19 April Yesterday morning my daughter came running down stairs before breakfast saying, “Dad, Dad, on the radio
Prince William is saying your book harms people!” So I wrote this piece for The Times
Stiff upper lip. There’s no better name for the essence of classical Britishness. It is a phrase used the world over to describe us, sometimes in admiration, often in exasperation. It distils and bottles a variety of abstract British traits – the ability to laugh in the face of adversity, to keep calm and carry on, to take trouble full on the chin without complaint, to maintain an even keel and a degree of pluck – that together are the glue that bound the Empire. A very current argument has it that stiff upper lips saw us through World War Two, triumphant, and so they will see us through Brexit. Rigidity below the nose (with a bit of hoisting up the chin) was, is and always will be the magic that makes Britain exceptional.
And now the heir to the throne has said that there’s “a time and a place” for stiff upper lippery, “but not at the expense of your health.” This lesson he has learnt as an air ambulance pilot, dealing at the sharp end with the epidemic of young male suicide attempts. His brother, Prince Harry, spoke out at the weekend about the years of “total chaos” in his teens, coming close to mental breakdown, implying unresolved sadness over the death of his mother, at 12. Bottling it up and not making a fuss isn’t healthy, the Princes are saying. In fact, it piles harm on that already done.
This is gob-smacking from the descendants of the men and women who invented the stiff upper lip. King Canute, who tried to hold back the tide, Richard the Lionheart, Robert the Bruce, the virgin warrior Queen Elizabeth Ist and the first King Charles, who went to the executioner’s block with a joke on his lips. A stiff upper lip is what Britons have had instead of mental health. Now we have a Prince seeing a psychotherapist (Harry said “shrink”). Is it all over?
There is a peculiar brew of myth, self-belief and delusion behind the phrase. It isn’t even a British invention. Its first recorded use was in an American magazine, the Massachusetts Spy in 1815. It probably became well known in Britain with the mid-century poem, much reprinted, “Keep a stiff upper lip!”, by the American poet Phoebe Cary. It begins:
There has something gone wrong,
My brave boy, it appears,
For I see your proud struggle
To keep back the tears.
That is right. When you cannot
Give trouble the slip,
Then bear it, still keeping
‘A stiff upper lip’.
But by the end of the nineteenth century the phrase had shaken off its transatlantic roots to become, with “Play up and play the game!” a guiding motto for Britons attempting every challenge from warfare to marriage. These simple precepts took Scott and his men to death in Antarctica, and millions into the mud and slaughter of World War One. These attitudes was never un-mocked or criticised: EM Forster used “stiff upper lippery” in The Longest Journey (1907) to savage the “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds but undeveloped hearts” of the men who bullied him at Tonbridge School. PG Wodehouse titled a novel “Keep a stiff upper Lip, Jeeves!” When my mother used to drive me to my hated boarding school, where I started at eight years old, she’d laugh and say “Let’s see if we can keep our upper lip stiff, our chins up, and our brows set, and our best feet forward…” in the hope of staving off both our tears.
The phrase stuck because it summed up some attitudes that Britain, forging an empire, needed to crystallise into a creed. There were many of them: a favourite tale of pluck and self-control in extremis that most public school boys still remember comes from Waterloo, the bloody, final battle against Napoleon in 1815 where so many myths of English superiority were forged. The Duke of Wellington was riding through the battle with his second-in-command, Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge. The final volleys of the French artillery barrage were hurtling through the ranks. Uxbridge suddenly turned to Wellington and exclaimed, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ To which Wellington replied, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’ Uxbridge was taken to a farmhouse where the rest of the leg was amputated, without anaesthetic. The newspapers reported that the surgeon who operated said Uxbridge never complained more than to say the knife seemed a little blunt. The leg is buried at Waterloo, with its own headstone.
Uxbridge and Wellington’s exchange and the attitudes that it embodied and inspired have lived on. Monty Python parodied phlegmatic upper-class reactions to instant amputation on the battlefield at least twice, first with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “It’s just a flesh wound” – and then again in a sketch on nineteenth-century officers fighting the Zulu Wars in The Meaning of Life. (‘If you’re playing football,’ the regimental doctor advises Lieutenant Perkins after a lion has bitten off a leg, ‘try and favour the other leg.’) It is of course very stiff upper lip to deprecate tales of heroism, especially one’s own. Three of the six Pythons went to boarding prep or public schools, as did their first director.
Mock though we did, it was at Britain’s famous private schools that these principles were used first and most productively. In the ancient institutions, and the many that were built to copy them, the old Christian belief that children must suffer if they are to become upright and useful adults became a code of practice: the magic that produced men able to go out and run an Empire. Both the Princes were put through that system, despatched at eight years old to board at Ludgrove School, and then to Eton. Schools were nicer by then than they had been in Prince Charles’s day. For a start, they could no longer beat the children for indiscipline and stupidity.
But all the same, the young princes were put into the mill whose chief grinding mechanism had always been depriving the young of what psychologists call “healthy attachment”, of the safety of home and the love of those who know them best. At boarding school normal feelings can become something dangerous, the understandable sense of bereavement that is homesickness becomes an illness to get over bravely. This produces the peculiar British upper class type we all know – empire builder and business leader, perhaps, supremely self-confident but often far from emotionally whole.
If the idea that you would put children eight or younger through this process sounds ridiculous – and to most people not from Britain it does, utterly – consider just how powerful the instinct is. Prince Charles loathed his boarding schools, where he was beaten and bullied, and Diana opposed sending the boys so young. But they did it. Part of the stiff upper lip principle is denial of pain – and sending your children to do the same must be the ultimate expression of the belief that the hurt never did you any harm. Half of all the 75,000 children at boarding school today have parents who went through them.
At Eton the polishing happened – to the Princes and to me, though I only lasted there three years. Researching my book I asked one Old Etonian, the writer and anecdotalist John Julius Norwich, if he had an anecdote that summed up the spirit of the place. He told me this, from the late 1930s: “A boy committed suicide, and the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’
There is a perfection in this awful story, as one of its type (usually only ex-public school children laugh at it). Ormsby-Gore (who became, as Lord Harlech, a well-known politician and diplomat) was joking, but the joke is complex: he is mocking a certain sort of British phlegm that denies mental weakness, or at least can’t be bothered to explain it. So Ormsby-Gore is laughing at himself and his lack of empathy and insight – but lacking such things is not seen as a hindrance. It may well be a positive when faced with life’s trials. And besides, the food was certainly awful and it is always fun to see how far you can push the housemaster. Humour, at its driest and most self-aware, marches alongside the stiffest of upper lips.
Most Britons of the class that runs things are still, even today, ambivalent about stiff upper lip. If we were or are a great nation, the belief in the lip and its workings certainly played a part. Fortitude, imperturbablilty, moral conviction – they have their time and place in the modern world, as Prince William might have said. But core to the stiff upper lip principle is not making a fuss. So speaking up and denying the urge to keep feelings under wraps is anathema to it. Openness is key to a healthy person and a healthy Britain, and if that’s what Prince William and Prince Harry are advocating, then that is truly revolutionary. We shall wait and see if William and Kate send George to boarding school.
Original article in The Times