March 21, 2013

Departing in austere times.

"I have been a most unconscionable time dying, but I beg you to excuse it."
-Charles II

It’s been a rough first quarter!  Painfully made aware of the contribution we Baby Boomers are making to an “unbalanced” federal budget I feel personally responsible and therefore shall make provisions in case I degenerate into a less than perfect senior citizen.

So, I'm designing and making arrangements for a program called let’s-go-in-style-at-age-one-0-one.  With an option to extend should I not be bonkers and a burden by that age (nothing like a deadline to motivate a decorator).  Friends say it’s absolutely top drawer and sign us up, please.

Therefore, I won’t do the customary thing and preserve the family fortunes. What I have in mind is a glorious affair: ideally one in which I can choose to discreetly expire lounging in a plush armchair, perhaps at The Diogenes Club, London?   I will still be elegant and witty, sipping from a tumbler, whilst a white haired Benedict Cumberbatch quietly reads to me from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

March 15, 2013

Not all Englishmen make great lovers.

No, and not all Frenchmen are great cooks.

Mona, evoking Cary Grant’s name in her last post, sparked a lively discussion about Englishmen. 

It’s true that Cary Grant became an American citizen and that, as a universally loved film star, he was a citizen of the world.  But he was, at bottom, English.  He had the charm, the wit, the self-deprecating humor of the cockney, which he was, and the stylish diffidence of the sophisticate, which he became. 

“Cary Grant could bring out the sexuality of his costars,” Pauline Kael wrote in her essay “The Man from Dream City.”  “He’s the greatest sexual stooge the screen has ever known; his side steps and delighted stares turn his co-stars into comic goddesses.”  He was, added Keal, “willing but not forward. . . . The little bit of shyness and reserve in Grant is pure box-office gold, and being the pursued doesn’t make him seem weak or passively soft.  It makes him glamorous-and since he is not as available as other men, far more desirable.”

Of course, not every Englishmen is Cary Grant.  In fact, no one is Cary Grant.  But some of his qualities are part of the mix that makes Englishmen great lovers, so Angela assures me, and Beata and Syl confirm. It’s a subject I’ve researched over the years, albeit at random, but in depth.  And although I know that such a characterization of the Englishman is contradictory to every myth of his nationhood, before you fall down laughing and remind me that they've all got knobby knees, consider Cary Grant. Consider, too, some of their other romantic heroes: In fiction, they've had Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester, Tom Jones, and James Bond - although, strictly speaking, Bond was a Scot. In film, Leslie Howard, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Jeremy Irons, think Michael Gambon, Bob Hoskins, Alan Rickman, Tom Wilkinson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bill Nighy, just to name a few.

Henry VIII made his own particular contribution to these annals of British history. It's said that women in London, before they are married, sometimes visit the Tower of London, where Henry's armor is kept, and for luck, touch his codpiece.

Englishmen make great lovers, in practical terms, because there are more of them. Statistics show that there are more men than women in England. Women treat their guys with a certain casual abandon, and this keeps them from getting swelled heads. That reticence (often mistaken for repression) with which Cary Grant charmed us goes with a serendipitous enthusiasm. "Englishmen," says Angela, "have this marvelous feigned innocence when it comes to sex. It's like a Boy Scout taking instruction in knot-tying from a scoutmaster. And all the time, they know perfectly well how to do it. But they're far too polite to say so.”  Or too clever.

But here's the heart of it. Unlike in most other countries, in England the models for machismo have nothing to do with sex and women. With schools, maybe, or sports or clubs, but rarely with l’amour, and so there's no pressure. "When I was younger, I worried about performance," says a former English schoolboy. "But it was really because I didn't want to let the side down."

This is not true elsewhere. An Englishwoman I know was raised on the idea that Italians make the best lovers, and so, at a ripe but tender age, she made her way to Rome. Gorgeous men packed the streets, men who did not cruise you covertly like the boys back home or call you a "good brick," but who eyeballed you with blatant pleasure, tossing you compliments right out where everyone could hear. What she failed to notice at first was that they did it only where everyone could hear.  She was in seventh heaven. Before long, she acquired one of these fabulous creatures for her very own. There was kissing on the Spanish Steps and picnics by moonlight in the Forum. Time passed. She began to feel a little uneasy. Her Roman lover spent a lot of time looking at himself in the mirror, and he was more interested in his own clothes than in hers. In amorous matters, he was, however, expert. A little too expert.  You know those beautifully aged Europeans you see in restaurants who can peel a whole piece of fruit with a single, fluid twist of the wrist? That, she says, is how she began to feel just before returning home to her rough but ready English beau-like a peeled fruit.

It's pretty much the same in France, according to Pamela, an American who was married to a Frenchman for nearly a quarter of a century. “What kind of Frenchman doesn't know everything about l'amour? As with food and wine, they are practically inscribed for the course from birth. Like their Italian cousins, Frenchmen are awfully concerned with the drapery, but while the Italians spend a lot of time on their clothes, Frenchmen spend a lot of time on yours. Falling in love is great in Paris; staying in love is hard work. The man who looked into your baby blues and pronounced you formidable will soon hint that you could do with a few less kilos on your hips and a new dressmaker. He may even criticize your verbs. His status, after all, depends on how you look on his arm.”  The exact center of the Frenchman's world-moral, romantic, and philosophical, Pamela pointed out-is his navel.  To be fair, maybe it's tough being a Frenchman, what with all those memories of Charles Boyer and Jean-Paul Belmondo to live up to.

A race of talkers, Englishmen will natter about everything under the sun, except themselves, which is considered bad form. A dazzling ability to manipulate the lingo makes the English the world's best flirters, and that includes the toothless old gent who sells you the papers and calls you "ducks." The sheer spritz of wall-to-wall conversation seduces.

