Written by Erskin Quint
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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

image for EL Wisty On Romance It's just a matter of (a) you having a bit of classical knowledge and (b) other people not having it.

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's Valentine's Day. Another thing I can't stand is the Duke of Edinburgh, and at least Valentine's Day only comes around once a year, which is more than can be said for the Duke of Edinburgh, but once a year is once too often, insofar as Valentine's Day is concerned.

Another thing I find it hard to endure is the word 'insofar'. Especially when it is combined with the word 'as'. When you really analyse it, it becomes utterly meaningless. Devoid of meaning, it becomes. Bereft. I speak as one who has pondered these things, long into the night.

Unlike David Cameron. Now, before you begin to misconstrue my argument, I am not saying that David Cameron, besides being an expert on Ancient Etruscan modes of transport, is not devoid of meaning. For all I know, he is a mere empty vessel, that soundeth, a brass bell, a mere hollow sound to the vast emptiness of the world. I am merely pointing out that I have not pondered, deep into the night, on David Cameron.

Pondering or not, it will be the Etruscan Balsa-Wood Rickshaw that interests David Cameron. These were very cheap to run, due to the plenitude of balsa-wood in Ancient Etrusca, and due to their being drawn, not by Etruscan oxen, which had been proven to eat the Etruscans out of house and home, but by slaves, who were ten a penny at that time, or "sar a drachma", as they used to say. All this will be very attractive to David Cameron, you know. I understand that he is a very learned man, him and his friends Boris Johnson and George Osborne. They are always looking to learn the lessons of history, and spot a bargain.

That's what a classical education will do for you: teach you how to repeat the past and hang on to your money.

I never had a classical education. Perhaps that's why I can't stand Valentine's Day. I was never able to put it into its proper context. You see, to me it has always smacked of desperation, this celebration of gangsterism at its most rife. Not that I am comparing David Cameron to Al Capone, you see, though he may not be completely immune to learning the lessons of the prohibition era, when he is relaxing over a James Cagney film with his friends Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah Brooks.

No, I never had a classical education, but I am nothing if not an autodidact. I once had a job, you know, scraping the seagull dung and moss from the gargoyles of Winchester Cathedral. Before you think I am going to start comparing George Osborne to a Cathedral gargoyle covered in seagull dung and moss, let me just stay you awhile.

You see, it was while I was scraping the gargoyles that I became horribly bored. It really is the most dreadfully boring thing in the world, even worse than watching David Cameron trying to bully Ed Miliband, it really is extremely boring, scraping filth off a gargoyle in all weathers. It's terribly boring and tedious and awful. And that is how I came to start reading up. I taught myself a bit of classical history.

Of course, all this reading went down like a ton of seagull excrement with my colleagues on the gargoyle gang. They used to call me "Professor Bird-Excrement" and throw moss at me while I was trying to eat my egg sandwiches and read about Pliny The Elder. Well, they didn't use the word "excrement", they used a shorter word, but otherwise, that does capture their attitude at the time.

Of course, the social pressure was too great to resist, and ultimately, I took to reading the same magazines as the others, which contained short stories, topical articles, and nude ladies. I did keep up the classical history, however, in the sanctity of my own rooms, situated as they were above the Catholic Gift Shop on Graven Image Street.

And thus it was that I learned the truth about St Valentine, of whom there are three to be found in the history of Ancient Rome, all martyred by the Emperors for their persistence in sending gifts of confectionary and cards, long before the present-day tradition of Courtney Love was so much as a twinkle in the firmament of popular music.

It is written by Pliny The Middle-Aged that Claudius II was smitten with the boyish features of St Valentine, whom he had glimpsed ministering unto the poor as he was being borne through the arboretum on the Imperial dais by Nubian slaves. Claudius did send unto his beloved manifold tokens, being candied asses' tongues, lark's feet and jellied dormice, not to mention the musical cards playing the hits of the Colosseum when you opened them up.

But it is set down that Valentine was a chaste and serious youth, who would not be coaxed with sweetmeats, nor would his head be turned with offers of a box seat at the Roman Games followed by an orgy that went on for a week; and he did spurn the hand of Claudius, even unto disdaining the jellied dormouse and the musical cards.

And thus it was that Claudius, being a jealous man, did interpret this as a mere contumely, and did have Valentine executed by being shot to death by children dressed as Cupid. And Claudius did go back to his wife, Ethel, and renounced the love of his brother man.

But lest you begin to think that I am something of an expert in the field of Valentine's Day, having learned of these things from my own lips, let me say that I am not. It is all very easy to marshal a few facts and make people think you know what you are talking about. The next thing you know, they will believe anything you tell them, however ludicrous it is. There's no mystery to this. It's just a matter of (a) you having a bit of classical knowledge and (b) other people not having it. It worked for Harold Macmillan and Frank Bough and it works for David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson.

No. I am far from an expert in the field of Valentinism, as it is known in the classical spheres haunted by luminaries like the Dimbleby twins, Prince Charles and Fiona Bruce. I merely lay these things down like an undercoat, over which I spread the agonies of my own heart.

Gladys Pomphret was her name. I was a mere schoolboy by day, a wailing tempestuous troubadour by night. The other children called her "Gladys Pamphlet" and threw rolled-up leaflets at her, but she was my Lady of Shalott. I sat behind her on the bus and gazed at the nape of her neck. The nape of her neck was like the unmapped mountains of the moon. She had never recovered from the mumps, but to me she had an elusive aura. I bought her a Valentine's card every year for five years, but nothing came of it. You see, I never posted the cards, I kept them in a drawer.

I will never forget the day we spoke. We were standing at the bus stop. I moved closer to her. She turned to me. Her eyes, twin beacons of raw emotion, glistened with fresh tears. She spoke, her voice sibilant as the song of the sirens. "You're standing on my foot", she said.

You see, that's what I can't stand about Valentine's Day: all these dead gangsters and martyred saints and futile yearnings. And all the while, the ones with the classical education keep hanging onto their money and repeating the past.

But you try telling that to the woman behind the counter at W H Smith. They never listen, they think you're complaining about the propelling pencil. They don't understand, they've not got the classical education.

I'm thinking of forming a revolutionary movement, if anyone's interested.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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