched lovers, which in real life went unsaid. It was the coded medium for intimacy. Just as "Squiggle loves Pooh" is today.
Maybe the language of love is doing what it always does; shedding skins, striving for newer, fresher versions of itself. I’m not utterly jaded. I know that love, its poetry, its poignancy, can be found in the unlikeliest of places: at a bus-stop, in a library, slap bang in the middle of a maths lesson, but never, I think, in a bunch of Carnations hastily bought from the nearest garage on Valentine’s Day.