Englishmen, moreover, never talk about the meaning of sex or the psycho therapeutic value of, well, doing it, preferring to leave something to chance. They'd rather go dancing, or mess around in their gardens or with their cars or pets. They like getting their hands dirty. And, as Woody Allen says, "sex is only dirty if you're doing it right." What the Brits understand, to paraphrase another American, Norman Mailer, is that sex without guilt isn't any fun?

Jeffrey Archer, when deputy chairman of Britain's Conservative party, resigned his post following allegations that he'd paid a prostitute to go abroad so she wouldn't talk about their relationship. The local press, whose prurience can make the National Enquirer read like the Wall Street Journal, had a field day. It was, of course, the peep-show quality of it that everyone loved. When the news broke, as everyone sat down to the Sunday papers, you could just hear a national sigh of furtive bliss.

Let's say for a minute that I've persuaded you that the enthusiasm, the wit, the charm, the absence of machismo, and the readiness to carry on in any situation (some women say Englishmen are great lovers because they love getting out of tight spots) make Englishmen appealing. Surely, you add, even then not all Englishmen make great lovers. No, and not all Frenchmen are great cooks. It's merely a national characteristic.

For instance, I saw Sir John Gielgud at the National Theatre, as smooth and sexy as ever, and he wowed us all, and that was at the age of 82. This was something, considering he was only in the audience.

I had a mild suspicion that my friend’s penchant for Englishmen was a personal prejudice, an eccentricity they acquired on their travels and from watching Cary Grant movies.  But there is documentary evidence.  Lovelaw, a television series, looked at the customs, habits, and attitudes connected with love and sex around the world. From California to Malaya, Hungary to Kenya, all the factors were accounted for-romance, procreation, taboos, seduction rituals, feminist aspirations, and the lot. The conclusion I drew from this series was that if you're a woman, the best place in the world to be is Western Europe. And that in all of Europe, the very best place for a woman to be was England.

When it comes to Englishmen, however, no one summed it up better than Mae West in She Done Him Wrong. Looking at Cary Grant, she said, "You can be had."


March 08, 2013

Forget Swann, remember the Madeleines.

Perhaps one of the most delicious reading passages can be found in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.  His remembrance of eating a Madeleine. A glimpse of a pleasure he can't identify. 

…“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses”…

“Tea and Madeleine” & “Aunt Leonie's Sofa” by David Richardson

But Messieurs Proust and Swann not only found their pleasures in eating Madeleines. For the French had a bit of well established joy that was wedged between the responsibilities of work and the duties of family called five-to-seven (le cinq á sept). A little bit of lost time in the early evening hours.  Alas, that bit of five-to-seven frivolity was severely shattered when a character in Françoise Sagan's 1967 novel La Chamade sighed-

“…In Paris, no one makes love in the evening any more; everyone is too tired…”

According to La Sagan it all had changed. Tant pis.

That little bit of pleasure should be revived.  I'm not advocating anything untoward-as you read everyone is too tired-but I wonder if five-to-seven could be reinstated to mean a bit of stolen time.  

How much more agreeable you might be if you inserted a little five-to-seven into your day?  

Switching off, as far as the I-(know everything) phone knows, you could be lost in a dead zone.  Perhaps a drink, or tea and Madeleines, and the company of an interesting friend? Don't take friend as a euphemism five-to-seven is most fun if the agenda is uncomplicated.  

Of course every secret pleasure is heightened if it has a taste of the forbidden so it gives me great joy to know that the I-(know everything) phone thinks I’m stuck in a dreaded mobile dead zone...when all along I’ll be roaming blissfully and having un doux petit rêveur

À bientôt.

March 05, 2013

Verkehrte Nacht?

“What means this, verkehrte nacht?” The little urban hipster wanted to know.

“Where did this come from?” I asked.

“We listened to this piece of music I think it’s called something like verkehrte nacht what does it mean?”

Well, if you live long enough you will, once again, have the opportunity to transfigure someones night...

Way back in the dark ages, the grammar school I attended included a music curriculum. The class marshaled all the worst features of classroom instruction to make its case:  an auditorium with lousy acoustics as a classroom, an otherworldly teacher who was unable to communicate her love of music to the class, and semesters of uninspired lectures.

How it came about I don’t recall but the teacher decided on a student lecture and the student she chose for this assignment was me.  My topic was the twelve-tone system, about which I knew not a whit   and I knew wasn’t going to increase my popularity quotient very much.

I took my assignment seriously.  I found out the names of the twelve-tone big three-Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—and got LP records (yes, it was that long ago!) containing music composed by each.  I read up, as best I could in those pre-Internet days, on what “twelve-tone” meant.  The basic rule seemed to be that you had to use all twelve notes in the chromatic scale before you repeated any one of them.

I don’t recall what pieces I listened to, but I do remember that, despite repeated attempts, it was tough going.  I liked the idea of having a system for writing music, though.  Sort of like the rules for a sonnet, I thought, a framework to guide you on your way.  I decided, since I didn’t understand the stuff I was hearing, maybe I’d just write one that made sense to me. 
(Ah, the hubris of youth . . .)

While the class dozed and doodled, I did my best to explain what I’d learned, including some examples from LPs.  I saved the piece I’d written until the end.  To my surprise, some of my classmates awakened long enough to proclaim it genius.  My piece, they said, was so much better than those other ones.

The piece I wrote is lost to time, but I guarantee you that genius it was not.  What I’d done, as I recall, was to package those twelve tones into something like an ordinary melody.  Not entirely hummable, but more like music familiar to us all.  And on that victory I rested.  

*Verklärte Nacht (or Transfigured Night), Op. 4, is a string sextet in one movement composed by Arnold Schoenberg.