September 23, 2022


I miss the stiff upper lip: Some social constructions deserve to be kept (Tim Dawson, 9/23/22, The Critic)

Of course, there is an absurdity to the construct. It is, like so much of our history and culture, woven into class. The stiff upper lip, as we think of it now, is hewn in the draughty dormitories of minor public schools. It represents, to some extent, a metamorphosis: from boyish innocent into cold-hearted Major General, or venture capitalist, or Tory politician. There is a twinkle to it, as well: almost a foolhardiness. Its roots are undeniably martial. We think of the officers, on parched foreign soil, insisting on stopping for tea as their position is overrun. We think of the response to Lord Cardigan, following the disastrous charge of the light brigade: "Never mind, my Lord, we are ready to go again". We think -- grimly, blackly -- of the 20,000 men killed on the first day of the Somme.

By the mid-20th century we considered ourselves a nation of quiet stoics. We suffered, yes, as all humans suffer; but we coped. Just. 

"When I was a regular soldier, we had lots of officers who was Honourable, you know," says Lance Corporal Jones, in Jimmy Perry and David Croft's sitcom masterpiece Dad's Army. "At least they was called Honourable. They used to stand there in an haughty manner, as if they'd got a smell under their noses. I tell you one thing -- they was very good at keeping their stiff upper lips. Do you know, we had a young officer in the battle of Omdurman, he had his head blown right off -- and his upper lip was as stiff as cardboard."

Something has certainly changed. We have moved from communicating almost complete emotional breakdown via the merest twitch in the left eyebrow, to proclaiming the most trivial problems as loudly and publicly as possible. 

I say all this as a man with something of an artistic temperament (a temperament, actually, that I'd prefer I didn't have). I tend to pick up on other's emotions and often find myself moved. If I were on the pronoun-wielding left, I'd probably describe myself as an "empath". Even typing it, typing this, feels icky and self-indulgent -- isn't everyone an empath? There's nothing quite like the word "empath" in someone's social media bio to set my Spidey sense on edge. Those that genuinely wear their heart on their sleeve often prefer to pull a discreet cuff over it.

The irony is I find the world of constant fake outrage and hysteria harder to navigate than a consensus that was just a touch more circumspect. I don't think people should button up their emotions until they explode. Hell, even Churchill blubbed. But I am struck that, as a society, we have never been never more more open -- yet, it seems, we have never been less happy.

Rifleman Benjamin Harris, whose superb first-hand recollections of his time in Wellington's Anglo-Portuguese Army are well worth a read, faced death, plague, violence and deprivation. Yet he seems happy; he reports that he was happy. If you took the average British 25-year-old from 1809, and the average British 25-year-old today, and examined their raw mental state, which would be healthier? I am not convinced it would be the young person today.

Posted by at September 23, 2022 7:13 AM