The good old age of romance is not dead... well not just yet!
PUBLISHED: 18:09 08 February 2019
It's not long until Valentine's Day, a chance for Keith Skipper to demonstrate that the age of romance still burns bright
Only those with a first-class degree in cynicism could argue that love is a temporary insanity curable by marriage.
I mention it merely to underline the way we long-serving romantics are forced to wonder yet again why St Valentine’s Day has been shorn of much of its magic.
“Did you get my text from the pub?” and “I didn’t realise roses were so expensive” tend to undermine a hearts-and-flowers movement originally cloaked in secrecy and just a dash of healthy eroticism.
Lovelorn souls lined up on Norfolk and Suffolk headlands not many sugar-beet seasons ago to tease each other with brown paper parcels criss-crossed by yards of bindertwine. Pulses raced, knees trembled and fingers fumbled as quivering targets of Cupid’s rustic arrows uncovered items loaded with sensuality and significance.
Those of a more bashful disposition could retire to the nearest tumbledown barn or cowshed to unleash their emotions and hide their blushes. Ah, the blessings of a truly common agricultural policy with a crop of set-aside emotions!
What unbridled joy greeted that telling crease in a shiny buskin or certain sort of wrinkle or darn in an elastic stocking waiting to be lifted out and loved. Little clues as to which low joint they might have come from. Little reminders of how the practical can live with the passionate.
The more daring would snip a button from a liberty bodice or pair of fleecy combinations and attach that to a hastily-scrawled note which read: “Thass just a start for proper fun, O woe is me – I ent undone!”
For purists, Valentine tradition reached a climax in the parish of St Just-near-Trunch with the exchanging of embroidered underwear as highlighted in that classic of country life, Prewd and Prejudice, by Chris Sugden and Sid Kipper.
It follows the adventures of Miriam Prewd in 1904 as she leaves polite London society for the depths of rural Norfolk.
Her efforts to win the hand of the dashing Doyley Silver-Darling lean heavily on the local custom of sending the object of one’s affections a certain item of apparel embroidered with an appropriate message or design.
Apparently, much of the needlework was extremely delicate with charmingly innocent motifs such as a bird in a bush, a man in a boat or a cuckoo in a nest. Fine examples of this unique art form can be seen in the local museum on any washday.
Somewhere in Norfolk or the Waveney Valley – my cultural records, sadly, do not specify – it used to be customary to celebrate Tight Garter Day as part of Valentine jollifications. A dozen unmarried men under 30 years old formed an orderly queue on the village green dressed in “bucolic attire” of smock, felt hat and loose-fitting pantaloons.
Selected unwed maidens were then ushered forward to place garters round the left leg of their chosen swain – numbers were drawn from a hat – and to pull it tight to the point of unbearable pain as an indication of close attachment to come.
Should any couple get married before the next St Valentine’s Day, and find affordable housing locally in the meantime, the parish had to provide a reward of 50 guineas and a free wedding reception.
Another popular ritual believed to have survived into the late 1800s in and around the coastal settlement of Winterton saw young fishermen and “comely mawthers” daub their faces with woad as the sun rose on February 14.
Those with matching colours paired up to dance before the village elders who chose the couple with “runniest cheeks and boldest strides” to serve as fishing king and queen. The ceremony inevitably became known as the St Valentine’s Day Mascara.
Lords of the manor in eastern Norfolk used the date to dispense hot pennies among the poor and needy children of the parish just to let them know money burnt a hole in their pockets. Other fine old customs have been washed away by the rising tide of commercialism and cynicism.
Some might claim the only remaining tests of true romance are whether you can endure the thought of cutting your sweetheart’s toenails or ignore your favourite three times in a row while sharing a box of chocolates
For all that, we must try to uphold this fine motto from P G Wodehouse: “Love and let love … with the one stipulation that people who love in glass houses should breathe on the windows”.