How We Took Control Over Our Stiff Upper Lips

Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain

I never tire of watching Peter Cook‘s WW2 officer announcing to valiant subordinate Jonathan Miller in Beyond The Fringe:

Perkins, I want you to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this stage …

Peter Cook – bona fide comic genius

Miller as Perkins accepts his fate with equanimity. The sketch featured again in the last part of Ian Hislop’s recent BBC series on the emotional culture of Britain over the past couple of centuries, Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip (iPlayer link above for those in the UK). Beyond The Fringe was part of an early 60s sea change: the skewering of some of the silliness and stuffiness of the ruling class and the WW2 generation by their grown-up children.

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

As Morrissey once put it, “I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a mark of how conservative things had been until then (1962) that even Alan Bennett’s clergyman saying “stuff this for a lark” was considered devlishly risqué and elicited gales of laughter from a thrilled audience. But tame though it now seems, the genie of irreverence was out, along with rock ‘n’roll, fashion and youth culture – 1962 saw the emergence of Beatlemania too – and it started to change the assumptions of many Britons about when and how to show our emotions in public. Hislop’s tour of what happened to the old “stiff upper lip” in all this was an interesting excursion and well measured on the whole. But of course I have my penny’orth to add.

  1. He underplayed the class-specific nature of the “stiff upper lip” culture – that it was associated with the cultures of the middle and upper classes, in an era of deference when their values dominated public life and discourse, much more so than in our (supposedly) more democratic, less hierarchical times. It’s arguable whether “stiff upper lip” ever meant a lot in working class culture. That said, it does seem that the classes shared a belief that suppressing emotions and maintaining a public face (whether calm, hard, cheerful or whatever) was what you did. So the bulk of the population may well have emoted publicly with ease in the first part of the 20th Century; but Hislop is right to suggest there was a common bond of belief in Stoic forbearance that they all signed up to.
  2. What I think Hislop’s programme also glided past was that the “Death of Deference” that started gathering strength in the 60s (but took 20-30 years to mature) coincided with a falling away of religious faith for many. Of course the two may well be linked. But coming together, the effect was to deeply undermine not only the stiff upper lip but a whole raft of assumptions about how life was to be lived. People started to feel life was for living now, not in the next life. And this was a profound shift.It meant people increasingly wanted to have things now, not wait to have them later – and the credit sector boomed to meet this need and fuel it further. We are living now in the “have it now” culture that resulted. I would argue that we are now, since the economic crash of 2008-9, going through another shift, as we realise some aspects of this have got out of hand. There is a shift away from materialism, or rather there is the development of an anti-materialism that co-exists with a highly sophisticated consumer culture (the latter is not about to go away). The Olympics also showed how much British people want to reconnect with traditional virtues of determination, endeavour,  grit – and yes, being good at things again.

    Strange phrase for an atheist to use, as surely He would have to be alive first? But you get the point

    So there is a kind of stripping down process going on, where we are rejecting some of the chaff that accummulated (shaving fat off bankers, shopping at cheaper stores we would never have considered 5 years ago, paying back our credit cards, showing restraint in our spending). But we’re not dismantling our complex consumer society, it’s more of a subtle adjusting and refocussing. And like the Death of Deference, it will probably take 20-30 years to play out.

  3. It takes stiff upper lip to be a British indie star. Here the Arctic Monkeys return triumphant from victory at the Siege of Mafeking (wasn’t that W Churchill – wrong pic? – Ed)

    As Hislop describes, the traditional stiff upper lip has retreated. But I think the stiff upper lip culture really split into factions: a reduced rump of it stayed as was, mainly among conservative types in the upper middle class; but there was also a chunk of it that got hip. It followed the 60s cultural rebels underground and morphed into the icy exclusivity of British art-rock “cool”. It’s still more or less unique to this country to revere a music elite who display above all their emotional distance. There is a sense in which Bowie, the Jesus and Mary Chain or Arctic Monkeys echo in their armour of cool the unflappable sailors of the WW2 story of sacrifice at sea, In Which We Serve. Both hold back of their emotional centres from public view, in favour of a steely attitude and a loathing of emotional gushing, even while communicating deeply emotional material. British bands do it best because it’s deep in our cultural DNA to be like this.

