In a 1970’s newspaper cartoon, two naked babies with grotesquely oversized adult heads waged an apparently endless war of passive-aggressive one-upmanship trying to define what ‘Love is…’. ‘Love is… never needing to say you’re sorry, but saying it anyway.’ ‘Love is… taking the garbage out.’ ‘Love is… holding her hair back whilst she vomits.’
I was of an age, and gender, that expected cartoons to be funny and, frankly, I struggled to see the joke. Was it, I wondered, something to do with the fact these amorous, but evidently neutered, infants lacked the equipment to copulate?
You see, I knew what sex was. I’d been told all about it one play-time in graphic and, as it turns out, almost completely inaccurate detail by Sadie Porlock (names have been changed even though any innocence that may have needed protecting was shattered then and there like an empty Pez dispenser on the playground asphalt). Sadie had long blond hair with mesmerising almost-boobs – and she worked them; there wasn’t a boy in the class for whom ball games would never be the same again.
So I reasoned, maybe those ‘Love is…’ mutant infants, deprived of sex, were just trying to work out why on earth they were still together? My experience of romance was, at that point, limited to observing my own parents and I was pretty sure they were working on the same problem. But, instead of coming up with answers like ‘… being hugged by surprise,’ theirs’ seemed to veer towards, ‘… having the opportunity to inflict more pain on each other by staying together rather than showing an ounce of mercy and letting each other go.’
But then, far from being funny, weren’t these stunted, cartoony, figures, in their constant state of denial, just tragic? And that applied to the ‘Love is…’ boy and girl too.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard their type of slushy sentiment being voiced in my own family but it was understood that, when used, it was a kind of humorous chasm used to cover our gaping emotional one, something called ‘Sar-chasm’. I also knew there was a more sophisticated word for it, something bronzy or goldy – but with iron – and, far more than Sadie Porlock’s salacious revelations, my discovery that the vocabulary I’d been building for seven years was so tentative that a simple tone of voice could bestow totally opposite meaning, robbed me of certainty for evermore. From then on, nothing could be relied on to be what it seemed. Especially not ‘Love’ or what it ‘is’.
Which is why the ellipsis, the three dots, the pause, the grammatical exchange for what is wordless, is so poignant; it’s the only part of that proposition that’s honest about its elusiveness.
Forty years on the cartoon is still going and no one’s found a universal or, indeed, useful replacement for those dots. Is it the animal urges in our underpants codified for civilised selectivity? Is it a behavioural filter to channel our fear of being alone or our selfish genes’ ambition for world domination? Is it an establishment plot designed to keep the young and hormonal perpetually too confused to mount a revolution? Could it be a combination of all these things as proposed in the book ‘Making Love’ by Marius Brill (available at all good bookshops now and perfect for Valentines)?
In her lifetime, cartoonist Kim Casali made a fortune from her little freakish naked misshapen baby things and the Mail on Sunday serialised them fully dressed lest, one suspects, they were seen to be promoting child pornography. For years I kept looking at the cartoons, wondering if finally one would nail a definition I could live with. But you can’t have high expectations of anybody who’s only reached beyond adolescence from the neck upwards or who, even for a moment, reckoned that ‘Love is… him holding your hand and giving it a squeeze.’
After forty years daily – fifteen thousand definitions – it seems that it might have been shrewder to try and define love by what it wasn’t rather than what it was. Now I await the day those eternally perky toddlers sprout pubic hair, and post pubescent give-it-the-finger attitude, and finally realise that whatever you think it is, ‘Love is…n’t.’