The X-rays of V-Day
The language of love can be hard to readBy John Ryle • 16 February 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 730 words
If nothing came through your letterbox this morning, I’m afraid that’s it. The Valentine’s card you hoped for isn’t late, or lost in the post; it’s not coming at all. The only summons you’ll be getting is from the tax office—which has so aptly timed the deadline for self-assessment to coincide with the feverish hopes and fears of V-Day.
As for any cards you may have sent, uncertainty is liable to continue the rest of the week. Or forever. Did the object of your affection receive your card? Did they guess who sent it? And did they blush or frown, or smile a secret smile? Will you ever know?
So you took out a newspaper ad? Did they see it? Or miss it, buried among a thousand others in the personal columns of a paper they didn’t have time to read?
Big hearts and small ads
The fervours and misunderstandings of love are exacerbated, under the auspices of St Valentine, by the peculiar conventions and bizarre imagery to which we are subject in this season. There’s the annual outbreak of baroque iconography in the greetings card department: padded hearts of satin and velour, a stream of votive objects that would be at home in a roadside shrine in South America, cuddly toys that look as though they just made a break from the nursery to the boudoir.
In the High Street, in every sweet shop and hardware store, things have gone heart-shaped: chocolate, hand mirrors, lollipops. All that is solid melts into curves and bows. Valentine’s Day morphs into the Mexican Day of the Dead, with sweet things recreated in the form of bones or vital organs—anatomy become confectionery. Are chocolate hearts enough for the votaries of St Valentine? Why not marzipan kidneys, Mexican-style? Or sugar skulls?
And those small ads. Surely the course of true love is bumpy enough already. Do we need the additional complication of the hidden, encoded newspaper advert—today, in the age of the internet? What would Cupid say about that? If you’re lucky your love-dart may reach the one you yearn for. Statistically speaking, it’s less than likely.
A sampling of Valentine’s Day ads reveals a high incidence of terms such as these: “sweetpea”, “bunny rabbit”, “slug”, “loveyducks”, “doggie” and “bear”. Perhaps you are someone’s bunny rabbit, or their sweetpea, their slug, their dog or their bear. But are you sure it’s only you? The secret thrill of having your private language of endearment in full view is mitigated by the task of wading through everybody else’s. Surely there’s a better way.
Valentine’s Day messages displace the routine arcana of the contact ad. But there are challenges in everyday contact ads too, at least for dullards like me. There’s the GSOH problem, for example. I’m not the first to ask whether someone who draws attention to their Good—or is it Great?—Sense of Humour—will actually possess one. And whether it will be my jokes they laugh at, or their own (or maybe the incomprehensible private witticisms in Valentine’s Day ads.) Either way, for the sake of any relationship you or I may be seeking, let’s hope they have not just a GSOH, but also a GSOS—a Great Sense of Sex.
A sense of wit and wonder
Finally, here is a more edifying Valentine story: a tale of love and wit.
A few years ago the boyfriend of an acquaintance of mine asked her to marry him. She turned him down. Told him she didn’t feel she knew him well enough. So, the following Valentine’s Day, he sent her, not flowers, not chocolate, nor a teddy bear, nor a bright red satin heart, nor yet a coded message in a newspaper—but a manila envelope, A2 size, containing a full-length x-ray of himself. This showed, you might say, GSOT, a Great Sense of Transparency.
And it worked, the A2 x-ray stratagem. She said it was too fine a gesture to say no. Five years on the two of them are still together. Let us wish them a happy anniversary. What’s the moral? Private messages in public places are hit and miss; what matters is sincerity, originality and transparency. And GSOW: a sense of wit, and wonder. ✭