Ian Hislop: Has Britain's stiff upper lip gone for good?

From Victorian reserve to Olympic-sized tears, are we Brits still keeping calm and carrying on?

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Ian Hislop: Has Britain's stiff upper lip gone for good?
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Ian Hislop

After watching the Olympic Games this summer you would be forgiven for thinking that the traditional Stiff Upper Lip had no further place in British life. Athlete after athlete wept on the podium; then the interviewers got carried away by it all and started weeping, too. And back in the studios the presenters joined in as well. Presumably viewers at home followed suit in their millions.

What had happened to British reserve? It was nowhere in evidence and most commentators seemed to think that this was a very good thing. At last British people were allowing themselves to get in touch with their emotions and were giving free rein to their feelings. They were not, as stuffy old Rudyard Kipling had suggested in If (supposedly the nation’s favourite poem), meeting triumph and disaster and treating them just the same. No, they were cheering their hearts out for triumph and occasionally treating a failure to win gold as a bit of a disaster.

And what was true for the emotional reaction to the Olympics was even more marked in the reaction to the Paralympics. Television viewers who have got used to the patterns of reality television, where contestants produce an affecting back story and then break down in tears at a suitable moment, found themselves watching extraordinary men and women who actually had “put in 110 per cent effort”, who had come on “incredible journeys”, who had made “extraordinary sacrifices” for their chance of glory. And when these sporting heroes were overcome with happiness or disappointment it was difficult to watch them without being moved.

This is a far cry from what the Victorian public expected from their sporting heroes. For instance, in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel. At the time this was believed to be an impossible feat and the French described the attempt as “une folie Anglaise”. Webb, who sported a fine moustache on a very definite stiff upper lip, set off announcing that he would only swim breaststroke as this was considered a more “gentlemanly” stroke. On the way across he stopped for a glass of beer and then later for a brandy in the water, despite being stung by jellyfish and suffering from cramp. But he made it to Calais and when asked by journalists how he felt after completing this historic feat, said only that he was experiencing “a peculiar sensation in my limbs, somewhat similar to that which is often felt after the first day of the cricket season”.

Webb’s response combined British understatement, manly humility and a reference to cricket - which of course made him hugely popular.

I find Captain Webb both ridiculous and rather marvellous and it is this ambivalence towards the stiff upper lip, and also to the modern lack of it, that made me want to explore the whole phenomenon in a documentary. The series is subtitled An Emotional History of Britain, even though you may not feel that I am a very suitable guide.

One historian attributed the rise of the stiff upper lip in its Victorian heyday to “English public schools and Scottish Presbyterians”, which covers my education and genealogy pretty comprehensively. But I did not just want to produce an obituary for a bygone national characteristic because, as I discovered, it has been pronounced dead before and I am not sure it is completely deceased this time. Rather, I wanted to trace the process of our buttoning up and unbuttoning over the past three centuries and find out what were the origins, successes, failures and legacies of our “keeping calm and carrying on”.

And it is an extraordinary story. The British did not always value these qualities of unflappable resilience. In the 18th century we were living in what was called the Age of Sensibility when, to be a really civilised person, you had to feel things deeply and to display that emotion publicly. But then came counter-currents of politeness and restraint, of rationality and control and, as so often in British history, it was the French who provided the great turning point. The French Revolution provided a terrifying spectacle for the British of the power of passions running riot, of the mob abandoning self-control, and we began to define ourselves as the opposite of all those “excitable foreigners”.

The war against Napoleon gave British cartoonists a field day to develop a caricature of a lascivious, short-tempered Frenchman who wore perfume and read too many books and thus provided a perfect contrast with our own sober and serious Duke of Wellington, the prototype figure of the Stiff Upper Lip.

The 19th century marked the imperial highpoint of stoical unflappability as it was rolled out across the nation, becoming the established national self-image for men and women. At the beginning of the 20th century this turned into tragedy in the trenches of the Western Front, where a generation walked straight into the guns and it seemed that no one could ever believe in the stiff upper lip again.

But after the determinedly silly 1920s, Britain faced the general strike, the depression and then another world war and found that the stiff upper lip had returned, now modified with a smile. Bloody-minded resilience and cheeriness were combined to create the legendary Blitz spirit. But the end of the war saw a reaction to this, which accelerated through austerity to the Swinging Sixties, the satire movement, the “me” generation of the 70s, and seemed to reach a peak at the moment in September 1997 when everyone agreed that this time, finally, the stiff upper lip was finished in Britain for ever - the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

That is more or less where the series ends the story. But I am not sure if it is the end of the story. Was the stiff upper lip, as its critics maintain, merely a repressive mode of social control that was damaging to the individual? Or was it, as its admirers claim, a vital personal and national resource in tough times?

I recently attended the funeral of a friend’s mother, who had suffered greatly before her death but who was praised in a moving eulogy for her refusal to complain, her determination to continue with humour and resolution.

Her disabled husband, devastated at losing his wife, managed to retain a quiet dignity throughout the service. He had been in the navy in the Second World War and they had met when the women on the home front were knitting socks for sailors on the convoys. How on earth did that generation do it, I asked? His carer turned to me. “Stiff upper lip,” she said. I have to be honest - that is when mine gave in completely. 


THE CRYING GAMES

37.5% of British champions blubbed during their medal ceremony among them heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis

16% of all athletes observed cried at some point during their ceremony

25% of women cried compared to only 8% of men

92% of Chinese athletes sang along to their national anthem - and 7% cried

61% of Brits sang God Save the Queen 


Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: an Emotional History of Britain starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2

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