The Spherical Love of French Teenagers

Padlocks of love in Greenwich ParkYou know it must be Valentine’s Day when you see a woman in a long black coat carefully photographing a sodden clump of red roses on the beach by Royal Steps. Her plan, I assume, was to email the pick of the snaps to whichever puppy-eyed fool sent the unwelcome blooms, to show him just what she thought of his sappy gesture, but – maybe my view of human nature is being coloured by what happened this afternoon in the park.

You want to know what happened in the park? OK, I’ll tell you.

Having left the river and made my way past Pizza Express’s heart-splattered window and an impromptu flower stall down the side of NatWest selling “luxury roses” at fifty quid a dozen – I’m not entirely sure what a “luxury rose” is, but four quid a head for what’s essentially a bulk purchase seems a little extortionate – I found something disturbing fixed to the railings just below the observatory.

You want to know what I found? OK, I’ll tell you.

Padlocks.

Now… as one who possesses the cold black heart of a Tory health minister,* I must admit that I hadn’t come across the custom of expressing the eternal nature of your love by use of padlocks (expressing other aspects of your love by use of padlocks is another matter entirely, but we won’t go there) until last summer, when a nice German couple in a bar in Cologne outlined the role padlocks could play in a loving relationship (nope, sorry, still not going there) by telling us about the bridge that carries trains from Cologne’s main station east across the Rhine. Slung alongside the tracks on the Hohenzollernbrücke, they explained, is a public footpath and, on the mesh fence that separates trains and people, thousands upon thousands of padlocks have been fixed by hopeless romantics (see photo below). The idea is that the lovers scratch their names or initials on the case, attach the lock to the bridge, then hurl the key into the river. The practice, I later discovered, began in Italy in 2006, after the protagonists in Federico Moccia’s novel I Want You fixed a padlock to a lamppost on the Ponte Milvio in Rome.  And, since then, it’s become widespread in many of Europe’s less emotionally repressed countries.

As with rabies, all you can do is turn your eyes to Heaven and silently thank the lord for the massive thaw after the last Ice Age which resulted in the English Channel.

Padlocks on the Hohenzollernbrücke, Cologne

Sadly, though, you need only spend an afternoon outside the Overpriced Sausage Shed at the northern end of Blackheath Avenue to realise that this might be false security: just look at all those groups of moody French teenagers pointedly refusing to look at the view or take an interest in the Imperial Foot… any one of those spotty young Gauls could have brought a padlock into the country on Eurostar and be just waiting his or her moment to slip it on a stanchion…

A nightmare scenario? The fevered delusions of a madman? I’m afraid not. For this afternoon, on the path below the observatory, I found not one, not two, not four, but three padlocks, latched to the fence at the very point it crosses the meridian line. Presumably, there’s an extra layer of symbolism here: not only does our love transcend time, they are saying, it also covers two hemispheres. It is global, it is planetary, it is… spherical.

So far, so icky. There are still two aspects that don’t make sense, though.

Firstly, having made your bond, you’re supposed to throw the key into a river, so that no one can ever undo the padlock of your love; that’s the whole point of this pointless charade. But there is no river below the observatory, just bushes. And I’m not sure that tossing the key into a nearby bush has quite the same symbolical heft as, say, lobbing it into a wide free-flowing stream such as the Rhine that will then carry it 150 miles to the North Sea where it may conceivably be eaten by a surprised cod. You could, I suppose, try giving the key to a squirrel, in the hope it will run off and hide it in a hollow tree with its nuts and crisps, but… would you really want a squirrel to be the custodian of your love?

I’m not sure you would.

Padlocks of love in Greenwich ParkBut here’s the other thing. Tied to the rail just above the padlocks was a bunch of keys (you can just about see them in the photo). So, young Pierre, or Françoise, or whoever you are… you’ve not only not thrown the key away, you’ve actually left it nearby, just in case you need to remove the padlock and… and I can hardly bring myself to say this… scratch some new initial alongside yours? Is this what passes for love amongst today’s youth?

I returned from the hill an infinitely sadder and more cynical man.

Not to mention a man somewhat inclined to write to the Royal Parks and demand that they nip this pernicious European habit in the bud right now. This is Britain, and we should continue to express our deep and eternal love for one another in the traditional way of not making a fuss and getting on with a bit of DIY.

* Bizarrely, he carried on living without it, so that was a waste of an afternoon, two bottles of chloroform, and a white coat.

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