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Christina Patterson

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Oh, the Delights -- and Dangers -- of Charm

Posted: 07/30/09 12:10 PM ET

On Monday night, a contemporary sex symbol celebrated the life and loves of a spiritual brother. Byron, said Rupert Everett in a Channel 4 film, In Search of Byron, was "the first modern sex symbol", the "first international celebrity" and "one of the earliest practitioners of PR". He was also a rather good poet, but the poetry, it soon became clear, was not Everett's chief concern.

Poetry tends not to lend itself to glorious shots of your muscled torso, rising, like Botticelli's Venus, from a bubble bath, or your lean buttocks, being pummelled in a hammam, or your fine biceps primed for swimming the Hellespont (which, rather humiliatingly, you don't actually manage). Poetry tends not to lend itself to giggles with Turkish prostitutes about the size of Brazilian men's willies or exchanges with ambassadors about the Turkish predilection for "sodomy and sherbert".

Byron, said Everett, was "equal parts charming and utterly vile". Who, he added, with one of his stock-in-trade smiles, "does that remind you of?" Oh go on, Rupie, give us a clue! Could it possibly be that this big hunk of bisexual beefcake, famous for his versatility and voracious sexual appetite, bore certain similarities to a Romantic poet? A poet whose sexual conquests extended both to his immediate family and at nine, apparently, to his nurse? Well, perhaps not that similar.

Byron, who was short and lame, clearly relied heavily on charm. Everett, who is tall and handsome, presumably needs it rather less. Which, on the evidence of the film, is just as well. The face of the British ambassador to Turkey - a study in icy politeness and frozen horror - said it all. Yes, I suppose the word "sodomy" is intrinsically funny to a certain kind of audience, and so is "shag" and so is "willy". Perhaps the ambassador was one of the few in Britain's history not to have been to public school.

But if Everett emerged as even less appealing than Byron (and without the poetry), it was clear what they shared. A sense of entitlement. The feeling that the world is a giant sweet shop, an unending supply of vanilla fudge, toffee bonbons and liquorice all-sorts which can be picked 'n' mixed at whim. And if Everett's seductive charms weren't instantly apparent, there were, at least, glimpses of his techniques. The disarming smile (just one in a vast repertoire of smiles). The flash of unexpected honesty. The embarrassing self-disclosure. And that old favorite, now rarely used without the words "floppy-haired": self-deprecation.

We are talking, of course, about the armoury of the English upper classes. The honesty is not real honesty, the embarrassment is not real embarrassment, the self-deprecation is not genuine apology. Why would you need to apologise if you owned the earth? This is a complicated code acquired and perpetuated by boys separated from their mummies at an early age. It's a desperate bid for attention, but one undertaken with an air of languor. It's about keeping real -- scary, embarrassing -- feelings at bay.

It's seductive. Of course it's seductive. The English upper classes haven't ruled this country for more than a millennium by accident. Charm works. Serial seducers, as many of us, sadly, can testify, would not be "serial" if their seduction techniques were inefficient. Charm gets you into places you don't want to go. It's sometimes quite hard to get out.

It's not a crime to go to Eton, or to be a member of the Bullingdon Club. It's not a crime to be charming. For two years we've had a prime minister who it would be difficult, to paraphrase Wodehouse, to confuse with a ray of sunshine, and a cheery smile (or even a wry one, or even a disarming one, but please God, not a rictus one) would make a pleasant change. In fact, a grinning gorilla would make a pleasant change. But charm is about surface, and you need to know what's behind the surface.

The other day I saw David Cameron "in the flesh" for the first time. He was talking about quangos. He was pink and shiny and sleek. He was witty and polished and poised. Most of all, he was plausible. Which, alas, is not quite the same as convincing.

 

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