LEADING ARTICLE : When love gets the oxygen of publicity

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Valentine's Day used to be a discreet affair. It was a private occasion when Flopsy posted Big Ears a card revealing her inner-most longings, or when a secret admirer set you guessing with an anonymous message. No one else needed to know these intimacies.

No more. Love has gone public. If you really want to make an impact on your intended, you must declare yourself in front of everyone else. So, today, bouquets of flowers by the lorry-load will arrive at offices around the country, revealing to all that the receiver is loved. Huge cards will convey Cupid's arrow to its target. Pages of newspapers are filled with classified flirtations, public and largely indecipherable declarations usually made in the privacy of a bedroom but instead displayed to millions.

The confessional culture of the Nineties has brought Valentine's Day out into the open, requiring us to express our feelings not merely to a would-be lover but to the rest of the population as well. Valentine's Day now feels a little like a roll-over week for the National Lottery, when we collectively seek and acknowledge our fantasies. Valentine's Day has become yet another exercise in mass optimism.

But as it becomes more public so it can become more coercive, more difficult to stand out from the crowd by doing something personal and discreet. Conspicuous courting does little for the loveless. There are more suicide attempts on Valentine's Day than on Christmas Day. That is why the Samaritans' number will be spelt out in neon lights at London's Piccadilly Circus throughout today.

And there are precautions to be taken. The Thai Ministry of Health has issued a public warning that Aids infections are high on Valentine's Day. Even the French Roman Catholic bishops have entered into the spirit of the occasion. This week, with a fine sense of timing, they announced that the use of condoms is permissible to reduce the risk of Aids.

For some, success today will be less urgent. Women, at least, who fail to tempt a mate will soon have another opportunity. This being a leap year, 29 February, when women traditionally propose marriage, is only a fortnight away.

Still, if you are one of those people who examined a barren doormat this morning, don't worry, look on the bright side. At least there is no one embarrassing you in public by calling you Thumper, Dishdosh or some other ridiculous name. And just think, you could be one of those poor people, mainly men, it has to be said, who forgot to take out one of the newspaper advertisements, never bought a card and failed to book a restaurant. Those people are in deep trouble today.