“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” Confucius
Recent blog posts have looked at the British stiff upper lip in response to the excellent recent BBC 2 series on the subject by Ian Hislop. Forthcoming blog posts will continue on a similar theme looking at some amazing people from different corners of the world who demonstrate that coping with adversity doesn’t necessarily require just a stiff upper lip, but can also require resilience and “bouncebackability”. Resilience is a crucial factor in our own happiness experiment. It would be unrealistic to expect to go through life without having to cope with adverse events or experiences. Why do some people seem able to survive traumatic events and even experience post traumatic growth whilst others flounder and become completely overwhelmed by their circumstances? It is often assumed that resilience is a character strength we are born with, but scientific evidence shows that resilience is a skill which can be learned by all of us. By developing our resilience we are better able to cope with life’s adversities and to increase our well-being. There are many resilience building techniques to learn and to chose from and there will be some which work for you and some which don’t. As with any skill worth learning, practice makes perfect – so give it a try.
If this is a skill you would like to practice you could take a look at The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté. The book, written by two resilience coaches, encourages you to take a resilience questionnaire and teaches you 7 different ways to overcome life’s hurdles. As “self-help” books go, it is considered to be one of the best of its kind.
For additional inspiration I would encourage you to listen to this amazing TED talk by Janine Shepherd: You are not your body.
This week the final episode of Ian Hislop’s excellent Stiff Upper Lip series aired on BBC2. The third episode looks at the history of the stiff upper lip since the First World War and looks at whether this is a national characteristic which is still prevalent in present day Britain. Ian Hislop argues that the British became increasingly self-aware of their national stereotypes in the 1930s and some even began gently to poke fun at this increasingly anachronistic character trait. He visits the British Cartoon Archive in Canterbury to look at a series of cartoons entitled “The British Character” which ran for several years in ‘Punch’ magazine. Graham Laidler a 25 year old cartoonist, who worked under the pen-name Pont, was responsible for creating these cartoons which were hugely successful. You can see some examples of these cartoons in the clip below. The cartoons poked fun at the very British characteristic of people carrying on regardless of what was happening around them, the empire may have been in decline, the ship may be sinking but the important thing was to carry on being British and in control no matter what circumstances presented themselves.
‘The British Character’
Ian Hislop’s programme goes on to look at how, over the last 100 years since its Victorian heyday, Britain has become more and more self-conscious and more and more self-critcial about the value of its famous Stiff Upper Lip. After soldiers returned from the WW1 trenches with over a million people dead it seemed as though the British Imperial swagger had gone for good but since then, argues Hislop, we have been nonchalant, steadfast and in recent times we have let it all out. The stiff upper lip has taken a huge battering in recent times but does its history suggest that we still find some use for it, Ian Hislop asks?
The Great Depression spread across the world in the 1930′s; there was the rise of Nazism in Germany with Britain unsure how to respond and across the empire discontent was growing at British rule. In response to these many challenges and instead of stiffening, the British appeared to loosen up and tried to have a good time. Gershwin wrote his song The Stiff Upper Lip at this time and it became an international symbol of the British who couldn’t express their feelings but who wanted to rule an empire.
At the beginning of the Second World War the government tried to prepare Britain for the worst by putting up a series of posters to avoid civil chaos.
Hislop points out that it is rather unusual to suggest that cheerfulness could be a useful weapon during the Blitz. The most famous poster of them all is the keep calm and carry on poster which was in fact never seen by the public as it was planned only for use in the event of an invasion. The whole government propaganda machine at the time played to the notion of the British stiff upper lip. In the post war times of rebuilding, rationing and austerity the government still expected the British to maintain a stoic front. In this climate grumbles, anxieties and fears were all to be kept firmly inside. However in the 1950s, as a new consumer driven culture began to develop, tensions started to emerge and the buttoned down approach to emotions was increasingly questioned and considered out of step with the emotions of the age.
Old boundaries were being rejected, argues Ian Hislop, as as new generation grew up in the sixties awash with the luxuries of peace and prosperity, greater social mobility and sexual freedom. It is no wonder that the relevance of the stiff upper lip approach to life began to be questioned. Ian Hislop meets writer Alan Bennett, a cast member of the groundbreaking 1960s satirical show Beyond the Fringe which made fun of clergymen, judges and the Prime Minister alike and even poked fun at the most stoic period of the British during the war. The assault on old establishment values had begun in earnest.
The line between the personal and the public was being eroded. Ian also travelled to the Welsh community of Aberfan, where in 1966 local people met terrible tragedy when a local school was covered by a landslide killing 144 people,116 of whom were children. The townspeople coped with the tragedy with old-fashioned resilience and dignity in the face of an increasingly intrusive media whose camera crews captured every moment of the unfolding tragedy. The media was now insisting that we all had a right to share in other people’s grief. Ian Hislop argues that this event was the beginning of an on-going debate which continues today about media intrusion and how appropriate it is for the British public not to stand back but to join in someone else’s grief. In 1968 grieving fathers, encouraged by their wives who had found solace in doing the same thing, formed the Ynysowen male voice choir. The choir is clearly both an extraordinary vehicle for emotional control and emotional release and a testament to the fact that genuine self-help and traditional strength of character have helped this community survive the tragedy argues Hislop. In the word’s of one of the victims of the disaster whose sister died ” It keeps the spirit alive”.
