Ride on the peace train!

I’ve been crying lately thinking about the world as it is. Why must we go on hating, why can’t we live in bliss?

New Zealand was  rocked to its core by the shootings at two Christchurch mosques two weeks ago leaving  50 Muslim men, women and children dead and many others injured. Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, managed the impossible and found words of comfort, solidarity and strength that have resonated around the world as we collectively examine our consciences and belief structures, and come to terms with some fundamental truths about what we are a nation.

This has been a very emotional time in this small country of 4.9 million. I’ve cried a lot in the days since the massacre. Cried for monstrous waste of those precious lives and for the inspirational example of forgiveness offered by the families. Cried for a moment in time that has shone a light on the best and worst of us humans. Cried for all the people who experience racism and hate on a daily basis in large and small ways and who continue to turn the other cheek.. Jacinda’s words opened up a wellspring of grief for all the things we’re not. But they also opened up a wellspring of hope that the terrible price these victims of hate have paid will not be in vain. That our collective and visceral horror that this could happen here will open our eyes and hearts to what we can and should be. It’s been humbling to see the outpourings of love and support, not just from New Zealand, but from all around the world.

There was a national memorial on Friday at Christchurch which was streamed around the country. I cried some more when I watched the coverage, particularly when Yusuf Islam — Cat Stevens as was who was such a loved musician during my teens  — took the stage and sang Peace Train. It’s nearly 50 years since this song was released in 1971 at a time when Flower Power was still holding sway as a symbol of non-violent protest. The term was coined by American poet Allen Ginsberg in 1965 as a way of transforming protests against the Vietnam War into peaceful affirmative spectacles where protesters wore clothes embroidered with flowers and vibrant colour, wore flower in their hair and gave flowers to the public and on-duty police officers. The ‘flower children” or hippies and the counterculture that sprang to life around them — drugs, psychedelic music and art and social permissiveness — changed the world for ever. The “love and peace” mantra of the time seems touchingly naïve in our current reality with its social media echo chambers which enable so much awfulness to be spewed out, fuelling extremism of all sorts.

While the Flower Power movement now seems like an icon of a distant and more progressive era, the symbolism of flowers remains as potent as ever. Flowers with messages of love and support were laid in drifts at mosques around this country in the aftermath of the shootings. The universal language of flowers seem to be the best vocabulary we have to express our feelings of sorrow and grief, hope and love, not just in the aftermath of  this home grown atrocity, but also as in the wider context of world events.

The giving or laying of flowers has been one immediate and simple act we have been able to  take as individuals to affirm  Jacinda’s heartfelt “you are us” and make a commitment to ourselves to be better and not give in to bigotry and despair. We can create our own version of Flower Power, ride the peace train and harness all this good will to create a better world.

Now I’ve been smiling lately, Dreaming about the world as one 
And I believe it could be, Someday it’s going to come
‘Cause I’m on the edge of darkness, There ride the Peace Train
 Peace Train take this country, Come take me home again

 

 

 

Because you don’t know what it means to me

With mixed feelings, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody a few weeks ago. Mixed feelings because I didn’t want my illusions to be shattered. I wanted to keep my version of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Instead, I was profoundly affected by the movie. I was uplifted and moved in equal measure. I laughed and cried. I went to see it again last weekend and was again profoundly affected. I laughed and cried again.

I laughed with the band as their story unfolded and they created so much of the music that defined my generation. I laughed when they walked out on the record label luminary who thought Bohemian Rhapsody was a load of bollocks. Oh, the irony! There was a lot to laugh about and celebrate. Re-living the chronology of the music, if nothing else, was amazing. Watching it brought to life in performance again … breath-taking.

But to me, the greatness of the film is in the poignancy of the piece. In its visceral crie du coeur which moved me to tears. I cried for the loss of a hero. I cried for the loss of the youthful me and every other me out there out there whose worlds were changed from the moment we first heard Bohemian Rhapsody and saw THAT video. I cried for the band and the gaping hole Freddie’s death must have left in their lives. I cried at the poignancy of the lyrics in the light of Freddie not being at our sides to remind us how he still loves us. I cried for the love of my own life who isn’t by my side as I grow older because I never did realise until too late what it meant to me.

I cried for the impossibility of being gay at the time and the terrible risks involved in ‘coming out’, particularly for a superstar whose every move was stalked by the paparazzi and a voracious media determined to get the scoop to feed an equally voracious public. I cried for the awfulness of AIDS and how many people have died. I cried for the gay men I have loved and who have walked a mile in Freddie’s shoes. I cried for a dear friend that that lived with HIV for years until his immune system finally gave up on him a few years ago. I cried for all the vulnerable people like Freddie Mercury who are preyed on by the amoral and self-serving. Most of all, I cried for the all the music that died with him.

Although the reviews haven’t been universally kind — echoing the reception of the original release of the Bohemian Rhapsody single — I thought it was a truly wonderful film and I can’t get it out of my head. The music was, is, and always will be in my dessert island collection. Like many, many people – millions and millions of people all over the world – I loved Queen. I loved them in a primal way, still do love their unique genius which formed a backdrop to so much of my life — Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 1975 when I was 16. Long-haired, exotic, high cheek-boned, lithe, pantherlike, beguiling Freddie Mercury became indelibly etched on my psyche from the first moment I saw the band on Top of the Pops. And that voice! I believe there was (is) no other rock star that could (can) hold a candle to him.

Even though I understood very early that he was gay, he still seemed to open a window into my soul few other performers of any type have ever found. There was something so viscerally mesmerising about the man. But it’s not just the music that’s haunted me since I saw the film … and it has … I’ve watched everything by Queen on YouTube, re-watched the Freddie documentaries and sung along with it at full volume (them and me) in my car. But I am also haunted by sadness at a life so tragically cut short and the understanding how fragile our hold is on this mortal coil.

I’m deeply grateful to Rami Malek and everyone involved in the production for bringing it all back home to me and to the others in the band for sharing their story and the astonishing music they gave life to, and for enabling the film even if it wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I hope Rami gets an Oscar to go with his Golden Globe and that the film in general sweeps the boards. I’m glad that Freddie did finally find redemption and somebody to love in his last few years. And it’s wonderful that the rest of Queen are there to remind us how we still love them.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

You make me sick!

If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.

I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.

But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!

Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.

It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently.  The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.

Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.

Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.

Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.

Take your shoes off when you’re wiping your feet on me!

At a dinner party some years ago the host came up with a provocative challenge which I’ve subsequently put to many others in the intervening years. Imagine the scene. We were still sitting around the table after dinner and and had got to that mellow point — i.e. belt-looseningly full and well wined —  where you get stuck into the really good conversations. The challenge was what would we call our autobiographies. “Great question” we all agreed.

As you can imagine, silence descended on the table for some time as we all tried to think of something suitably impressive, witty, challenging, ironic or, frankly, all of the above to impress each other with. Unfortunately, I can’t actually remember any of them because there were somer crackers, and we spent a couple of hysterical (serious LOL stuff) hours reviewing peoples’ choices against what we collectively knew about them.

Being known as Frankie to that group, I think I opted for something frivolous like Frankie’s Follies. “Not bad” was the verdict of my fellow diners as they considered the chapters that might make up this clearly racy little number. The ‘they’ at the dinner being people who know me quite well rather than the faceless ‘they’ who are generally cast as the common enemy. It was an eye-opener to understand from their comments that my fellow diners saw me as something like  Bridget Jones meets Barbarella!

Even at the time, I interpreted ‘not bad’ as ‘could do better’. Frankie’s Follies just felt feel a bit frivolous and try hard as a life story, and I’ve been on the hunt for an improved one every since. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a better option — try it, it’s really hard — until recently when I started writing this blog and now I’m spoilt for choice. The title of one of my recent pieces — @shit creek #no paddle — was a contender for a while. This was getting close I felt. Whether or not it could be the perfect moniker for MY book, it would certainly be a fab one for A book. Ultimately, I ruled it out  as I’m determined that the next part of my life will be shaped to avoid any more time wasted in the waiting room for the Shit Creek Express.

