There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving.
Stairway to Heaven was released when I was fifteen and I remember agreeing with a school friend that that lyric had a magic that touched our adolescent souls in some intangible way. I guess we had just discovered romance.
Just as babies are programmed to learn what all those lights and noises represent, and young children are wired to learn language (and just about everything else that is put in front of them) some magical romance thing kicks in when we attain the age of Romeo and Juliet. Our new carnal chemistry switches on a yearning for the intangible. Just how intangible it was in this case was betrayed by the discussion we had next. Neither of us could remember whether the lyric was west or east. But there was feeling there and spirit and the world was turning and there were mysteries to be longed for beyond the horizon. Yup that song gave us all sorts of touchy-feely stuff that we weren’t getting in class.
Back in those days, establishment-approved romance was available in the form of square-jawed American actors with slightly greying temples and dimples in their chins falling for but never quite touching beautiful young women. I’m thinking Roman Holiday here, where Gregory Peck resists the temptation to shaft (both figuratively and literally) a young innocent princess. That movie was already 20 years old by then, but those films from the 50s were still hot currency in the seventies, when White Christmas was still the highest selling record of all time. This was the world where Andy Williams was always smiling when he sang a duet with a starry-eyed perm-haired guest on his TV show. At that time, rock music was still seen as a threat to the establishment and we would never would have thought of Led Zeppelin as representing the word ‘romance’ at all.
We were taught about Romance as students of architecture a few years later. At that time everyone other than architects hated tower blocks and concrete. Meanwhile, on the inside of the school of architecture, half our tutors wore sandals, played jazz and sent us on village studies to rural Wales, while the other half preached that structural grids expressed honesty, exposed concrete was beautiful and buildings with facades that looked like graph paper were morally perfect. It was unfortunate that the poor public didn’t understand these truths.
Our head of school gave us lectures differentiating between Classic (coded for ‘good’) and Romantic (‘bad’) and extrapolating to the moral justification of his own practice’s rather banal creations. I remembered that my music teacher of half a dozen years earlier had also differentiated between Classic and Romantic in music, but I had no idea what that was all about. Both were played by orchestras full of violins and you had to know the rules about when to clap and when not to. Romanticism seemed far too subtle a concept to grasp then, and it didn’t resonate any more when it was being used to explain why we should prefer ugly buildings to beautiful ones.
And that was the time when I first fell absolutely crazily head over heels in love, but even then, I don’t think I linked the concepts of rococo buildings, rock music and the apple of my eye – or saw any connection between them.
My father-in-law-to-be was a gas engineer and I remember discussing with him how two of the room heaters in my family home seemed to be pretty identical, except one had a floral motif stuck onto the flat metal front panel. This was the only embellishment of an otherwise stark 1970’s modern design. ‘Ahh yes.’ he said, ‘That was the one we called the dead bat.’ He described the good natured tension between his team of design engineers and his company’s “appearance designers” (What a wonderful job title that was!) He explained though, that ornamentation like this was often added immediately pre-production by some boardroom mandarin who perhaps decided that the design just “needed a little something.” This imposition would cut very deeply into the sensitivity of the appearance designers, while the engineers just laughed up their sleeves.
Whatever the sitcom playing out in the gas-heater company, it is certainly true that a bit of floral decoration sells just about anything. Though maybe not 1970’s gas room heaters; as I look through an image search I can’t find a single one with a dead bat on it.
What is it about hearts and flowers that pushes the same button in women of a certain age, that whispy phrases from rock ballad lyrics press in adolescents? I am hardwired to look for evolutionary reasons for everything, and I reckon that romance is an icon for love. We humans need love because our dribbling babies would be so incapable of survival without it. And because childbirth is so terrible. And because our screaming kids need nurturing for a decade or so longer than the thirty seconds that it takes a newborn giraffe to get on its feet and run.
I think that love kicks in for obvious survival reasons and boy, that volume is turned up high. It’s massive because it needs to be, and there are all sorts of carnal systems that it affects. Love is warm, our hearts beat, our guts ache, we shiver, our eyes weep, our faces hurt we can’t sleep. More than that, our minds are redirected to find new meaning in everything from flower petals, to the sound of a sigh.
While all that stuff is echoing around our minds and bodies, the rest of our human has to maintain the ordinary job of staying alive. And so the bit of our brain that sorts stuff out, puts these things into mental filing cabinets. Our adolescent hormones might manifest first as a crush – with whom we share sunsets or flowers with new significance. Our hearts beat and we blush, and these experiences and feelings are all put in one soon-to-be-overloaded filing drawer together with kissing, dancing and loud music. Then there are all those tensions between the physical acts that we suddenly yearn for, set against the restrictions that our culture and the members of that suddenly-discovered other gender put on our behaviour.
It’s brilliant. A firework party kicks off every time the object of our desire walks into the room. And then every time we smell that scent, hear that tune or see that flower, those embers are stirred. All mixed together: the hormones and the experiences and the feelings and the intangibility go into that overloaded filing drawer labelled ‘romance.’
It doesn’t stop there though, because cause and effect are never easy to distinguish. That difficulty is the bane of every study that has looked at anything to do with human behaviour. Those pathways are pretty much all two way streets. Show me her hair and I think of silk, show me a piece of silk and I think of her hair.
And don’t we love being manipulated that way? We go to movies for it. Screenplay writing is a finely crafted network of gears and elastic to tug that drawer open at intervals in every film. Don’t get me wrong. Just because I think I understand this logically doesn’t mean I’m immune to it. You’ll find me diving in there with a moist eye and a beating heart at every turn. I’m being manipulated? Hell yeah! Give me more! Mr Movie Director, I love the expertise with which you push those buttons on my neurotransmitters.
So my thesis is that romance is the icon representing this overflowing drawer. This is where we keep all the delicious tools that nature has given us to craft joy from the horror of childbirth. What’s not to love about that?
I enjoy reading really slow books where nothing much happens. The best I have read in the past couple of years was Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer. It’s a slow observation of a gardener’s life and his almost non-existent interactions with the lady of the house. It’s beautiful, I’d recommend it to anyone. There is a chapter in that book where the author discusses romance, and truth to tell he is pretty bitter about it. Hamer describes his abusive father weeping over some soppiness, and he embodies this resentment by describing the flower known as the bleeding heart.
So that’s the problem. Tools that convert horror to beauty can justify anything. The worse the better. Dire Straits for example sung about how the language of romance can be used to sell war or violent state suppression of worker’s rights with lyrics including, They sing as they march with their flags unfurled and the gleam of spur on the chestnut flank.
The emotions of love are the strongest emotions we feel. Stronger perhaps and certainly richer in texture than our hunger for food. Those two-way streets of cause and effect use romance, the icon of love, to sell everything from beautiful craftsmanship to brutal atrocity.
Romance is one of the main reasons we are here today. Part of the magic of the world. I just ask that we should do a sanity check though, before we let it persuade us to do anything nasty.