A Highlander, Black Watch attending a General of Hussars, possibly Lord Uxbridge: a study for 'The Battle of Waterloo', George Jones, 1786-1869, British (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I miss the stiff upper lip

Some social constructions deserve to be kept

Artillery Row

“By God, sir,” said Lord Uxbridge, sitting on his horse, resolute in the face of French cannon and shot, “I’ve lost a leg.” 

“By God, sir,” said the Duke of Wellington, looking down: “So you have.”

It’s a well-worn anecdote — beautifully staged by Terence Alexander and Christopher Plummer in Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic Waterloo. Happily, in life as well as art, Uxbridge survived: and the resting place of his limb became a minor tourist attraction, presided over by a Monsieur Paris, who owned the house in which the wounded officer was treated.

If the redcoats lost their battle, they’d all be killed

The Peninsular War, which began in 1807 and culminated in the extraordinary, bloody Battle of Waterloo, became an engine of semi-apocryphal heroic tales. Part of it was born of contemporaneous necessity: the only way to defeat a French column was for the British line “to stand”. If the redcoats lost their battle, they’d all be killed. Almost comic levels of discipline and self-control were essential survival mechanisms. Part of it came later, in the stories we like to tell ourselves; the stories that we hand down, underpinning our nation and its psychology. Gallant men on the 19th century fields of Flanders, Portugal and Spain steadied not just themselves but their descendants, too. 

The “stiff upper lip” crystallised itself in the minds of the British and the English particularly (though it should be noted that the Scottish, as much as their current Socialist-Nationalist myth-making might prefer to pretend otherwise, were the toughest bastards of all: not just servants, but enthusiastic proponents, of the “Empire” — any blood England is steeped in, our kilted Celtic friends are steeped in, too).

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.”

Charles has always struck me as a sensitive man

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.

What could be the reason for this? Social media — and the digital revolution — surely plays a part. There is also the glorification of misery. Public mental struggles — often but not always confected — carry social cache. Take for example the absurd performance of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry — exceptionally privileged people attempting to deploy their own supposed mental health struggles for acclaim and profit. Compare that to the new King who, flashes of understandable irritation with writing equipment aside, has behaved in an exemplary manner in the past week. 

Charles has always struck me as a sensitive man — with a God-given temperament, I suspect, not a million miles from my own. The pressure — emotional, political, national and international — on him is immense. He is handling his burden with enormous dignity. It is impossible not to be impressed by the sight of him (smiling at some points, tear in the eye at others) ploughing on — trying to “keep everything going”, as he said to Liz Truss — when the level of exposure, responsibility and scrutiny is so intense.

We are, all of us, if we engage with the culture or the news (I’m unsure which is worse right now) forced to operate on a public plain which encourages our innate fragility. Life, for the majority now, is long rather than short. We have much more time to ruminate. It does not, it seems, necessarily follow that comfort, safety and openness equate to psychological happiness.

Wobbly lips are understandable. But, if you want to feel better, maybe try a stiff one.

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