THE TRAGIC INEPTITUDE OF THE ENGLISH MALE
The acknowledged beauty Leah McLaren has been on 12 promising
dates in London. Nothing, as they say, happened. Here she meditates on the English man's curious lack of libido
ENGLISH men are widely reputed to be the worst lovers on the planet. For centuries, discerning women from Barcelona to Bangor have complained of their freckled skin, sloped shoulders, fussy tummies and off-putting predilection for 'naughty' banalities in the bedroom.
As a single woman who relocated to the UK from Canada a few months ago, I can neither confirm nor deny this unflattering rumour. After dating a passel of them, I still have no idea what English men are like in bed. Nor, increasingly, do I want to.
My first proper date with an English man was not exactly a disaster — but it was typical. Nigel, let's call him, seemed promising. We were seated beside each other at a dinner party thrown by mutual friends, and throughout the meal he entertained me with stories of boarding school (he went to Eton, which I found kooky, if cliched) and of his parents, who were globetrotting diplomats. Nigel himself was a stockbroker with literary aspirations but, nonetheless, he seemed OK. At the end of the evening he suggested we see a movie the following day, a Saturday, and I agreed.
We went to the film —a two-hour-plus Inuit art movie with barely any dialogue — and went out for brunch. Over fried eggs and ale, Nigel spoke disparagingly of his ex-girlfriends. One always wanted to get up early, he complained. The other expected him to buy her presents. When the bill came we split it. On the drive home he tried to entice me back to his house by offering me a look at his antique map collection. I said I had to work. The following week I went to a dinner party at his house. Nigel made a lovely plum flan, but barely looked at me. After that, nada. Poor Nigel. I thought he was nice, if uptight. Little did I know he was actually par for the course when it came to English men. Not only did he fail to follow up, he never seemed anywhere close to laying a finger on me.
The day I arrived in London, my American flatmate picked me up at the airport. During the drive to Hammersmith from Heathrow, she gave me a piece of unsolicited romantic advice. 'The first thing you should know about English men,' she said, 'is that what they secretly want most in the world is to be with other English men.'
It was some time before I figured out what she meant. Two months after Nigel's chilly dinner party, I was out with a banker, another Etonian, on what was probably our fourth date. During the taxiride home, we were both quite drunk and I turned and asked him point-blank if he was ever going to kiss me. '1 thought you were seeing Nigel, he said. 'I didn't think it appropriate.'
After going out with roughly a dozen single men in London, I have come to the conclusion that the modern English male knows little to nothing about courtship, and what he does know frightens him. Call me naive, but I find this surprising. English culture is founded on social protocol and ritual. Courtly love was invented by mediaeval Britons and cemented by English poets in the centuries since. What would Shakespeare or Marvell have written about without the conventions of lovemaking? At what point along the way did English men give up wooing women, and why? Maybe it's like tennis, I thought, while watching pencil-necked Tim Henman crash and burn at Wimbledon this year. Just because the English invented the game doesn't mean they're much good at playing it.
The single male identity crisis is big business in Britain. Whether it's a soulsearching autobiographical fiction by Tony Parsons or the latest Hugh Grant vehicle, the media and entertainment industry in this country has a vested interest in making sure men stay as emotionally lost and loveless as possible. This has been true since at least the late-Nineties when the New Lad was first christened. Weaned on stadium rock, tit mags and designer drugs, the Lad was meant to be a cocky, fearless, politically incorrect antidote to the limpwristed New Man. With the rise of laddism came the death of dating among young English singletons. Lads, so the theory goes, simply couldn't be arsed with all that door-opening, car-hiring and tab-paying of traditional dating. Besides, what was the point when stroppy, post-feminist English girls were just as happy to meet at a party, get tanked and make out in the taxi back to his crib?
But laddism was not a rebellion so much as a defence mechanism — a mask of arrogant offhandedness that conveniently hid the glaring sexual insecurity of most English males. In my experience, many of these men live in abject fear of being left alone with an unknown woman — the very definition of a date! — and they will go to great lengths to avoid it.
None of the men I've dated in London could qualify as 'Lads'. They are all professionals: doctors, lawyers, bankers, journalists, business-owners; grown men ranging from their late-twenties to late-thirties, equipped with tidy flats, well-tended gardens and cultural interests that don't include the latest issue of Maxim. And yet, when it came to dating they were about as charming as Liam Gallagher after 12 pints and an eight ball.
Since moving to London, my romantic life has been characterised by last-minute text messages, incomprehensible drunkards, first-date coke-bingers and split bar tabs. I quickly learnt that if you let an English man pay, you'll have to listen to him whine about it later. I have often tucked myself into bed and stared at the ceiling contemplating the cluelessness of the English male date. I have come up with the following:
a) Many went to boarding school at an early age, thus forfeiting essential affection from their mothers, leaving them all but incapable of intimacy with women.
b) Many drink too much, leaving them all but incapable of intimacy with women.
c) They are repressed homosexuals.
d) They simply don't like women.
The most common English male dating crime by far is the Non-date Date. This is a strange ritual wherein the English male asks a woman out on a date without indicating that he has any romantic inclinations towards her. Any overt demonstration of desire might make her think he likes her this is verboten. The Non-date Date is initiated in various sneaky, cowardly ways, but the preferred method is text messaging.
