AT THE time of Princess Diana’s death I shared a lift with the editor of the Daily Mail. ‘This is not my country any more, Jane,’ he said mournfully. ‘I don’t recognise it.’ He may have retained his stiff upper lip but his paper then sent me to St James’s Palace where a portrait of the late Princess was said to be weeping. Crowds had gathered outside, jostling to see. I refused to do the story, unable to accept a culture where even the paintings were crying.
Since then we have been gradually engulfed in a tsunami of tears. Whatever the issue, from Brexit to Strictly Come Dancing, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. On TV, prize-winners are either clapping or weeping, usually both. Even hard-nosed politicians such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who broke down on Good Morning Britain, appreciate that everyone needs to be seen to ‘take the hanky’.
The pandemic has compounded this craze for hysterical emotionalism. Incessant news reports focus on patients in intensive care units, gasping for breath. At the height of the crisis, the BBC showed a dead man being loaded into a box. We’ve had interviews with mortuary technicians, who had the usual little pause before they broke down. A public invitation is out to ‘share’ bitter personal experience and give vent to your grief. A recent Private Eye cartoon showed a radio presenter apologising to his audience because no one had cried in the previous interview.
Paradoxically, now that we’ve lost our stiff upper lips, humour has to be very carefully edited. Forget the days of Beyond the Fringe and the Cambridge Footlights, when clever, cynical young people wanted to be outraged. Some popular comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, have condemned the oversensitivity of students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Even for some ‘comedians’, not just the female ones who bang on about menstruation all the time, jokes simply don’t exist. A recent stand-up show on BBC Radio 4, featuring performers who before Covid would have been at the Edinburgh Fringe, included a young woman who told us about her sister dying of brain cancer. She broke down as she recalled it and received huge applause. I tweeted to say that while her sister’s death was sad, where was the comedy?
Her response took me into the new British culture of trembling lips and terror of emotional discomfort. She sent me her ‘deepest apologies’ that ‘the subject matter moved you so much’. It didn’t. She was also sorry that there had been no ‘trigger warning’ at the beginning to protect me from distress – alerts, originating on US campuses, that professors and now broadcasters are expected to give if something might ‘expose someone to past trauma’.
American students have called for warnings about Huck Finn, (racism) Mrs Dalloway and Madame Bovary (suicide) and The Great Gatsby (portrays misogyny). Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus has been given a trigger warning by Cambridge University English faculty, as it includes stuff which will probably give the audience apoplexy. More seriously, in 2015, the New Yorker reported that US law students were refusing to learn the statutes on rape in case this triggered distress.
Old radio and TV shows are now regularly preceded by these warnings on BBC and satellite channels. Few seem able to stand up to this woke bullying. Being distressed about something is now the equivalent of having a disabled badge: only really wicked people will challenge you about it. Who would have thought that in a secular society when few go to church, we are creating secular saints, gushingly adored without restraint, such as Princess Diana and Captain Sir Tom Moore, the latter inspiring headlines in the Sun imploring its readers to ‘Pray for Tom’ with the PM joining in. This new ‘spirituality’ has coincided with us becoming more Americanised through the internet and streaming, so we are adopting a kind of globalised verbal and emotional hyperbole.
A Times journalist recently referred to ‘our parents’ fake stoicism’ but that generation seemed genuine enough to me. A recent programme about Anne Frank included an interview with Miep Gies, who risked her life every day for two years to hide the Frank family and four other Jews in her office building in Amsterdam. She had to supervise getting all their food on the black market while protecting them and her staff and doing her normal job. In the interview she didn’t weep once, but calmly described her horror when she allowed herself to think about the responsibility she had taken on. She received no state honours until 1994. Until recently people, no matter how valiant, didn’t expect recognition and often didn’t get it. Gies always maintained that while she appreciated the honours, they embarrassed her: ‘I am not a hero,’ she said. ‘I am not a special person. I don’t want attention. I did what any decent person would have done.’ Prince Philip said the same of his mother, who saved Jews in occupied Greece: ‘She just did what any decent human being would have done.’ He’s never shed a tear on camera and it’s unlikely that he ever will.
Stoicism is now seen as being ‘buttoned-up’ – despised and regarded as dangerous to health by our therapy-culture. It’s obviously better that people should be able to express their feelings without shame, but we’ve gone to the other extreme where expressing them endlessly is the norm. I was brought up to think it was best not to make a fuss. People may once have been too austere and demanding with children but the idea of composure was rooted in the idea of politeness and not putting yourself first. Newsreels in the 1940s didn’t show lurid scenes of bodies in mortuaries, they played down misery to keep up public morale. They sometimes showed Churchill looking tearful as he walked around during the Blitz but he wept out of pity for others, not himself, and his redoubtable wife always kept a stiff upper lip. Between the two of them they encouraged people to feel safe, carry on and even, unbelievably, keep cheerful too.