Ginger Rogers was probably the first woman I fell in love with, in the way you might - and do - fall in love at nine or ten. Tonight on BBC4 there was the latest in a rather splendid series on The Great American Songbook, but in between an earlier programme on the Hollywood musical and the Songbook there was a half hour of Astaire and Rogers clips. I have said before that if I could come back in another life I'd like to come back as Astaire, but, watching the clips this time, it was Ginger Rogers I found myself thinking about.
When I was nine (or indeed ten) I thought she was as lovely a human being as there could be: sylphlike, playful, sometimes perfectly heartbreaking. I knew she was a woman, of course, and that was the essential part. She might have been the first I knew of beauty, the first woman (w - o - m -a - n, as Peggy Lee was to sing) to whom I might consciously have attached the word.
But then she wasn't really beautiful, not as such. She could look beautiful as some women can, but essentially, it dawns on me now, she was simply pretty, like a wholesome lift- girl. And in a way that's even better, because whenever she was beautiful she was transformed.
I recall a colleague at another place telling me she was all against beauty. She had read Naomi Wolff on the beauty myth and saw how beauty was a tyrant, especially standard beauty. And someone else once said they didn't want to be told they were beautiful as it would be all the harder to lose the beauty as the years went by.
But what to do? Beauty isn't something you argue someone out of: it was instinct not ideology I experienced at age nine (or ten).
And the reason it grabs us so - both men and women - is precisely because it is what we have to lose. Nor is it simple. One beauty is simply the potential of growing into a kind of perfection. Another is the point itself. A third is the growing out of it. Still another is the being beautiful. Yet another is the presence of it. Beauty is mobile like that.
It is inevitably tied in with the condition of being firmly alive both in its fullness and its wasting. There is no human beauty that is not temporary, or even momentary.
There is a passage in László Krasznahorkai's Satantango in which the innkeeper in a crowded, excited inn, is desperately lusting after the attractive Mrs Schmidt, and has deliberately been turning the heating up so that she might remove her coat first, and then her cardigan.
However, ever since it had come to his attention a few days ago, that the bonds between Futaki and Mrs Schmidt had, so to speak, ‘loosened’, he was hardly able to conceal his delight from people because he felt it was his turn now, that it was his once-and-for-all opportunity. Now, weakening at the sight of Mrs Schmidt delicately pinching the blouse about her breasts and using the garment to fan herself, his hands began to shake uncontrollably and his eyes all but misted over. ‘Those shoulders! Those two sweet little thighs rubbing against each other! Those hips. And those tits, dear heaven!...’ His eyes wanted to seize the Entirety at once, but in his excitement he could only concentrate on the ‘maddening sequence’ of the Details. The blood drained from his face, he felt dizzy: he was practically begging to catch Mrs Schmidt’s indifferent (‘It’s like he was some kind of simpleton…’) eyes and, since he was incapable of freeing himself from the illusion that he could sum up every situation in life, from the simplest to the most complex, in one pithy phrase, he asked himself, ‘Would any man stint on the heating bill for a woman like this?’
This is lust-in-action of course, but it weakens him and makes him foolish.
Perhaps the difference between lust and love is simply that lust assumes the immediate is permanent while love knows full well it is not, so its heart goes out to it. The Entirety as against the Details. It's a start, anyway.
I was too young to lust for Ginger. It was love at first sight really, but it couldn't last. Neither her beauty, nor my childhood. It is very hard on those that have beauty and very hard on those that don't. Hard on those who desire it too, of course.
Nevertheless, sometimes it's harder to be a woman. So they tell me.