    Not the way to impress miserablist UK indie kids

    As a contrast, look at U2: a band never quite accepted by British indie culture even at its peak, despite its often admired musical achievements, because Bono just emoted too much and too obviously. They were too open, too nice to be cool; not enough was hidden. It wasn’t their being Irish by the way – My Bloody Valentine were exemplars of cool.  (But, as an aside, perhaps Irish culture does struggle on this front generally – is there just too much bonhomie and joie de vivre to be got over?) There’s a selectivity, unfriendliness, elitism and secretiveness to British cool that throws many outsiders. It is pretty unappealing on the whole at a human level, but it does seem to help the music – which is hugely important to me, so long may it last. I don’t want to be their friend, I just want the music.

    4. Hislop points out how the stiff upper lip today re-emerges at times of national crisis, citing 7/7 and the 2011 riots. Well 7/7 is right anyway – but I’m not too sure the reaction to the 2011 riots was so calm. I think a lot of people bolted their doors and hid under the kitchen table, like Neil The Hippy in that episode of The Young Ones with the nuclear bomb. But Hislop has a point, “Keep Calm and Carry On” does resonate in our culture, if only because we can’t be bothered changing much. It helps that we’re happy as a nation to muddle through and make do with “good enough”. As Billy Bragg sang, I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, and the same applies to the rest of the UK. We really just want to trudge on, letting things bounce off our thick skins like a rhino trotting through some light vegetation.

    A scene in the subduing of the terrorists. It was this kind of plodding normality that did for them (though the police and army did help quite a lot too).

    In my home province of Northern Ireland, I grew up in the 30 year crisis of the Troubles and many of us believe this attitude was really our big secret weapon against the IRA during that time. Yes there was much violent reaction too, but what really typified the response was that most of us just adjusted, got on with life and worked around the inconvenience of these people trying to bring the Province to its knees. It didn’t make the headlines but it was the worst nightmare for those with a Killing Rage: being ignored. It was probably the greatest (though largely unrecognised) triumph for stiff upper lip since WW2. [Parenting tip: try this too with tantrum-ing under 5s, it works a treat. They get louder and wilder for a bit, but then stop of their own accord.]

    But I think the stiff upper lip survives today in quite a different way: I think it has been professionalised. It’s become a lifestyle choice. It’s fostered by some of our professional cultures, so that it thrives in these pockets today – but in a more limited sphere than in its all-emcompassing past. The Army is the prime example, but look also at law, medicine, the other professions and some elite sport. “Stiff upper lip” isn’t the right phrase any more, but it’s the same thing in effect: it’s about being tough, resilient, getting on with things and not showing your weakness or self doubt to others; putting on your “game face”.

This guy’s printed out four of his “game faces” to show us. The thing, he looks like a tw*t in every one of them.

          But what’s different now is that it co-exists with the very different cultural norms that now prevail around our home lives. As Hislop notes, therapy and psychology started to show in the 60s and 70s that being too buttoned-up all the time was actually bad for your mental health, and bad for society. I sense Hislop doesn’t agree, but he misses something here. The two can co-exist – and this is what is happening now for many of us. We increasingly realise we are multi-faceted and that we can turn up and turn down the volume on different parts of ourselves to meet the needs of the circumstances.
          Take attitudes to fathering these days. There is less, for example, of the coming home from work and collapsing into an armchair to harumph over the letters page of the newspaper or going straight to the pub with workmates. Modern British fathers tend to go into dad mode, husband mode and several others once they walk in the door; previous generations of fathers’ practice of staying aloof and uninvolved at home is increasingly rare and unwelcome.
        What we’ve come to is a realisation that the stiff upper lip is a tool in our repertoire – to be used when we need it, but not a code to apply to every corner of your life.
      I think Ian Hislop prefers the stiff upper lip, but he perhaps doesn’t realise he can have his stiff upper lip cake and eat it. You just don’t have to adopt it as an approach for all circumstances. Everything in moderation. Now there’s nothing more British than that.
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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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