By the end of the 1970′s repression was on the way out and self-expression was on the way in. Was it possible to hug your way to happiness? Ian looks at the influence of American ‘therapy culture’ on British attitudes to emotional expression in the 1970s and looks inside Cosmopolitan magazine to see how this seduced a wider public. In the 1970s even some men started talking from the heart about themselves!
It became the standard medical view that having a stiff upper lip was bad for you and was a sign of emotional repression. Ian Hislop interviews feminist Susie Orbach, author of “Towards Emotional Literacy” who explains that “we turned ourselves from a society which was about civic contribution to a society in which individuality is where it is at. How do you express your individuality? It is not just through clothes and occupation but it is also through genuine forms of emotional expression” The stiff upper lip had originally been based on the premise that suffering in silence was a service to society, this notion gradually became outmoded from the 1970s onwards.
In the eighties Princess Diana became the reincarnation of the new emotional literacy in Britain and the move towards more display of shared communal feeling. Princess Diana’s touchy-feely approach was a refreshing change to the traditional stuffy establishment way of behaving with its formal code of conduct. The general national unbuttoning was epitomised by the nation’s outpouring of grief at Diana’s death. Events around Princess Diana’s death have been credited with producing the final demise of the stiff upper lip argues Hislop.
Today we have become so accustomed to showing our emotions in public that we tend to forget that until recently things were very different. Such is the power of TV and so accepted is the contemporary wisdom about the unhealthiness of any emotional repression, it seems that today’s unfettered displays of feeling have entirely replaced the old expectation to try and control them.
In moments of real crisis or adversity, argues Hislop, some residual impulse of the stiff upper lip does still quietly kick in. Examples he gives are the stoic response of Londoners to the 7/7 bombings and the response to the summer riots of 2011. It is not entirely coincidental that the catch phrase of today is the slogan resurrected from over 70 years ago “Keep calm and carry on”. Despite its faults and its failings, British reserve, stoical sang froid, grinning and bearing it might still have something to recommend it argues Hislop. ” If I am wrong” he concludes by commenting wryly “and the stiff upper lip is finished and is rightly consigned to the history books. If that is the case, there is no point in making a fuss about it, no point in crying, we will have to deal with it, sort ourselves out and get on with it.”
View the last episode of the series here. I will leave you to come to your own conclusions about the current emotional strengths and weaknesses of the British character. Here is the final speech by London Mayor, Boris Johnson at the end of this year’s Olympics – another occasion when British emotion was on national and international display: ’The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′
Boris Johnson ‘The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′
This week BBC2 aired Ian Hislop’s second episode in his series about the famous British Stiff Upper Lip - in which he argues that we have the Victorians to thank for making the stiff upper lip a genuinely national characteristic. The unwavering fortitude of the British in the face of adversity and hardship, commonly known as a stiff upper lip is still firmly in place, without any assistance from botox injections, according to Ian Hislop. He looks at how suffering in silence was considered the ideal norm and gives us some examples of unusual national heroes of the times like Captain Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the Channel.
Captain Matthew Webb
A recent survey by YouGov suggests that the stiff upper lip is softening but is still stiffer than others. In their recent survey:
“62% of the public believes that British people have become more emotional in recent decades. Only 14% say British people have become less emotional, and 18% believe they are about the same.
Despite the majority view that the British stiff upper lip is becoming a thing of the past, 57% of the public say that British people are generally less given to displaying their emotions than people from most other countries. A very small proportion (8%) believe Brits are more given to displaying their emotions, and 26% are of the view that British people display their emotions to about the same extent as people from most other countries.”
In Episode 2 , the BBC tells us:
“Ian returns to his own boarding school, Ardingly College in Sussex, which he admits forged his own character. He looks at how the English public school system instilled a powerful ideology of stoicism into both upper and middle-class boys, preparing them to run both the country and the fast expanding British empire. Later in the century, these ideas were extended to the roughest parts of Glasgow and beyond through the Boys’ Brigade, founded 25 years before the Scouts, as a panacea for ‘degenerate’ working-class youth.
Ian also argues that it was the Crimean War which gave rise to the democratisation of the stiff upper lip. The bravery of ordinary privates was admired by all and for the first time they became national heroes – the new Victoria Cross was the first honour for which all ranks were eligible.
Victorians tended to believe that a good dose of emotional restraint could even fortify women, and that by being uncomplaining and endlessly supportive – ‘the angel in the house’ – women could aspire towards their own version of the stiff upper lip.
