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."