Iconic British Things Part 6: The Stiff Upper Lip

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in 'Brief Enounter', the stiff lippiest of all films.

It’s always nice to make a feature out of a fault, if only because it helps the person with the fault psychologically manage it, and not worry that they’re faulty, or that the fault is something which requires immediate attention, and the intervention of an expert with sharp and sterilised tools.

So when the Victorian English took a look at themselves in the mirror one day, and discovered with horror that they were  – to a man – possessed of an unfortunately low tolerance for emotional expression and equally low reserves of healing psychotherapy (this being the era before the term was even coined), a plan was constructed to try and propigate the idea that this was not a flaw, but proof that God was looking down on England and granting all sons of its soil with a magical superpower.

It’s like England was collectively bitten by a radioactive sneer, and developed sneer-like powers, which allowed Englishmen (and let’s remember this is Victorian England, with the exception of the Queen herself, no one was paying attention to the women) to climb a social standing unaided, to leap across whole sub-continents in a mighty bound, and fire a binding trade web across the entire world.

No one knows if the much-heralded English reserve existed as a national characteristic beforehand, or it was simply that the most successful Victorians were the ones with the upstiffened lips. Either way, by the beginning of the 20th Century, and after the trial of Oscar Wilde effectively put a stop to any thoughts of libertarianism, we’d buttoned ourselves up so high, you could no longer see our faces.

100 years on, and we’re stuck with it. The Welsh and Scots retain the pride in hot passion which were once a hallmark of English patriotism (we had a king who called himself LIONHEART, for goodness’ sake), but we’re just not very skilled at expressing things beyond an all-curdling snark. You can see it in our comedy, a safe place for internalised rage to come out. We’re always seething inside, ready to burst at any moment, and releasing a just enough hissing sarcasm to prevent a nasty internal injury.

You can also see it in the English desire to avoid a fuss. It matters not if someone you have only just met has broken your leg,  proposed to your daughter or delivered your lottery winnings, the response is broadly similar. A brittle smile, clapped hands together and a clipped “right then, let’s get on with it…”

And if this all sounds a little too middle class, well that’s probably because the English have a tendency to define themselves according to their manners, and the middle classes are the guardians of decorum in all things.

Actually, the kerfuffle at last night’s Brit Awards encapsulates this tension rather well. Damon from Blur attempted to make a heartfelt thank you speech to all the people who have supported his band over the years, and as they’ve been going a while, it lasted a while. Then when there was no more time for Adele to make her speech, one which would have undoubtedly been similar to any other speech at any other awards ceremony ever, the howls of outrage were aimed squarely at Damon. This despite the fact that the TV coverage had been riddled with all sorts of silly delays and unnecessary holdups, any or all of which could’ve caused the lack of time at the end or the ceremony.

But no, we all blame Damon because he HAD to get all gushy and sentimental, like a fool, therefore denying Adele the right to be all British and self-effacing. It’s as if the collective minds of a nation were focussed on this one beloved pop star and yelling “we didn’t found (and then lose) an Empire for this, show some backbone, man! And no, I’m not referring to your low-slung jeans. Put some back-bone away!”

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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