When Raymond Mortimer described James Bond as 'what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets', little did he know that the phrase would have a life of its own.
I've written previously about the phrase, for instance how it's been incorrectly attributed to Raymond Chandler, and noting some of the variations that have since arisen. Recently, I've spotted more uses and variations of the phrase, though not in connection with James Bond.
Rooting through a pile of books in a charity shop, I came across a booklet that promoted the publication of Flashman on the March (2005), the final volume of the Flashman Papers, which chart the scandalous adventures of the notorious Victorian soldier, bully and cad (brilliantly written by Octopussy scribe George MacDonald Fraser). The booklet contains a short story, synopses of the novels, and appreciations by famous fans, including politicians Boris Johnson and John Major, and author Bernard Cornwell.
On the back of the booklet are the words, 'Women want him. Men secretly want to be him. Harry Flashman just wants to get away with it.'
I had already noticed, saying as much in a tweet in 2012, that a form of the phrase had been used to describe another fictional protagonist, Lee Child's Jack Reacher. The back cover of the 2011 book Without Fail includes the words: 'Men want to be him. Women want to be with him.'
The latest (full-length) Jack Reacher novel, Night School, now in paperback, offers yet another, more contemporary, variant of Raymond Mortimer's phrase. The praise lavished on Lee Child's books, printed inside the front cover, includes this from journalist Lucy Mangan: 'I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can't shag him, I want to be him.'
These examples demonstrate that the phrase – the what-every-man-would-like-to-be meme – continues to have currency in popular culture. Its success derives in part from its original association with James Bond, but also its adaptability, whether that be in its structure (many versions exist), application (its use isn't confined to Bond) and fitness in changing cultural environments (for example with regard to language and social norms).