Whatever happened to our Stiff Upper Lip?

Eleanor Doughty wishes we could all just be that little bit more British

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The Independent Online

Queen Elizabeth II lives by her mother’s well-worn mantra: ‘Never complain. Never explain’. Doesn’t that sound idealistic? It does to me, but equally quite right. British stoicism has been on my mind this week.

A recent encounter with an acquaintance who almost rudely regaled me with tales of their apparently-not-too-private life struck me as a little off kilter. For isn’t keeping schtum part of what it means to be British?

Regularly I come across generically-modified e-lists prescribing typically British things. Or stuff, should I say, because that seems like a properly Norman word. This week, a personal favourite touched down in my inbox from ehow.co.uk: ‘16 thoughts that make you undeniably British’. I love lists: last week’s almost-breakdown over losing my current version of Wunderlist proved that point.

While I cannot comment on the feudal system of tea-drinkers, I can affirm that the use of the word ‘great’ is symptomatically sarcastic. I’d also agree – judging by the recent activities of next door’s garden – that as soon as the sun removes his invisibility cloak, it is barbeque season. While these things seem British enough to me, nothing tapped into what I find to be the essence of Britain: Stiff Upper Lip. It requires capitalisation because it is something I consider to be tattooed on my frontal lobe.

Ian Hislop compiled a telling documentary on the subject, inspecting Anglo-French relations during the Napoleonic era and the impact of emotion on the British public. I am unashamedly geeky in such areas. Hislop seemed unsurprised to discover that Stiff Upper Lip was named as a ‘badge of national pride’. It is the maintenance of a ‘shop front’, your persona is the department store. The only remaining Mitford, Deborah, the now Duchess of Devonshire, is of a generation keen to uphold this starched sense of Britishness, the way in which emotions were skated over, and sentimentality was absent. While the Mitford clan was riled with trouble, our old friend Nancy wrote away her sadness, remaining cheerful with Evelyn Waugh throughout their correspondence.

Sadness is not the key. The maintenance of an accepted public face is something I question regularly. In this society, what does that face look like? If employers inspect our online appearances then the Internet should build whopping great extensions of the pristinely constructed shop fronts known to our grandparents.

The Mitfords would have considered emotion a treasured possession uncomfortable on display in public. And probably private too. But I shan’t take it too far: the proverbial letting down of Stiff Upper Lip’s stockings is crucial to modern balance as I have found through experience, whether that comes through writing or talking. But only to your inner most circle. Is the internet the place for such frivolity? Some would say yes, but I am most averse to this construction of society.

An old flame once told me to stop ‘saying stuff’. I had never thought of myself as one of those people, being nothing more than a chatterer – I am hopelessly un-coy – and felt embarrassed. This uncomfortably memorable point turned a corner in my online behaviour. No longer would I spout emotional codswallop that concerned only myself. Reflectively, it seems selfish and as an only child and first-person writer, I have enough of that to deal with.

I find that gin brings lapses in this control along in conjunction with tears and headaches. But we now live in an era of immediately accessible data. How I long for Dorling Kindersley encyclopedias and hand-written letters! Call me sappy all you like, but who can contend that a letter in the post isn’t better than a stuffy text tapped out in a second? The influx of immediate social media is attached to an emotional irrationality that I historically associated with America. It is now more commonly of our fair land – and my social networking websites. We are a world blanketed in our feelings as we itch them off across the three big Ws. Hypocrite, I hear you screech to the writer, but such is an occupational hazard.

Despite my protestations, in a society doomed to the relegations of inverse-snobbery, people who aren't too posh to push, and a ‘Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents’ three-Tequila-floor generation, perhaps it is fitting that old-age British stereotypes are being scrubbed away. But really, in a world of over sharing, how much is too much? Now pass me the Hendrick’s.

Eleanor Doughty is a second-year student at Queen Mary, University of London. Follow her on Twitter here. She probably won't follow you back.