The history of the stiff upper lip. Part 3

Today, for me, promises to be emotional. This afternoon I’m giving a talk on ‘The Logic of the Moist Eye: Tears and Psychology in the Twentieth Century’ at a history of psychology symposium in London organised by the British Psychological Society. Much of my talk will be about Arthur Koestler’s theory of tears in his 1964 book The Act of Creation, and its relationship with the Freudian approach, which tended to see weeping as evidence of the repression of affect, a regression to infancy, or both. I will almost certainly well up at the sentimental and melodramatic conclusion of my talk, although I expect to stop short of repeating the “tear-sodden juddering climax” announced by Mayor Boris Johnson at the conclusion of London 2012:

In the background of my talk on Koestler is a question, made all the more pertinent by the emotional outpourings of our recent sporting summer, which will be tackled by Ian Hislop in the third and final part of his Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain, this evening on BBC Two. This series finale, directed and produced by Tom McCarthy, asks how, when and why British upper lips started to relax, flex, and wobble during the twentieth century. One of the highlights is a review of the popular ‘Pont’ cartoons on British character published in Punch in the 1930s:

That the era of the stiff upper lip in Britain is now over would seem to be obvious, but YouGov thought it worth commissioning an opinion poll on the subject this month. They found that a majority (57%) of Britons say that British people no longer have a stiff upper lip, and 62% that we Brits have become more emotional in recent decades, although the ghost of the stiff upper lip clearly still haunts these views, since 57% think that British people are less given to emotional display than other nationalities. The detailed results reveal that the main factor affecting the results of this poll seems to have been age. Only among those aged 18-24 did over 40% of those questioned think that these days British people generally have a stiff upper lip (compared with 29% among the over-60s). It is understandable, I suppose, that people born since 1988, with few memories of a pre-Oprah, pre-Diana, pre-X-Factor, pre-Boris Britain, might believe that the status quo represents some sort of emotional containment. To older people the contrast with earlier periods presumably makes the idea less plausible.

To me, the most striking thing about the history of the stiff upper lip over the past fifty years is its refusal to go away. A significant number of writers and commentators, from professors of psychology to agony aunts, in every post-war British generation has lamented the emotional repression of earlier generations and exhorted the nation to let out their feelings and express themselves, for the sake of their mental and physical health. As I suggested at the end of my blog post on episode two, it was not until the 1960s that the balance of argument seemed to shift decisively away from the stiff upper lip mentality and towards the kind of emotional and aesthetic individualism championed by the Bloomsbury writers and others in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In 1965, the year that Churchill died and was mourned by the nation with a mixture of emotion and reserve, the social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer published a book on Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain, lamenting the harmful impact of the continued denial of feeling, especially feelings of grief. In the same year, the Daily Mirror carried a column on the harm done to children by denying them the opportunity to mourn dead parents, concluding that the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality was good for the battlefield but not for bereavement, and that it could cause physical and emotional illness.

Large-scale changes of demographics and social and sexual attitudes reinforced this trend, offering opportunities for public displays of passion, pride, and emotional flamboyance of a kind which would have astonished the characters in those ‘Pont’ cartoons. The first Notting Hill Carnival took place in 1965. London hosted a Gay Pride march for the first time in 1971.  The picture below, including the banner ‘We are nature’s children too’, is from the march the following year.

By the 1970s, most social commentators would have agreed that the British ‘stiff upper lip’ was a thing of the past. Forty years on, though, we are still asking ourselves what happened to it and wondering whether it might be saved.  I think that Virginia Woolf’s comment about the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ applies equally to the ‘stiff upper lip’:  a phantom is harder to kill than a reality.

Adam Curtis’s brilliant study of the rise of the TV hug, illustrated with fascinating archival footage from the last fifty years, investigates the gradual throwing off of emotional restraint on our behalf by TV producers. Curtis concludes with a cautionary note: ‘If we can be taught to hug we can just as easily learn to march and chant.’ In other words, the rise of a culture of televisual weeping and hugging should not be understood as evidence of increased emotional expressiveness, let alone psychological authenticity, but rather as worrying evidence of the manipulability of our emotions. Mass, populist emotionalism has indeed often been a hallmark of fascist regimes.

Herd emotionalism is certainly a worrying prospect, but not as worrying as herd repression. In a review of Ian Hislop’s series for the Telegraph, Charles Moore describes the stiff upper lip as a ‘powerful moral and cultural idea’ because it ‘helps those who are uneducated and inarticulate’.

In a world in which the expression of personal emotion is considered the highest good, those with the gift of the gab have an unfair advantage…The Bloomsbury Group was great fun for Cambridge graduates with a private income. But the “egotistical sublime” offers less to the great mass of us who start gulping when asked to heave our hearts into our mouths.

This is quite an unexpected outburst of egalitarianism from a former editor of the Telegraph. It is hugely modest of Moore to count himself a member of the ‘uneducated and inarticulate’ classes, and touching that he thinks attributes which can be developed and improved by education should be suppressed and hidden in order to avoid giving the educated an ‘unfair advantage’. Perhaps Moore would have maths graduates pretend to be innumerate and trained opera singers hit bum notes, so as to not have an ‘unfair advantage’?

There are many reasons why, if I had to choose, I would side with Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf against Charles Moore on this point. Here is Pater’s famous rallying cry for aestheticism, from the Conclusion to his 1873 book on the Renaissance:

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

And here is Charles Moore:

By contrast, the stiff upper lip, with its emphasis on others rather than self, exalts humble lives. By your actions – your hard work, your courage in war, your good humour, your readiness to be part of a team – you can live nobly, whatever the circumstances of your birth.

Suffer in silence, accept the ‘circumstances of your birth’, don’t complain, and under no circumstances develop an individual self. Remain uneducated and inarticulate. To live for others may sound pious but it is in fact one of the cornerstones of totalitarianism. Think of the regimes in which the emotional demands of the individual self have been most successfully subjugated to the greater good. Would you like to live under such a regime? If so, then ‘stiff upper lip’ is the motto for you. For myself, I’m going to stiffen my selfish sinews by re-reading Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay on ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, which starts:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others…