A winding road to love

NOV 24, 2015
I confess to knowing virtually nothing about love. As a writer, I might be able to turn a fine sentence or two, perhaps tell a decent tale, on the subject, but I am loath to conjure a definition or proffer an explanation. I do have some strong views on what love is not, but then don’t we all.

The word love, one might argue, is not a particularly good one. It’s rather short, lends itself too easily to flippant use and is lacking in gravitas. It can be shouted and writ large on walls, whispered in hope, in lust, in desperation and in longing, and repeated on a thousand postcards. It leads us everywhere and nowhere, and yet what do we have in its place? Worship has depth but sounds rather pious. Adore has warmth but is too fawning. Fondness lacks conviction. And fancy . . . well, that’s a word we in Yorkshire use when discussing pigeons.

We are left, then, with love, which we are free to assign any values we choose, or simply follow the lead of others. American artist Robert Indiana’s powerful but now commonplace pop-art logo LOVE was first seen on a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card in 1965. But for true ubiquity, to drive real value into love, we needed something more powerful than the graphic stylings of Indiana, or even the words of William Shakespeare, or the eroticism of painter Gustav Klimt. And so it was left up to German advertising agency Heye & Partner to provide humanity with a universal meaning of love and loving.

Heye & Partner’s famous branding campaign was launched in Munich on September 2, 2003. It was titled ich liebe es, in the original German. By the end of the month, it had rolled out to the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. The rest of the world followed. Created for client McDonald’s, the “I’m lovin’ it” campaign explores our relationship with that which we really desire (a passionate word, but too needy). It suggests that we love to be “lovin’”, and in wanton abandon we have given ourselves over to “lovin’ shoppin’”, “lovin’ eatin’” (not just hamburgers), “lovin’ postin’” and lovin’ our selfies.

It seems that humanity (at least the humanity that can afford it) has evolved into an amorphous mass reading from a long-lost Nora Ephron script, in which everybody loves everything. All of this makes me uneasy. Isn’t love supposed to be more than that? Should it not require more discretion (of both kinds), direction and, not to sound Victorian, sacrifice? Somehow, love and pleasure have become one. As Joy, the central character in Pixar’s animated movie Inside Out (which I’m lovin’ right now) discovers, one finds love not in any single emotion but in an unpredictable cocktail of feelings that are often deeply and intuitively contradictory. The perfect mix can be unrepeatable and unforeseeable. It’s an elixir that drives us in the moment to the grandest, damnedest, stupidest and most life-changing actions – things we never imagined we might do.

The use of the active voice and the present tense in Heye & Partner’s campaign are the only points I can truly understand and agree with. When love is gone there is pain, regret, remembrance, celebration . . . But love, when it is present, urges us on, to war, to poison, to patience, and to hope. And it is hope (which remained safe inside Pandora’s box when all the evils had escaped from within to plague mankind) that makes love deliciously unknowable and unpredictable. Then suddenly – after decades or days – hope and love are gone. Perhaps we fail them. Perhaps death, exhaustion, abandonment or conflict take their place. Love rarely ends well.

I have recently been reflecting on my love of a journey I have been making since I was a child, and still make whenever I visit my parents’ Yorkshire home. With the pending sale of the house, that journey will no longer punctuate my life. I can see the journey’s end coming and I am sad for its passing. The drive begins with a steep climb of half a mile up from the village that leads to a land rough with purple heather and rocky outcrops. Here, the smaller Baildon Moor meets wilder Ilkley Moor, home of old songs and the occasional alien encounter. Below, seen in the rear-view mirror, sits the ancient glacier-hewn Aire Valley, which winds from the grand Yorkshire Dales in the north to the now less-than-triumphant city of Bradford, once famed for its textile industry.

At the top is a small copse of trees that distracts one’s attention from two stomach-churning rollercoaster dips which, when approached at speed, take your breath away and make you laugh out loud. Then the road settles through the moors. A reservoir for young sailors who rarely see the sea – but who still know a thing or two about heavy rain and snow – sits estranged from the landscape to the right.

Stout dry-stone walls turn the road, perhaps once a drover’s lane, into a channel barely two cars wide. Passing quickly is only for the practiced or the foolhardy. At the road’s end, after a mile and a half (and where a few, including my father, have come a cropper), is a hairpin bend to the right. To the left is nothing but stone.

This corner successfully negotiated, another straight extends ahead for nearly a mile, gently descending to the foot of a small hill that can be seen in the distance. Up and over, and then down – down fast to the T-junction below, and there one must stop. Firstly, because there is a sign that says one must, but also because a local knows the right turn leads to Bradford and Leeds, and the left to the wild grass and tumbling water of the Yorkshire Dales.

I first stopped here when I was seven years old. The left turn also led to my school. My father was a decade younger than I am now, and he sat tall in the driver’s seat. At six foot three, he loomed above me, with black hair and blue eyes and an Abraham Lincoln beard. Whenever we took the journey and reached the junction, my father’s hands gripping the steering wheel purposefully but gently, as is his nature, he would look both ways and carefully pull out, regardless of the excitement that went before, flying over the little hills and along those narrow straights.

He would drop my brother and me at school, and then make for the hospital, where he worked as a surgeon. At first we drove in his red Alfa Romeo, with its two broken passenger doors. We had just moved house and money was tight, so for months we clambered out of the single working exit. A few years later, he bought a nice MGB, which took the dips and curves with aplomb, making us cheer as the car swooped down and rocketed up. The cars have changed over the years, as have the reasons for the trip, but the road, the walls and moor remain the same.

I have made the journey to that junction thousands of times, each time choosing left or right. As I grew older, I watched my father age, his black hair and beard fading to grey and then white. Our lives have changed in unimaginable ways since that first stop, but I have always loved that journey. Much of my life can be found in its three miles, and much about my father and me, and love.

And so I cannot explain what love is and how it works. I believe I am still learning, but I have come to understand that whatever and whomever one is lovin’, it should last longer than a Happy Meal.

Words by Duncan Jepson
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault