Magazine article The Spectator

Taking Sides

Magazine article The Spectator

Taking Sides

Article excerpt

There is a continuing contest for the soul of the nation. Last week it reached new heights with angry exchanges between the two parties, which was reported in the newspapers. I refer, of course, to the war of the stiff upper-lippers versus the self-pittiers. If we are going to be political about it, Mr Blair, with his teary rhetoric, flirts with the latter group. Mr Hague as yet defies classification. Often he doesn't appear to have any lips at all so it would be hard for him to stiffen the upper one.

Two salvoes were fired by the opposing armies. The first was from the stiff upper-- lippers who lobbed over a scientific report claiming that unrestrainedly expressing one's feelings -- particularly those of grief and anger - can lead to serious illness including coronary problems. But then the self-pittiers returned fire with another allegedly scientific report from the University of Central Lancashire. This claimed that bottling up one's feelings in the office causes cancer.

This was interesting, as recently the Japanese decided that the British had declined in the latter half of this century because so many had given up the habit of afternoon tea. For the Japanese there was a direct correlation between tea and empathy. Or rather no tea and too much empathy with the idle, the static and the indulgent.

People imagine that mass self-pity is an exclusively 20th-century thing, that until recently we all went around with our lips in the air. Wrong. Since the 18th century we have had periods of sense followed by sensibility, mumbo-jumbo by reason. Romantics like Kant expressed themselves in the mystical language of the feelings. Some historians believe that the seeds of our decline were already being sown as early as the beginning of the 19th century. This period coincided with the height of the Romantic movement, but it would be a rash academic who tried to establish a connection.

The principal crime of Romanticism, self-- indulgence, emotional display, or whatever, is that it is so boring. If one looks at it from a social point of view it is an appalling lapse in manners. There was an Edwardian writer on manners - a sort of Mary Killen in corsets - called Mrs George Cornwallis West. She was often complaining of dinner companions who complained (if you think that's a contradiction remember Freud's aphorism that it is only in logic that contradictions exist). …

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