But while I was writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life trying to find re-curring themes, good and bad, that underpin my story.. One of the big ones was loyalty. I’m extremely loyal person to people I care about. On too many occasions that has strayed into loyalty beyond reason where I’ve given too much — personally and professionally — putting other people’s interests way ahead of my own. Typically I’ve ended up with my head in my hands to play with; a financial loser with broken heart. That piece of navel-gazing prompted a post that’s been in the hopper for a while but, like Shubert’s majestic last symphony, remained mockingly unfinished — Take Your Shoes Off While You’re Wiping Your Feet on Me! I love this title. It’s got everything really … drama, bathos, victimhood, irony, insight … except authenticity for me now. Like the cast off @shit creek persona, the door mat who allowed too many people to wipe their feet on her is also banished from the narrative these days.

As you might have guessed, the search for the definitive title for my autobiography has become something of mission. At sleepless moments other people count sheep, meditate, name cities … whatever … I start thinking about autobiography names. Maybe this is not for everyone but, for someone who loves words, it’s the perfect way of passing time. You know the deal. When you’re sitting in a cafe or restaurant trying not to look like Jonnie-no-mates whilst waiting for friends who are running late? Or whiling way and hour or too on a cold, dark winter Sunday afternoon at home when there are no fires to fight?

Challenging other people, like my long ago host did, to name their autobiographies has produced some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking conversations I can remember. Last year when I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige I think I finally nailed it! The whole idea of not succumbing to beige has  become a personal metaphor for always being who you are, despite the pressure to conform to all manner of often uncomfortable societal norms. It represents my commitment to the ideology “to thine own self be true”, even if that true self is more bling than Ming. It captures the desire to not give in. To get back in the saddle again after falling off. To be indomitable and bounce back after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. It’s also an enduring reminder of the  husk I become during my last and very damaging long-term relationship. Most of all, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!

Seriously though, how do you frame your life story? After all, what’s in a name? Does it matter? A life’s a life isn’t it? Should be. Nonetheless, I think names do matter. When you name a child it does seem that their name help shape their personalities because of some deep-rooted need to live up or down to whatever they’re called.  Someone named Storm is likely to be a very different person from a Daisy for example. You’d be a laughing stock if you were a scaredy-Storm cat. Daisy? Well … er … I’m thinking … all those dairy cows.

Parents-in-waiting agonise over what to call their embryonic children. Any one who’s started a business will have agonised in equal measure over what to call their commercial ‘baby’ because the one they choose will shape the perceptions of every person who engages in any way with the business. I think equal dedication should be put into naming our life stories because it helps identify the values by which we want to live our lives, our primary vision and mission, and distill to its essence how we see ourselves as human beings.

We can choose to do this retrospectively when the story has already been long in the telling. This is the time when we are moving towards its ending and the denouement is becoming clear. Or we can name the story early on and allow it to shape how our plot develops and ultimately the conclusion we wish it to have. Of course, we can only stack the odds — life throws all sorts of curved balls at us which, without a crystal ball or other psychic assistance, we can’t possibly factor in from the beginning. This likely will result in a least one, if not several revisions or tweaks. But that’s a good thing, in the way that a quality business plan should be a living document evolving as circumstances change and understanding deepens.

If I had my time again, I’d take great care to more pro-actively shape my life by thinking about the story I wish to write. I don’t think for a moment I’d choose the schematic that would be required in the Take Your Shoes Off When You’re Wiping You’re Feet on Me version! If I’d started out with the Never Succumb to Beige ethos, I wonder how my life would have differed? While there have been shades of both through the years, giving a positive name to my journey earlier could have saved me from going down a lot of unnecessary rabbit holes along the way. The good news is I feel like I’m tracking pretty well against my chosen epitaph!

Thanks to College Artist for the perfect cover photo.

 

 

All I want for Christmas is …

A couple of days ago, a colleague who has one of those ill-timed birthdays just before Christmas, stormed into the office the day after her birthday with a face full of thunder. This somewhat melodramatic entry resulted in one of those impromptu discussions common to small workplaces. Her birthday experience got us debating one of the abiding themes of Christmas.

