Terence Blacker: Why some men's sex lives are so compelling

Life is dull, and laughter, even if it is a touch heartless, is to be treasured

I am a bit off the pace when it comes to the latest developments in the gentle Swede's affairs, but there seem to have been stories in the press suggesting that he has, shockingly, spoken on the telephone to the sultry temptress who led him astray when she was a rather busy secretary for the Football Association. Meanwhile, his own darling Nancy Dell'Olio is worried about their future together.

Tabloid talk along these lines would not be worth the attention of serious people had Sven himself not portrayed them as part of a more general cultural picture. "This is a strange country," he said recently. "Obviously, someone is out there trying to disturb my job and try to make me leave the country ... If people are to write about my private life, they should at least get it right."

These are wise words, and true ones. A preoccupation with pointless and usually inaccurate tittle-tattle about what a coach, an actor or a fly-by-night reality star gets up to, or fails to get up to, behind closed doors reflects credit neither on those who publish it nor on those of us who read it.

This is, indeed, a strange country. A brief tour d'horizon of recent stories in the British press casts light on how genuinely odd it is. David Blunkett (affair, pregnancy, heartbreak, leaks to the press) is contemplating legal action against a Channel 4 play about his misadventures. Jude Law (affair, nanny, public apology) has been photographed in the nude. John Mortimer (affairs, books about affairs, secret son) is, according to Graham Lord's biography, rather partial to being spanked with a hairbrush. We have been spared the latest developments in the love life of Rod Liddle (affair, Viagra in coat pocket, ex-wife singing like a canary in the Daily Mail) but they will return soon enough, like a nasty rash.

There is a clichéd view of why the English like to read about such things. We are lousy at sex and simmering with frustration. All we can do, tragically, is to open our papers and read, with steam coming out of our ears, about the exciting private lives of public figures.

Agnes Poirier, the London correspondent of Libération, recently gathered up these tired old theories for a warmed-over article about the English and sex. We are repressed and therefore obsessed, don't you know. We keep our erotic natures locked away in the closet, expurgating them occasionally through humour. "The Carry On series, Benny Hill, Richard Curtis, romantic comedies and even Bridget Jones show the British inadequacy with sex as a way of making people laugh." By contrast, the French make love absolutely beautifully and are uninterested in the sex lives of others because - pass the sick bag, Agnes - they are so busy with their own.

Let us not speculate on what has happened to Agnes Poirier to convince her that the British are sexual inadequates. It is enough to point out that it is tired old tosh, this idea that to the south of the Channel resides a race of masterly sophisticated lovers while, on this side, we are giggling, bony-kneed incompetents. It is true that, unlike the French, we feel no need to boast pathetically about our fragrant mistresses, our suave cinq à sept arrangements, but that is because we are blessed with an erotic confidence of which many other nations are jealous.

So it would be unwise for Sven Goran Eriksson to turn to a grumpy French journalist for reasons as to why this is such a strange country. Instead, he should consider the great gallery of well-known bonkers and bunglers in which he now finds himself. What possibly could his private turmoil have in common with that of a former home secretary, a veteran writer, an actor and a Spectator columnist? Why were they all so keenly followed in the press and, in the case of one of them, dramatised no less than three times?

The answer is, surely, that each of these stories is fantastically funny. There are few more hilarious spectacles than a middle-aged man so desperate to get his end away that he pays a terrible price in terms of his career, image and, above all, dignity. (Inexplicably, female sexual desperation is less inherently amusing, something to which those of us in favour of gender equality might usefully attend).

We enjoy reading about these erotic disasters not because some clammily intimate need has to be expurgated - frankly, the images which some of them conjure up are rather less than aphrodisiac - but because life is dull, and laughter, even if it is a touch heartless, is to be treasured.

Unlike the French, so po-faced and self-conscious about their much discussed affaires, the English can see the connection between desire and humour, between seductiveness and vulnerability. When a middle-aged man in the public eye discovers that he has been chosen to act out a bedroom farce in his life for the amusement of the rest of us, there is nothing that he can do except blunder gamely on, his trousers around his ankles.

terblacker@aol.com

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