Yet by the early 20th century some intellectuals, radicals and aesthetes were beginning to question the homogenised, quasi-industrial approach to character building – and were equating the stiff upper lip with hypocrisy and repression. And ultimately, the Victorian ideal of reticent stoicism shot through with imperial swagger could not survive the mud of Flanders. Yet it was precisely these values which fed the front line and persuaded so many officers and men to endure the First World War’s unspeakable horrors. Ian goes to the battlefields of the Somme to tell the remarkable story of how one officer literally treated war as a game, using football to motivate his men to go over the top.
Ian also introduces the weeping policeman ‘Robert Emotional’, explains the dark context to Charles Darwin’s observation ‘Englishmen rarely cry’ and talks to MP Rory Stewart about how the stiff upper lip helped see him through his time as a deputy governor in Iraq.”
In response to an article by Ian Hislop in the BBC News Magazine, people have been responding with their own stiff upper lip stories which you can read here.
As to the question of whether the British stiff upper lip is a good or bad characteristic, which underpins the emotional well being of the nation, the jury is still out. Part 3 of the series may reveal the answer to this burning question or you may already have made up your own mind. I, for one, continue to find the series interesting and will reserve judgement until next week’s final episode which airs on 15th October.
I watched Ian Hislop’s new programme about the famous British Stiff Upper Lip last night and found it very interesting and surprisingly enjoyable. It will be interesting to see how this review of the nation’s emotions continues next week but the first instalment was very insightful. This interesting review in today’s Guardian will give you a great insight, so you can decide for yourself whether you want to catch up with the BBC2 programme here.
Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain
From bawdy Boswell to Princess Diana, Hislop gets in touch with our emotions
Ferreting around … Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper lip was complex and lovely.
Ian Hislop is out and about in London talking to people, normal people, about emotional matters. He’s not a natural with the public, I’d say – it’s as if he knows he can’t be too clever, or witty, or sarky. But what, frankly, does that leave, for someone who’s all about being those things? Nodding along, a little uncomfortably, that’s what.
Luckily he doesn’t do it for too long in this first episode of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain(BBC2). Soon he’s burrowing into the past, ferreting around (there is something ferret-like about Hislop, isn’t there?) among books and pictures. Not too many normal people to deal with here, just experts. Like AN Wilson (now there’s a man to test your stiff upper lip, don’t you just want to throw your arms around him and give him a big hug, soak up the warmth). And this fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions …
What? No! That’s a made-up centre, isn’t it? What the hell were they doing until this programme happened and (sort of) justified their existence? Sitting around among their dusty books, waiting for the phone to ring. Eventually, after several years, it did, the first time ever in fact. “Hello? Yes … Ian Hislop? You’re making a programme … about the history of emotions … yes I believe we can help you … that’s exactly what we do, pretty much all we do … an interview? … let me just check the diary … actually, no need, that’ll be fine …”
Anyway, it turns out we Brits weren’t always so buttoned up, our upper lips weren’t always so stiff. Back in the day we were a touchy-feely-huggy-kissy lot (lucky for AN Wilson he wasn’t around then). Even Nelson was basically a metrosexual hippy. So what happened? The French revolted, that’s what, our lip-stiffening was a direct result of that.
It’s a bit more complicated, and interesting. And Hislop snuffles out a fascinating route from Tudor va-va-voom to icy Victorian reserve. Sometimes I get a bit lost and can’t see how something fits in, but that’s just me not keeping up, and it really doesn’t matter because the stories are such a hoot. Like the cunning British scheme to sort out the French, put a stop to their silly revolution, by making them all play cricket. And James Boswell’s big night out on the town to celebrate the king’s birthday, which involved drinking a lot, getting into a few fights, and dipping his machine into the canals of prostitutes. Eurgh … his words, not mine, filthy man. Three prostitutes, as it happens, “thrice nightly” Jimmy B they used to call him. How does this fit in with the history of the stiff upper lip though? There’s very little reserve going on there; plus he must have needed all his stiffness for his machine, in order for successful canal-dipping to take place, so to speak. Oh I see, that was the beginning of politeness, though Boswell wasn’t very good at it (you’re telling me!), on account of being Scottish.
There’s not an awful lot to go on visually for this documentary. Hislop looks at a book, and another book, and at a portrait by Johann Zoffany. The camera scans the page, the picture, a statue, a flag; Hislop ferrets around, in his black suit. But thank God we don’t go down the dreaded dramatic reconstruction route (take note, Andrew Marr), although it might have been quite fun for Boswell’s Big Night Out.
And it will be easier next time, as we’ll presumably be getting into times where there’s some footage – of events when lips either remained stiff (world wars), or didn’t (the death of Diana). Gazza’s tears, will they feature? Andy Murray’s Scottish ones even?
What about Hislop himself, is he Wellington or Nelson, stoical or sentimental? Or is there something between the two, an upper-lip semi? That curls up slightly, in the corner, wittily, satirically … Yeah, that. Anyway, his programme is a lovely one
Article written by Sam Wollaston in the Guardian on 2nd October 2012