If I have learnt one thing after 36 years of being intermittently considerate to the woman I love, it is this: romantic gestures are most effective when they come as a surprise exception to one's normal oafish behaviour. Though they can work as an expression of guilt, or a means to earn parole from the doghouse, it is motive-free sincerity and spontaneity that cast a spell and let one bask, however briefly, in the glow of passionate gratitude.
Thus one arrives at the heart of the trouble with 14 February. It's one of those dates that get circled (in the mind, if not on the calendar), and so creates expectation on one side and a sense of obligation on the other. And, as many a woman has noted, no man is at his best when feeling compelled to perform. It isn't that we baulk at spending £3.49 on a schmaltzy card, £17.50 on a few roses, or £78.69 (plus tip) on the "Valentine's Extravaganza" night at the local Italian. It's that doing it on 14 February robs it of any sincerity. By contrast, an unexpected bunch of daffs (however bedraggled) on, say, 29 March, has a lot more traction on the "Oh, darling, you shouldn't have" front. Better, in my hard-won experience, to mark Valentine's Day by cooking her a meal, curling up together with the DVD of a good weepie and letting feminine nature take its course.
I'd like to be able to claim that this is my regular – as opposed to once a year in mid-Feb – mode. But this is not quite the case. Despite being a man who proposed to his wife three days after meeting her (and two days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 55 seconds after wanting to do so) – and as someone who has to swallow hard to maintain composure at the end of Sleepless in Seattle – I fail, like most husbands, to put into practice what we know to be sound, sensible romance policy. Ordinary life, indolence, the taking of a little friend for granted so often get in the way.
But there are some for whom the job of finding, pursuing and romancing a mate is something that no power or distraction on earth can impede. And still others with natures so fiery that, if their love is unrequited, rejected, scorned or ill-used, their vengeance knows no bounds. These are the heroes and villains of St Valentine's Day. And it is now time to meet them:
Scouring the planet for The One can be a lengthy process. The average Briton has 22 dates, three one-night stands, and three long relationships before finding true love, a 2008 survey claimed. The experience of an East Sussex civil servant, David Hayhoe, was somewhat to the north of this. A late-flowering, if not actually shrinking, violet who did not go out with women until his thirties, he had, by 2007, dated 731 of them. Thankfully for posterity, he recorded details of each one, and so we can authoritatively say that they included 48 Susans, 23 Lindas, 23 Annes and a whole coachload of unsuitable partners. Among them was Mary, who arrived for their meeting, got out of her car, took one look at his shoes, declared them unacceptably "shiny" and sped off. By contrast, Kelly Mulligan from Brighton had, up to two years ago, dates with a mere five Ians, four Richards, three Nicks, four Americans, two Greeks, one Australian, and 81 others. None seemed to hit the spot.
Love at first sight
It does happen. Sometimes, acting on impulse is simple, other times not, as with the Bavarian woman who, in 2005, had one dance with a stranger in the Austrian ski resort of St Anton and then said goodnight. She went looking for him next day, but was told he'd gone home to Copenhagen. All she knew was his name, Carsten. So, nothing for it but to sit down and write to every one of the 1,100 Carstens in the Danish capital. Finally, letter No 341 hit the target. Phone calls and meetings followed.
It doesn't always end thus. In 2003, a computer salesman, Gregory Betros, was smitten after briefly meeting a Norwegian girl on a train. After a few futile attempts to trace her, he set up a website, offered a reward, placed ads in Norway's papers, and even printed and distributed 30,000 flyers. Finally a newspaper traced the beguiling Gerda. Did it all end happily ever after? No. "I don't know what he was thinking of. I told him I wasn't interested three years ago," she said. Frustrating, too, for Romanian Sandu Gurguiatu who fell so instantly and deeply in love with Judge Elena Lala, that he launched more than 100 lawsuits against his employers just so that he could gaze at her in court. She, alas, was indifferent. Sadder still was Gunther Bergmann, a German so beguiled by the voice of the emergency service operator who answered his call one day that he began ringing the number just to hear her. Only arrest stopped his incessant calls.
How we met
Love can strike at any time. Take the the American woman who dumped her fiancé after falling in love with her wedding planner; and also the unlucky Taiwanese love-letter writer. He sent more than 900 of them to his sweetheart, and, sure enough, she married the postman. Even the briefest note of affection can get you into trouble: witness the US nurse who, in 2001, went on trial for professional malpractice, assault and defamation after she wrote "I love Dr Shaffer" in red marker pen on a sedated patient's buttocks.
Then there was Tatiana Karpov, a Russian woman living in Murmansk, who found true love in even stranger circumstances. In early 2007, her husband, Andrei, staked her in a poker game with a Sergei Brodov, and lost. When Andrei broke the news, she immediately demanded a divorce. And the story might have ended there, had not Tatiana subsequently met Mr Brodov, fallen in love and married him.
The palm for bizarre meetings, however, is probably taken by one David Brown. One night in 2002, he woke after a night out to find a telephone number buzzing around his head. He texted it, asking: "Did I meet you last night?" The recipient, Michelle Kitson, a student in Cambridge, had not met him, but, out of curiosity, she replied. They began to phone each other, met, started dating and eventually married in March 2007.
And so to The Date, an event which is so often proof of the immutable law that good intentions are no protection against calamity. Take the romantic German who, in 2001, decided to give his lady a surprise. He blindfolded her, put her in his car, drove her off to a lake, took off her mask, and there was a picnic laid out with candles and champagne. Unfortunately, as they drove to the venue, a passing motorist had seen a blindfolded woman in the car, assumed the worst and rung police. The picnic was rudely interrupted by the sound of sirens and squad cars screeching to a halt. Only with some difficulty did the couple explain the touching circumstances.
Even if the date does go well, there can still be repercussions, sometimes years later. In 2004, Nikolai Kozlov sued his former girlfriend for the return of the chocolates, nuts, bananas and an apple with which he showered her on their dates. She said it was too late – she'd eaten them. The same year, a 35-year-old New York divorcee broke off her five-year relationship with a 57-year-old executive – whereupon he sued her for the return of the BMW car and $75,000 ring he gave her, plus every cent of the money he had spent on her, plus interest: a grand total of $392,000.
And finally... breaking up is hard to do
The old song is right, and sometimes in ways one wouldn't dream of. Take Alan Jenkins, from Port Talbot, who, in a fit of romance, decided to have a life-sized tattoo of Lisa, his partner, etched on his back. Sadly, not long after spending a total of 20 hours under the needle, Lisa left him for a younger man.
Only he and Lisa would know what went wrong, but sometimes even the least sensitive observer can see signs of trouble in a relationship. Every man should have a hobby, but some can allow them to intrude a wee bit too much. In 2002, for instance, Maureen Roberts from South Wales had to tell her husband, Ray: "Either your ventriloquist's dummy goes or I do." Ray reportedly always laid a place for Charlie Boy at table, took him along on shopping expeditions, and even wanted him there when the couple went for a romantic meal. Mrs Roberts said: "Ray spends more time talking to a lump of wood than me." A common complaint, chaps – don't let it be true tonight.