The Truth About Love

I threaded my belt back through the loops of my jeans and fastened the buckle.  Then I laced my boots, making a mental note not to wear them next time I flew; such a palaver of eyes and hooks and long laces to wind around my ankles before double knotting.  ‘How about a cup of coffee?’ I looked up to see C.E. in his Baker Boy cap, dark ochre trousers, and leather bomber jacket. He looks like someone famous that you can’t quite put your finger on.  Turned out we were on the same flight.  I gave my middle name to the barista, always do, and we shared a small packet of biscotti, good for dunking.  ‘Any writing on the go?’ C.E. asked me.  ‘YesSomething’s bubbling about love,’ I told him.  ‘It’s my current fixation; me and the rest of the world.  I’ve decided that people are divided into two camps: those trying their hardest to get out of it, and those trying their hardest to get into it.  How about some pearls of wisdom?  Go on, tell me the truth about love.’  He laughed, told me he wasn’t qualified, that he knew as little as the next person.  ‘Not true,’ I wasn’t letting him off the hook, ‘you have a lifetime of qualifications.’  I asked him what he thought about that famous line from Patrick Kavanagh: that, ‘a man wanting to be in love cannot contract the disease’.  We decided the poet was probably right, that one’s as likely to hunt and trap a haggis on the high heather moorland as to Tinder-up a husband.

Back in Ireland earlier this week I was a willing participant in discussions about love: complaining, enquiring, comparing, fishing.  It’s a predictable conversation piece – comes up as regularly as talk about the weather, it was the theme of the trip.  One conversation after another was had on how to catch it (ditch it), find it (lose it), or come by it (discard it).  ‘At this stage, my basic criteria is that he owns a tool-belt and can find his way around a drill,’ a certain someone told me. ‘I just need a few things done around the house.’  She made me laugh, then reflect.  Reflect upon a book I’d just finished, The Only Story by Julian Barnes.  ‘The only story’ Barnes refers to is, of course, love.  One particular line in the novel (which charts a love affair between a young man and a middle-aged woman) stuck me as shockingly unromantic and practical, but perhaps painfully true.  Talk of hammers and nails made me flick back to search it out.  I found it.  This is what Barnes wrote:  ‘A house or a flat can be as beguiling a trap as a wedding certificate; sometimes more so.  Property announces a way of life, with a subtle insistence on that way of life continuing.  Property also demands constant attention and maintenance: it’s like a physical manifestation of the marriage that exists within.’

Maintenance: I considered it; maybe that’s what love is all about.  I pressed C.E. for his nuggets and insights. ‘Good communication and not seeking to win an argument,’ he suggested. His daughter was late in joining us, having been delayed checking a bag into the hold.  She jumped straight in.  Small acts of sacrifice, that’s what she told us love was.  Her example: making your spouse or partner breakfast in bed and toasting them heel of the loaf even when it is your favourite part.  Said she knew of this very act and that for years the wife didn’t mention the heel was her least favourite part so the good turn was much less of a treat than her husband believed it to be.  Which took us right back to good communication.

As the love cloud hovers over me, raining contradictory messages, so does the next read for my book group.  It’s Gustave Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary.  In the story Emma Bovary anticipates marriage as a life of adventure and excitement and when it does not live up to her expectations she pursues a number of other men as a distraction from the dull Dr. Charles Bovary.  In her case, this turns out to be a losing game.  Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings, – a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.  She did not know that rain forms lakes on the terraces of houses when the drainpipes are blocked, and thus she would have lived on feeling quite safe, had she not suddenly discovered a crack in the wall.’

Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary 160 years ago and Barnes’s The Only Story came out last year, yet they are both pushing me in the same direction: love is like an old house, it needs a lot of maintenance.

O Tell Me The Truth About Love, W.H. Auden

Some say love’s a little boy,

And some say it’s a bird,

Some say it makes the world go round,

Some say that’s absurd,

And when I asked the man next door,

Who looked as if he knew,

His wife got very cross indeed,

And said it wouldn’t do.


Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,

Or the ham in a temperance hotel?

Does its odour remind one of llamas,

Or has it a comforting smell?

Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,

Or soft as eiderdown fluff?

Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?

O tell me the truth about love.


Our history books refer to it

In cryptic little notes,

It’s quite a common topic on

The Transatlantic boats;

I’ve found the subject mentioned in

Accounts of suicides,

And even seen it scribbled on

The backs of railway guides.


Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,

Or boom like a military band?

Could one give a first-rate imitation

On a saw or a Steinway Grand?

Is its singing at parties a riot?

Does it only like Classical stuff?

Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?

O tell me the truth about love.


I looked inside the summer-house;

It wasn’t even there;

I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,

And Brighton’s bracing air.

I don’t know what the blackbird sang,

Or what the tulip said;

But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,

Or underneath the bed.


Can it pull extraordinary faces?

Is it usually sick on a swing?

Does it spend all its time at the races,

or fiddling with pieces of string?

Has it views of its own about money?

Does it think Patriotism enough?

Are its stories vulgar but funny?

O tell me the truth about love.


When it comes, will it come without warning

Just as I’m picking my nose?

Will it knock on my door in the morning,

Or tread in the bus on my toes?

Will it come like a change in the weather?

Will its greeting be courteous or rough?

Will it alter my life altogether?

O tell me the truth about love.


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