“Hello Young Lovers” is an exuberant and slightly exhilarating song by the late Bobby Darin inciting young lovers everywhere to burst into a blind euphoria of Las Vegas love and have a wild old time. If large romantic gestures are ever acceptable, they are acceptable in a Las Vegas, late 1950s style. You have to knowingly wink and have a hair piece (Sinatra, Bobby Darin) and your third wife sitting in the front row with her fake-eyelashed Bambi eyes pooling with romantic tears up at you. Romantic gestures cannot be fastidious or lacking in joie de vivre. You have to go all out or just not bother. In England, Valentine’s Day arrives with temerity. It is clad in plastic and proffering hothouse flowers, those intensely farmed roses that have been air-trafficked in from somewhere balmy to hit London streets in mid-February. It makes people anxious and awkward. Apparently in the recession, Londoners have become increasingly romantic, but perhaps that’s an indication of there not being enough money around to go to the pictures, so couples retire to the bedroom instead, where the enjoyment is free (usually).
The Evening Standard suggests we should all head to Eel Pie Island or Mudchute Farm to bring out our inner romantic, and they are particularly keen on accenting the romantic atmosphere evoked by Highgate Cemetery. Whilst bracing and chilly in a slightly exciting way, I am really not sure that standing next to the lead-lined radioactive coffin of Alexander Litvenenko is going to entice the spirit of Eros. The Evening Standard is also promoting “London For Lovers”, a book that couple Sam Hodges and Sophie Vickers compiled whilst they were planning their wedding in…France. They trace walks and investigate the feelings and discoveries within them and say there’s something romantic about adventure. There isn’t, particularly, unless your adventure is taking place in the wilds of Bolivia, or trekking through the glory of the South of France / Italian border. Even a romantic Londoner as dyed in the wool as I must recognise that there isn’t anything particularly adventurous about walking around Greenwich Maritime Museum and taking the nightbus home.
Romance is London is all about the thrill of the gesture, nothing at all to do with romance. As the French writer François Rabelais once noted, “Gestures, in love, are incomparably more attractive, effective and valuable than words.” Valentines Day is an opportunity for ordinary retailers to monopolise on the power of the gesture and force extraordinary prices on the market for ordinary items. London doesn’t miss the marketing opportunity. Whilst the BT Tower message this morning tells us “Show London Some Love”, the Valentines Champagne Experience over at the London Eye costs an eye-watering £35 per person, just to go up in a capsule that looks like an enormous vitamin tablet, go up into the air and stare out at a cloudy city with zero visibility. You will, of course, be forced to share this odious capsule with other, possibly less attractive, Valentines Londoners. If you want the capsule all to yourselves, with Brut champagne and chocolates, it will cost £325.00. Now, there’s a gesture. You get “priority boarding” according to the website, unknowingly casting a whole veil of evil over the affair by romancing with the grammatical lexicon of RyanAir. You get a whole bottle of fizz and thirty minutes. Will the structure of the London Eye pods withstand possible sexual assignations for a total of 30 minutes? Surely, people who have been following fellow office workers around the office salivating since November, and who have finally lured them into the pod, will find that their victim has nowhere to escape to once they’ve got them in their dreary, eerie champagne clutches. Lots of people will look upon this as a jovial, albeit pricey, shag. But the London Eye is wise to this, and sends you up to be romantic with a “dedicated London Eye host”. In the event of the spirit of Valentine finding its insidious way into a pod, this person will have to choose whether to pretend to turn a blind eye, post the activity onto Facebook or join in. If you fancy developing sea legs, a dinner cruise on the London Barracuda, complete with three course meal and complimentary dyspepsia, will set you back £170 per head.
But why? Who was this Roman saint who left us a festival filled with heart shaped balloons and chocolate box monstrosities? Was he the patron saint of Romance or of Retail? Well, no one is actually sure who he was. He might have been a Roman martyr who bought the farm doing something dastardly in Africa, or he might have been a Roman priest who died on February 14th just north of Rome. But the fact of him is nowhere near as important to us as the legend it evokes. Whilst St Valentine appears to be the saint of courtly love, who maintains some popularity amongst lovers in the 14th century, some historians think two 18th century chaps cooked up the idea of introducing St Valentines Day as a festival. It is in the 18th century where the idea of sentiment creeps in. It was a man called Alban Butler who is credited with pioneering this sentimentalizing of St Valentine in the 18th century. I have no idea who Alban Butler is or indeed of the horse he rode in on, but I’ll bet he owned Hallmark greeting cards. And so the great saccharine slide to mawkish sentimentalism begins. By the Victorian age, handmade cards were enough to turn a shire-dwelling lady into a frenzy requiring the administration of smelling salts. Now, over-blossomed and retardingly bloomed, our out of season roses jostle for space on the London Underground and over-heated commuters wonder if maybe, just maybe, it will end in awkward damp, late February sex. A flurry of female office managers book themselves in to pastel-shaded beauty salons where painful hair removal is conducted to the nauseous soundtrack of piped classical music. Last night the South Indian restaurants of Perry Street were aglow with ungracious, ghastly red balloons, bouncing around amidst the pasty patrons.
The act recently voted the most romantic of all time is associated with a life cut short, and a life that possibly met as violent as end as St Valentine himself. Joe DiMaggio arranged for red roses to be delivered to his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe’s, grave three times a week for his entire life. The idea of some great old overweight heffer of a baseball player toddling along with his bunch of synthetic roses to the grave of a siren with whom he shared a disastrously short and unhappy marriage is a lasting testament to the mawkish dreadfulness of the vacuum packed Valentines Day red rose bouquet.
This is a city where there are many strikingly romantic site and gestures on our streets, that don’t involve spending money on dour Valentine’s menus in Cafe Rouge. The skies and outlines of our majestic buildings against a somewhat grizzly early spring setting sun possesses a romantic grandeur that costs nothing. The snow has finally melted and it definitely feels like the first day of spring today. Londoners, you can do a lot worse than head to Time Out’s Valentine’s London guide for handy hints and Do’s and Don’ts:
Happy Valentines Day Londoners.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this, this blog is updated every other Thursday. Our next update will be here on February 28th!