You might be mistaken for thinking that we discussed the meaning of peace on earth. But no, our philosophical dive was even deeper than that. You see, her husband had just committed the ultimate crime. For her birthday, he bought her … er … well … none of the things she’d flagged so carefully as being acceptable — the gorgeous silver bracelet, a painting she’d fallen in love with, a bottle of her favourite fragrance, tickets to the Nutcracker etc. No, he didn’t buy any of those. He bought her one of those slim-line stick vacuum cleaners. What was he thinking? So many issues there. The domestic goddess thing exists only the Nigella’s dreams. For most of the rest of us the gift of a bit of cleaning apparatus, however beautifully designed, has eerie echoes of Stepfordwifery!

After we got over the horror of it all and revived once of the more faint-hearted among our small group with smelling salts, we exchanged worst present stories and had a good laugh. Of course the terrible offerings received over the years from our various ‘Hims’ morphed into a bleat about the minefield that is buying presents for the men in our lives. Why is it so difficult for both parties to recognise a fundamental and universal truth; buy them what they say they want, not what you think they want? Of course, being single, I’m spared the soul searching that goes with selecting a gift for THE man in my life. But I do have men in my life and while they are a little less problematic than buying for a HIM, the challenge still feels a little like a blank Sedoku puzzle (I’m useless at Sedoku by the way).

Few of us are strangers to that ‘oh crap’ moment that sets in as we realise that his or her birthday is imminent. And Christmas? Well, Christmas can move from being a time of goodwill to all to one filled with axe murdering rage as the pressure mounts, the budget gets blown and we approach the big day with trepidation — be still my beating heart — will he like it?

I’ve had a few fails over the years, but I’d say the epic one among them was a few years back. I’d just come back from the UK equipped with what I thought was the perfect present for the then man in my life who pretty much had everything and had the means to buy himself anything he didn’t have. I had thought what I’d found was an inspired choice. Who wouldn’t cherish a sterling silver olive spoon based on a design made for King James I? Consider the perfection of my gift. A tiny, exquisitely-formed runcible-spoon with which to fish an olive out of a jar or bowl, the runcible feature (aka the built-in holes) allowing for drainage of the unappealing briney stuff olives usually float around in, preserving one’s clothing from drips and similar. What more could a man want?

Truly, I thought this gift had everything: novelty value, cute quotient, implicit statement to new man about my towering good taste AND expensive enough to impress, but not be overdone. Imagine my surprise when my beloved looked at it for a nano-second before moving on to fuss endlessly about some cutesey thing his young daughter had given him. I sulked for about five minutes then grumpily acknowledged to myself that perhaps it was one of those gifts that were really all about me and what I’d like. Of course, it was consigned to that Bermuda Triangle at the back of the wardrobe (every house has one) where unwanted presents get sucked in, never to be seen again. … why, oh why, didn’t I take it with me when I left? I loved it. So my point?

“What would you like for Christmas, darling?” we say.

“Buy me books … music … chain saw accessories … a subscription to Model Engineer … a drone… Oh, and those new mags would look so cool on the car,” he replies with the fanatical light of the obsessive lurking in the depth’s of his pleading eyes.

And what do we do possums? That’s right, we ignore him. Or perhaps we do buy him the current D.I.Y best seller — How to dismantle a toaster and put it back together in world record time — as a token gesture. Then we go and buy a little romantic something else because we can’t believe the D.I.Y. snorefest, however much of a masterpiece it may be, is a proper gift because it’s not what we’d want to get. Where’s the romance in it? We simply can’t imagine that he can really be happy if we give him the ‘blokeish’ thing he’s asked for. Of course the outcome is as predictable as my inability to say no to chocolate; he hates it and we lurch from (at best) utter incredulity and hurt feelings at his lack of gratitude to (at worst) relationship-threatening outrage.

