Why first love never dies

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Romantics and realists recall their special Valentine

Few things divide the country like Valentine's Day. For the dewy-eyed romantics, it is the perfect excuse to burn candles and proffer overpriced out-of-season roses in pursuit of, well, something.

But for those not in relationships, the feast of the patron saint of love is just an excuse for rampant commercialism; a tedious annual ordeal of punctured expectation; compounded loneliness and battered self-worth.

Yet we cannot get enough of it. This Tuesday, millions of couples across the country (some of whom can barely stand the sight of each other for the other 364 days of the year) will splash out on the hype. Britain spent more than £20m on Valentine's Day cards alone last year, while more than a billion cards were sent worldwide.

So who, exactly, is to blame for all this? No one is sure: one story suggests he was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II's ban on young men marrying in third-century Rome. Claudius believed that single soldiers fought better than those with families, who would rather stay at home.

Valentine was summoned before the emperor and asked to stop marrying people and to serve the Roman Empire, in return for being pardoned. For rejecting this offer, Valentine was beaten, stoned and decapitated. He is said to have written a love letter to his jailor's daughter, signed "from your Valentine".

Valentine cards have been traced back to around 1400. Six centuries on, with less than 48 hours until the whole thing kicks off again, The IoS went to find out what the day means.

Konnie Huq, 36, TV presenter

"My first Valentine was Ben, who lived opposite our playgroup in a big house with a wrought-iron gate. We made Valentine cards at playgroup, but I gave mine to my mum – I guess I was shy and I'm sure it would have been unreciprocated. We never got together. I still sometimes go past his house now. He probably doesn't live there any more, though."

Olly Murs, 20, singer

"It was a few years ago now. I was on a Valentine's date and had taken a girl (who will remain nameless) out to dinner at a nice restaurant. Everything was going fine until I went to the toilet between courses. I came back to the table with my flies undone. I didn't realise what I'd done until she pointed it out as I was sitting down. Not very cool... We just made it through the rest of dinner, but I'm afraid I didn't hear from her again."

Andy Turner, 31, olympic hurdler

"It was a girl called Frances Elson. We were at school together when I was six. Everytime we played together I'd always be Robin Hood and she was my Maid Marian. I wrote her a card and signed it, but at school I lost my bottle and didn't give it to her. I hid it in a lost property box where a teacher found it and gave it to her in front of my whole class. I was so embarrassed. We lost contact when I went to high school, but I did bump into her when I was 17. The soft spot for her was still there and probably always will be."

Jamal Edwards, 21, entrepreneur

"We were at Disneyland Paris on a school trip around 2001. She was my first crush and I was 11. There were no candlelit dinners – just a cheeseburger at McDonald's and a relationship that lasted a month before fizzling out. It was all a bit cringe-making. Looking back, she was entirely genuine, unlike many girl nowadays that just pop out of the woodwork when they hear that you're doing well."

Emmy the Great, 28, singer

"Nico was my first love. On Valentine's Day, he showered me with roses and a note as close to romantic as his super-repressed, posh-lad upbringing would allow. We were together for a year. After we broke up, I was devastated, and I think I sent him an anonymous Valentine's card through a cupid one year. When you've been in love as kids, it's hard to keep any bad feelings about each other. He reminds me of school. I enjoy that we're both grown up. We're still in touch and sometimes when I get drunk I still tease him about being my first love."

Lembit Opik, 46, politician

"My first proper Valentine, when I was 17, was Caroline Clarke. I was at school with her brother, and he more or less talked me into calling her. I was pretty skint so, on Valentine's Day, I bought a bunch of flowers from the local petrol station and asked my mate Simon to drop them round to her house on his rattling moped. It looked like I'd organised a 'proper' delivery. Caroline was really pleased and regarded the gesture as perfectly romantic. We haven't been in touch directly for a long time, but I still think fondly of her."

Tom Aikens, 42, chef

"It was 1982 and I was 12. My brother and I both fancied the same girl. We both tried to win her over with gifts and cards. Eventually, she picked me. After a fleeting romance, the girl and I eventually parted ways. Now, years later, my brother has finally buried the hatchet. The girl and I have since lost touch – but, if she ever did resurface, I'd happily cook her dinner."

Sarah Beeny, 40, TV presenter

"For so many years, I thought that the one Valentine's card I received each year was from a secret admirer. I only found out recently that it was from my step-mum."

Kathy Lette, 53 author

"Most men approach commitment with about the same enthusiasm as a naked bloke approaches a barbed-wire fence. They're emotional bonsai. You have to whack the fertiliser on to get any feelings out of them. I learnt this from my first Valentine's Day card. The card I wrote to Gary pledged undying love and an offer to have his babies. His to me was inscribed with a hurried 'Kind regards'. I bumped into him 30 years later and he was still single. The guy's been on so many blind dates he should be given a free dog."

Bonnie Greer, 63, playwright

"I was seven and at a Catholic school in a tough area in the west side of Chicago. On my desk one day I found a Valentine's card with a poem: 'The birds in the air and the fish in the sea... I send you a kiss as I dream of you and me.' It was touching that someone so young showed such a soul. I never found out who it was, but given the area we grew up in – rife with gangs and drug-pushers – I doubt whether he's even still alive."

What happened next?

Are you Gary, Claire, Caroline Clarke or the "one" mentioned in any of these accounts? Want to tell us your side of the story? Email us at: iosreaders@independent.co.uk, or leave your comment below.

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