Let me preface this by explaining that in North America the typical situation is this: you meet a guy at a party and exchange numbers. A few days later he calls you up and asks if you would like to have dinner with him. In England things are different. You meet a guy a party and exchange numbers. A few days later you get a text message that reads something like Out 4 drnks 2nite in Wil — wnt 2 join?'
Another common English male dateavoidance strategy is the Friend Ambush. So you swallowed your pride and met up with him and his drinking buddies at a bar. He barely spoke to you all night, but texted you a few days later to ask if you'd like to have lunch on Sunday. Sure, you say, thinking it might be nice to talk to him alone for five minutes to figure out if there is any chemistry, though it seems unlikely, You meet at the restaurant and are seated at a table set for four. 'My friends are coming, hope you don't mind,' he says, Date number three and you still haven't spent more than half a moment alone with the English male. Doesn't he know that of all life's pleasures women enjoy undivided attention the most? If so, what is he afraid of?
In North America, it is generally understood that men chase women, and women, in turn, leave themselves open to being chased. This is why a corny book like The Rules: 1/line-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1995. Despite its fusty tone and blatantly pragmatic aim (it is, essentially, a baldfaced guide to husband-hunting), The Rules offers a basic outline for traditional courtship — one that many North Americans actively embrace. In essence, it is a handbook on how to play hard to get (don't call him, let him pay, make him wait, etc.). Where I come from, it is not unusual for confident, successful women to adhere to certain basic rules of courtship. Old-fash
ioned as it might be, in romantic protocol there is an expectation of formality and respect.
It wasn't always like this. Ten years ago it was common for Canadian and American women to become 'offended' by men who employed traditional courtly behaviour. Males were dressed down for opening doors and bills were split on principle. Since then, however, there has been a softening of the feminist ethic where romance is concerned.
Somewhere along the way, North American women took what they wanted from political correctness and feminism and discarded the rest. Women like to be courted, and proper courtship is, by definition, a gendered pursuit. It requires men to adhere to a different, even oppositional, code of behaviour from their female counterparts'. Like a waltz, it can be very beautiful so long as everybody knows the steps.
It's been suggested that the wall I'm encountering is that old cultural mainstay, English reserve. Frankly, I think it's simpler than that. The English male avoids being alone with a woman because he dreads being alone with a woman. In this regard, the boarding-school-educated types are by far the worst. Wrested from the intimacy of their mother's affection, boarders come to depend on themselves and the boys around them for everything they need. The company of women and those who crave it are viewed with suspicion and disgust.
'The key to understanding the English man is the fact that he cannot go to bed with a woman without first getting drunk,' an older American journalist recently pointed out to me. This man attributed his considerable success with British females over the years, at least in part, to the incredible ineptitude of English men in the courtship process. (In part this ineptitude can be attributed to simple lack of experience. According to a recent survey by the condom-maker Durex, the average Briton reports having had 8.8 sexual partners, compared with Americans who report having had an average of 14.3 different lovers and Canadians who claim 10.6.) For a North American male, romancing English girls is like shooting fish in a barrel. And why? Because most of them have never been actively pursued or seduced
before. Conversely, the story of the sexless English suitor ineptly courting the affec
tions of a romantically expectant American girl is nothing new. lieruy James's Portrait of a Lady is the quintessential story of an American girl bored to distraction by repressed English blokes. After fending off the pitiable, sexless advances of her sickly cousin and the local peer, Isabel settles upon Gilbert Osmond, a blood-sucking American ex-pat living in a decrepit Tuscan villa. And why? Because Osmond, being an American (albeit a despicable one), knows the moves.
While the English man beats nervously around the bush, the American suitor goes for the female jugular. 'Lord Warburton,' writes Henry James, 'seemed quite ready to walk, to sit or to do anything that Isabel should propose, and he gave her this assurance with his usual air of being particularly pleased to exercise a social virtue . . . as he strolled beside her for a moment, in silence, looking at her without letting her know it, there was something embarrassed in his glance and his misdirected laughter.'
Compare Warburton's fumbling with Gilbert Osrnond's active, direct pursuit.
While the American is without fame, for tune, youth or beauty, he still manages to charm and disarm the haughty Isabel by looking her in the eye and telling her exactly what he wants. 'I've too little to offer you,' Osmond tells Isabel,
'So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I think it can't offend you, and some day or other it may give you pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure you,' he went on, standing there before her, considerately inclined to her. . It gives me no pain because it's perfectly simple. For me you'll always he the most important woman in the world.'
Confronted by such hot desire and masculine determination, Isabel is a goner.
Men and women are increasingly at odds with one another in Britain, According to a survey conducted by the UK Future Foundation last January, nearly 40 per cent of Londoners now live on their own. This represents a rise of 300 per cent since the 1960s, and is largely attributable to the increase in the number of 25to 45-yearolds who don't have a long-term partner. If single men wish to find some common ground with their female compatriots, they would be well-advised to overcome their fears. Let me put this message in a more accessible format for the English male: LRN 2 WLTZ.
Leah McLaren is the London arts correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Canada.