So my point is, buy him what he asks for … unless it requires sacrifices or participation on your part that is distasteful to you or downright illegal. Surprising him with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses delivered to his work place on Valentine’s Day, or dimming the lights while he opens the elegantly wrapped package containing Dupion silk boxers is not necessarily the way to his heart. If he asks for a widget, it’s probably what he really, really wants. If you buy him a widget you will be spared the disappointment of seeing his bewilderment as he unwraps your carefully chosen object d’art with a “wtf?” look on his face.

If you want the same treatment, don’t just give him hints in code that would have furrowed the brows of the Enigma team. Be very clear. Be clear to the point of pushy. When he asks you what you want, tell him. Don’t fall back on the cruise for a bruise idiocy of “I’ll love anything you buy for me.” That path leads to stick vacuum clearners!

But really, what a ‘first world’ problem to have! It’s all so shallow. I’d love it if we could get rid of the commercial madness that is Christmas (or pretty much any other festival), and all the brand-led conspicuous consumption that is par for the course. The endless coveryer belt of consumer crap that no-one either wants or needs — let’s axe once and for all the ‘landfill’ shopping and find some deeper meaning in our lives.

Sealed with a loving kiss

Be still my beating heart … Valentine’s Day is upon us again! Whatever our feelings about this annual opportunity to worship at the shrine of the Gods of Love, there’s no denying the continued mass appeal of Valentine’s Day.

While strewing rose petals in the path of one’s beloved and other similarly romantic gestures have been part of the deal in the West for many years, it seems that Valentine’s Day (or VD as I will call it from this point as I can’t resist the childish glee in doing so) fever is now infecting people in places like China and India. A real triumph of cross border cultural exchange I’m sure you’ll agree! But then, we’ve survived years of ‘made in China’ tat, so I guess there is some justice. In any case, after Mao’s tenderly crafted Cultural Revolution, VD might perhaps fill some gaping void in the Chinese national psyche that the Latter Day Communists have been unable to do.

In the land of Bollywood and Bling, it’s not difficult to imagine VD going down a storm there after all those Monsoon Weddings, although it is hard to credit the possibility that India could have room for a festival in its already crowded calendar.

But hey India, China or Timbuktu, romance is romance and we all know that VD is highly contagious. I have no doubt that the World Health Organisation will soon cotton on to its pandemic status and start pouring billions that could otherwise be usefully spent finding ways to feed all those Slumdogs and Chinese who haven’t managed to yet become elevated to the ranks of middle-classdom into developing a vaccine against it and spoiling all the fun.

In a fit of mild curiosity (pique could be a more accurate way of describing it) last VD, I decided to do a bit of research to find out where it all began … and whether I could name, shame and blame anyone. So I surfed the net for a while in a sort of cursory way in order to achieve some superficial understanding of the subject and frankly ended up little the wiser.

Theories abound; some think VD is celebrated on 14 February because it is the Saint’s Day of at least two early Christians called Valentine, who seem to have been indistinguishable from each other. Others believe that VD has nothing to do with any Saint Valentine. Rather, it is thought to be a lovers’ festival related to either the Roman fertility festival of the Lupercalia on February 15 or the start of the mating season of birds. With me so far?

Verses and Valentine’s Greetings appear to have been popular from the Middle Ages when lovers said or sang their greetings to the objects of their passion. Written Valentine Cards began to appear after 1400. Paper Valentine’s cards were commonly exchanged in Europe and were especially popular in England. Incidentally, this means that we can’t blame VD on the Americans as I had thought. They don’t get let off the hook entirely though — while the ‘Poms’ can take the credit for the first cards, the ‘Yanks’ are clearly responsible for taking them to the cultural heights we now enjoy! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Whatever! In case you hadn’t clocked it, academic research isn’t really my thing, so if you want more clarity get Googeling, there’s more information than even the most enthusiastic of Mastermind candidates could soak up.

Love it or hate it, there can be few people who are entirely immune. Who don’t experience a mild frisson and a momentary intake of breath at the sight of a courier bearing a luscious bouquet in the direction of their desk, images of secret admirers flicking through their mind at the speed of a Rolodex in the hands of an experienced networker? Then the inevitable lurch of disappointment as said courier bears the fragrant floral trophy inexorably onwards to another desk. Be still my beating heart indeed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!