I'm gay and I'm single.
So, guess what?, I feel
a bit left out today
Paul F Cockburn
Don't get me wrong; I don't hate Valentine's Day. 'Hate' is far too strong a word. When it comes to all that pink lovey-dovey-ness now associated with 14 February, 'intensely dislike' is more appropriate, although even the intensity has faded proportionately down the years as I've become ever better at simply blocking out all the pink heart shapes, cute teddy-bears and sweet rhymes which creep into the shops soon after the 12th day of Christmas.
Yet, it still does niggle; not least because, if you know (as I do) someone who happens to have a birthday on 14 February, you have to be far more prepared and organised than usual when it comes to finding a suitable birthday card among all the expressions of love on the shelves. As for being able to find somewhere public to enjoy a birthday drink or two, without experiencing a diabetic's worst nightmare in sugary sentiment...
Make no mistake, Valentine's Day is now big business, being the first notable event on the calendar for the nation's card-makers and hospitality sector. When you learn that an 'experience day' website called Wish.co.uk has started offering a 'Romantic Break for Three, suitable for those in polygamous relationships, or those who are fans of free love... [or] couples who often have a third, tag-along member,' then you know that today's Valentine's Day industry is big and ugly enough to start catering for more 'specialised' tastes.
That I can still go all Scrooge-like at this time of year is partly down to the whole consumerist pressure placed on these so-called romantic gestures, not least the purchase of uprooted (and therefore dying) plant-life, the gifting of sugar-saturated caffeinated fat blocks, and the proud display of expensive, pulped dead tree covered with the most effete rhyming couplets imaginable. I’m happy to live in a post-Christian society which is increasingly resurrecting Christmas's true roots as a 'half-way through the dark' celebration of life and family, but I do worry about how easily we've bought into this obsessive need to show others how romantic and loving we are, for at least one day of the year.
This is possibly the biggest change in Valentine's Day during that last 40 years; it has lost its anonymous heart. No longer do people primarily send secretive notes to their heart's desire; now you can spend anything up to 30-40 quid on a bright, glossy Valentine card targeted specifically at your girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancée, 'darling wife', 'super sexy husband' or 'the other half'; you can even send a Valentine’s Day card to your son, daughter, grandson, mum, dad, step-mum and step-dad. And probably also your ever-loyal dog or whichever feline deigns to spend some of its valuable time in your company.
If this means I come across as being an unromantic old fogey, that's certainly not my intention. I appreciate a romantic gesture as much, if not more, than the next man.
Obviously, this expansion of the Valentine's Day definition of love — I'm assuming Clintons (other card shops are available) aren't targeting people who desire their parents or the family pet — has enabled the UK's card industry to build 14 February into almost as big an earner as Mother's Day. (Despite their best efforts, Easter still belongs to the chocolate manufacturers.) This is part of the problem for me; neither the overt commercialism nor the attendant societal peer pressure to get involved have made me a fan of Valentine's Day.
Admittedly, I may well have been put off the idea as a kid; while it never bothered me that I seldom received many cards from my classmates in primary school, I did quickly come to dread having my apparent undesirability rubbed in my face by the egotistical class-favourites who had twisted arms (sometimes metaphorically) to ensure they received their mantelpiece-bending delivery come Valentine's Day. At secondary school, it was even worse, thanks to the added hormones; some of the jocks (for lack of a better term) in my year took great pleasure in pointing out how my lack of cards somehow suggested something about the length of my penis. I never quite understood the logic behind that.
No; that low-level bullying isn't what really gets me about Valentine's Day. 'Romantic Break for Three' notwithstanding, what has long stuck in my craw about the whole shooting match is its overt emphasis on coupledom and its attendant denigration of being single, which has been my preferred state for most of my adult life. Perhaps more importantly, Valentine's Day has, until recently, also struck me as being an exclusively heterosexual affair, which was problematic growing up and realising I was gay. Even on those occasions when I was in a relationship with a guy during the annual Valentine's season, that didn't stop me from feeling I was being browbeaten into something that actually had little or no relevance to me or those relationships.
Of course, when it comes to sexuality, much has changed in just the last few years, and I'm not just referring to the appearance of non-gender, non-relationship specific cards 'for the one I love' or 'for someone special'. These days, businesses of all kinds now directly target the romantic aspirations of non-heterosexual couples. Never let it be said that our Valentine's Day industry was slow off the mark when it came to appealing to that rainbow-tinged pink pound. But whether it's straight, gay, lesbian, transgender or whatever, Valentine Day's innate emphasis on coupledom to the detriment of being single still does it for me on a personal level.
If this means I come across as being an unromantic old fogey, that's certainly not my intention. I appreciate a romantic gesture as much, if not more, than the next man. My eldest brother met his wife at a Valentine's Day dance and, nearly 40 years on, I love the fact that they still treat the day as one of their own special anniversaries. Personal, unpretentious and genuine: surely that's the true meaning of Valentine's Day?
Paul F Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based freelancer specialising in arts and culture, disability issues, and military resettlement