Ian McMillan: On Valentine’s Day, let’s praise leaps of folly

ON Valentine’s Day, my mind often turns to the concept of the foolish gesture, the action that has no real meaning except, perhaps, to impress the object of your affections or the world in general.

You know the kind of thing I mean: the buying of the one expensive single rose that you clutch between your teeth as you appear at the upstairs window, waving; the dyeing of the hair red because they’ve told you that’s their favourite colour (and inevitably you get the wrong shade of red. They prefer a robin’s breast to a post-box); the hiring at great expense of the light aircraft to trail the banner across the heavens declaring your undying love that the banner-printer has opted to spell with two V’s; the sky-dive from 23 miles up.

That last one isn’t a romantic gesture, of course, but it still seems to me to be a gesture that has no meaning, a gesture that is the very essence of foolishness, and is therefore magnificent.

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I’m sure you’ll have heard about Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian who’s planning to jump out of a balloon that’s about the same distance in the air as my house is from Leeds Town Hall.

Apparently he’ll leave the balloon at 120,000 feet, or the edge of space as we scientists call it, and zoom towards the unforgiving ground so quickly that he might break the sound barrier and then at just 3,500ft from the floor he’ll pull a bit of string and his parachute will open and he’ll gently land 10 minutes later and no doubt wave at the cameras and go for a jug of strong Austrian beer.

He’s been quoted as saying this: “We’ve been to the highest mountain, the bottom of the ocean, and to The Moon. This is one of the last adventures.” Well said, Felix. That’s one giant leap for an Austrian.

I’m not scared of heights but I am scared of falling and that’s why it seems to me that this jump through the air is the high point (if that’s the right word) of foolish gestures.

When I was a lad, I once tried my dad’s slippers on and walked upstairs in them which was, as they used to say in those black-and-white public information films, an accident waiting to happen.

I got to the top of the stairs and violently waved my arms in triumph because I thought I was being very mature by defying the boring cardigan-wearing grown-ups who’d told me not to walk upstairs in slippers that flapped like flippers on my little feet.

It turns out that the waving was a very foolish gesture because its motion made my left foot slip out of the slipper and I fell down the stairs, tumbling and rolling and going “gnfff” like an extra in an episode of Columbo hoping for a talking part next time.

I guess that, when he remembers it as an old man, Felix’s fall will either seem like it lasted for a second or three-and- half hours. With my trip down the stairs, it was the latter.

Time seemed to slow right down until it moved like old treacle from a tin. The slipper flew past me in slow motion like a bird flying past a cloud a very long way away.

Each stair bumped me and then there was an interminable wait until the next stair bumped me. I didn’t go through the sound barrier but I did go through the pain barrier, a barrier that I broke into smithereens by the time I got halfway down. I was gasping and blubbering and groaning and my foolish gesture at the top of the stairs had been just that. And yet it was more than that.

The be-cardiganed grown-ups gathered round me, clucking and tutting and being half-sympathetic, half-cross. “We told you not to go upstairs in your dad’s slippers” they said, “and why did you do that daft wave at the top? That’s what toppled you over!”

If I’d been older and wiser I’d have said I was being Quixotic and Mercurial and, yes, foolish. My gesture simply propelled me to the bottom of the stairs giving me bruises and mild carpet burns. But I must admit I felt a little of what Felix will feel, that glow of satisfaction that comes from doing something that is daft and dangerous and of no use.

Now, I’m not advocating a mass trespass up the stairs in ill-fitting footwear because that would be wrong but I am saying that, in these careful times, the odd foolish gesture can lift the spirits, as long as nobody else is harmed during the crafting of the gesture.

We can’t all leap from the edge of space but maybe today we can all stand at an upstairs window with a rose in our teeth. And should we be naked? Well, that’s your choice, but it would certainly be foolish. Especially when the steps you’re standing on start to wobble.