William Skidelsky wants to be thought a bon vivant

How I wish they would say: "Good old Will, he was a true bon vivant"

In moments of idleness or depression, I sometimes tell myself I would like to be a bon vivant. Not that I have a very clear idea of what being a bon vivant entails, or how one goes about becoming one; it's just that I like the term's aura of sophistication and luxury. In any case, I suspect that for the most part a bon vivant isn't something you decide to become, so much as a label that others apply to you - usually after you have died. When I am dead, perhaps people will say: "Good old Will, he was a true bon vivant." It doesn't seem a bad epitaph.

Only I very much doubt that they will, because I live in Britain, where there is no tradition of respect for pleasure-seeking. In countries such as France, wishing to devote one's life to pleasure is considered reasonable, so long as one's idea of what constitutes enjoyment is sufficiently high-minded. In Britain, anyone who makes pleasure the principal aim of his life is likely to be dismissed as a "libertine", or some other mean-spirited label.

Not surprisingly, our suspicion of pleasure extends to the way we approach food. Since the English language has traditionally lacked words for those who are interested in eating, we have recently had to invent one - "foodie". What a horrible word it is - unlike the figure of the "gourmet", who commands only respect. So far as the French are concerned, one can never be too interested in food. Where one can go wrong, however, is in approaching it with insufficient discernment. And this is the problem with the "gourmand", who, like the "gourmet", is devoted to eating but lacks true refinement.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my becoming a bon vivant, however, is that I was born in the wrong era. Whereas devoting one's life to pleasure made sense in the age of luxury hotels and three-week ocean crossings, today it would seem irresponsible and ridiculous. I was reminded of this recently when I read When You Lunch With the Emperor, the memoirs of the legendary American bon vivant Ludwig Bemelmans, about to be published by Ebury Press. Bemelmans, an Austrian by birth, arrived in New York as a teenager and spent the next 20 years working in hotels. Eventually, he managed to carve out a niche for himself as a journalist and writer, and spent the rest of his life writing exotic travel articles. Bemelmans's anecdotes about behind-the-scenes life in the luxury hotel trade are revealing and salacious, and his accounts of his subsequent travels are invariably colourful. Nevertheless, he comes across as a strangely preposterous figure, and it struck me that there is something wilfully deceptive about the tone of jollity running through his account. For the bon vivant, life has to be charming and magical. But as this requires ignoring the aspects of life that aren't those things, perhaps it is not such a noble ambition.