Our Stiff Upper Lip

Ian Hislop’s programme on The Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain – began last evening and was very disappointing. After a run-through of history of the 18th Century (prior to which, apparently, we were all quite jolly), he finally alighted on the Duke of Wellington as ‘the cause’ of our famous stoicism. It struck me as a very superficial understanding of history and human psychology. No one causes anything.

The Iron Duke – the original stiff upper lip?

Princess Diana didn’t teach me how to cry, or tell me I was free to. The so-called ‘Queen of Hearts’ was completely neutral in the process of this nation learning to express its emotions (if that’s what that episode of mass hysteria was).

In his essay on history which Tolstoy appends to War and Peace, he likens Napoleon to the figurehead on a great ship. The figurehead may have the illusion of being a leader but it is merely being pushed by the ship, the people. To which I would add that the people are being pushed by the wind.

Analyzing national traits in historical personages is to ignore the concept of zeitgeist, the defining spirit or mood of an age. Who knows what it is, whence it bloweth and where it listeth.

I was going up to bed troubled until I remembered an occasion in my own life when I felt part of a mass, if not national, change.

It was 1967 and I was 17 coming on 18. I’d gone to Cornwall with my friend Sue. We were dressed as mods, believed we were mods, and were  in search of a bit of surfing action. One day, up on the rocks above Newquay Beach, we were listening to Radio Caroline on our transistor radio. The beach was full of people listening to trannies tuned to various stations. It was the usual cacophony we suffered before they invented headphones.

On our station came The Beatles and All You Need is Love. ‘All you need is love!’ we sang, ‘Tra la la la laaaa!’ And about 30% of the beach folk were also singing. Within the minute, everyone had retuned to Caroline and 100% were singing, ‘All you need is love! Tra la la la laa! All you need is love! Tra la la la laa. All you need is love, love, love is all you need.’

Everyone, hundreds and hundreds of people in one sandy bay singing the same song, with words so powerful that they did as they said. For that moment of palpable unity, me and Sue, we believed it. This was true. Love is all that is needed for there to be peace and well-being. Tra la la la laa!

We had gone to Cornwall as mods but we went home as hippies. Yes, we bought bells and necklaces to make this conversion obvious to others, but the real conversion had been within. Our feckless youth was behind us, frivolous sports a thing of the past. There was a world beyond Cornwall, beyond Britain, even, and suddenly we belonged to it. Did The Beatles cause the zeitgeist? No, they just put it into words and music.  It came to be called the Summer of Love, but we knew it as such in the moment on that beach at Newquay. I’m sure this is how national change takes place: in the hearts and minds of many, at once, without anyone orchestrating or influencing it.   Hislop, with his National Portrait Gallery view of history, is paddling in the shallows.

‘Critical mass’, that term taken from nuclear physics, in sociology means ‘a threshold value of the number of people needed to trigger a phenomenon by exchange of ideas.’ I find that a useful concept. We all feel the same but it’s mute and unformulated until the number of us is so large that our company includes someone who can speak out – or sing out – for the many. And then the balance tips.

I don’t know where our stiff upper lip came from but it would be far more fruitful to have a look at the Duke of Wellington’s schooling and his relationship to his father than his tomb in Westminster Abbey. Or to look at the social conditions for all classes around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, to find the misery which made us, acting as one, choose to keep calm and carry on.

Hislop’s programme is worth watching, because it’s thought provoking, but it left a nasty aftertaste of history education in the 1950s, which consisted of kings and dukes and a few rebels, as if, between them, they constituted history. They do not.  Who knows what does?

And the big question bothering us at the moment is whether the London Olympics changed the mood of the nation or was just a load of hype dressed up in disturbingly inverted symbolism and some pretty weird numerology. For which see the brilliant article by Richard Ramsbotham in the current issue of New View.

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