When my mother arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, she found the people admirable, though not without the defects that corresponded to their virtues. By the time she died, two-thirds of a century later, she found them rude, dishonest, and charmless. They did not seem to her, moreover, to have any virtues to compensate for their unpleasant qualities. I occasionally asked her to think of some, but she couldn’t; and neither, frankly, could I.

It wasn’t simply that she had been robbed twice during her last five years, having never been the victim of a crime before—experiences that, at so advanced an age, would surely change anyone’s opinion of one’s fellow citizens. Few things are more despicable, after all, or more indicative of moral nihilism, than a willingness to prey upon the old and frail. No, even before she was robbed she had noticed that a transvaluation of all values seemed to have taken place in her adopted land. The human qualities that people valued and inculcated when she arrived had become mocked, despised, and repudiated by the time she died. The past really was a foreign country; and they did do things differently there.

What, exactly, were the qualities that my mother had so admired? Above all, there was the people’s manner. The British seemed to her self-contained, self-controlled, law-abiding yet tolerant of others no matter how eccentric, and with a deeply ironic view of life that encouraged them to laugh at themselves and to appreciate their own unimportance in the scheme of things. If Horace Walpole was right—that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel—the English were the most thoughtful people in the world. They were polite and considerate, not pushy or boastful; the self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid; and even the most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean of possibility, and might have been much greater if he had tried harder or been more talented.

Those characteristics had undoubted drawbacks. They could lead to complacency and philistinism, for if the world was a comedy, nothing was serious. They could easily slide into arrogance: the rest of the world can teach us nothing. The literary archetype of such arrogance was Mr. Podsnap in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, a man convinced that all that was British was best, and who “had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him.” Still, taken all in all, my mother found the British culture of the day possessed of a deep and seductive, if subtle and by no means transparent or obvious, charm.

My mother was not alone. André Maurois, the great French Anglophile, for example, wrote a classic text about British character, Les silences du Colonel Bramble. Maurois was a translator and liaison officer between the French and British armies during World War I and lived closely for many months with British officers and their men. Les silences was the fruit of his observations. Maurois found the British combination of social self-confidence and existential modesty attractive. It was then a common French opinion that the British were less intelligent than the French; and in the book, Maurois’ fictional alter ego, Aurelle, discusses the matter with one of the British officers. “ ‘Don’t you yourself find,’ said Major Parker, ‘that intelligence is valued by you at more than its worth? We are like the young Persians of whom Herodotus speaks, and who, until the age of twenty, learnt only three things: how to ride, archery and not to lie.’ ”

Aurelle spots the paradox: “You despise the academic,” he replies, “and you quote Herodotus. Even better, I caught you the other day in flagrante, reading Xenophon. . . . Very few French, I assure you . . .”

Parker quickly disavows any intellectual virtue in his choice of citations or reading matter. “That’s very different,” he says. “The Greeks and Romans interest us, not as an object of enquiry, but as our ancestors and as sportsmen. I like Xenophon—he is the perfect example of a British gentleman.”

Earl Kitchener (1850-1916), exemplar of a lost stoicism.
The Granger Collection, New YorkEarl Kitchener (1850–1916), exemplar of a lost stoicism

Forty years later, in 1959, another French writer, Tony Mayer, in his short book La vie anglaise, noticed the reluctance of the English to draw attention to their accomplishments, to blow their own trumpets: “Conversation still plays an important role in England. They speak a lot, but in general they say nothing. As it is bad form to mention personal or professional matters which could lead to discussion, they prefer to speak in generalities.” The Franco-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco brilliantly parodied this tendency in his La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano), in which a respectable English couple has a long conversation at a dinner party. At the end, after many pages of utter banalities, they realize that they are actually married, and have been for a long time.

Appearances in Britain could deceive. The British, after all, despised intellectuals, but were long at the forefront of intellectual inquiry; they were philistines, yet created a way of life in the countryside as graceful as any that has ever existed; they had a state religion, but came to find religious enthusiasm bad form. Mayer comments:

Even in the most ordinary places and circumstances, an accident happens. You hit by chance upon a subject that you have long studied; you go as far as allowing your interest in it to show. And suddenly you realize that your interlocutor—so reserved, so polite—not only knows a hundred times more about this subject than you, but about an infinite number of other subjects as well.

This attractive modesty mixed also with a mild perfidy (this is la perfide Albion we are talking of, after all): irony, understatement, and double meaning were everywhere, waiting to trap the unwary foreigner. The British lived as if they had taken to heart the lines of America’s greatest poet (who, not coincidentally, lived her whole life in New England):

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies . . .

The habit of indirection in speech, combined with probity of action, gave English life its savor and its interest. Mayer provided a brief interpretive key for the unwary:

I may be wrong—I am absolutely sure.
I don’t know much about—I am a specialist in.
No trouble at all—What a burden!
We must keep in touch—Good-bye forever.
Must you go?—At last!
Not too bad—Absolutely wonderful.

The orderliness and restraint of political life in Britain also struck my refugee mother. The British leaders were not giants among men but—much more important for someone fleeing Nazi Germany—they were not brutes, either. They were civilized men; the nearest they came to the exercise of arbitrary power was a sense of noblesse oblige, and the human breast is capable of far worse sentiments. Politics was, to them and the voters, only part of life, and by no means the most important. Maurois’ Dr. O’Grady describes to Aurelle what he calls “the safety-valve of parliament”: “From now on, elected champions have our riots and coups d’état for us in the chamber, which leaves the rest of the nation the leisure to play cricket.” Major Parker takes up the theme, also addressing Aurelle: “What good has it done you French to change government eight times in a century? The riot for you has become a national institution. In England it would be impossible to make a revolution. If people gathered near Westminster shouting slogans, a policeman would tell them to go away and they would go.”

Many remarked upon the gentleness of British behavior in public. Homicidal violence and street robberies were vanishingly rare. But it wasn’t only in the absence of crime that the gentleness made itself felt. British pastimes were peaceful and reflective: gardening and the keeping of pigeons, for example. Vast sporting crowds would gather in such good order that sporting events resembled church meetings, as both George Orwell and anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (writing in 1955) noted.

Newsreels of the time reinforce the point. The faces of people in sports crowds did not contort in hatred, snarling and screaming, but were peaceful and good-humored, if a little pinched and obviously impoverished. The crowds were almost self-regulating; as late as the early sixties, the British read with incredulity reports that, on the Continent, wire barriers, police baton charges, and tear gas were often necessary to control crowds. Incidents of crowd misbehavior in Britain were so unusual that when one did happen, it caused a sensation.

The English must have been the only people in the world for whom a typical response to someone who accidentally stepped on one’s toes was to apologize oneself. British behavior when ill or injured was stoic. Aurelle recounts in Les silences du Colonel Bramble seeing an officer he knew on a stretcher, obviously near death from a terrible abdominal injury. The officer says to him: “Please say good-bye to the colonel for me and ask him to write home that I didn’t suffer too much. I hope this is not too much trouble for you. Thanks very much indeed.” Tony Mayer, too, says of the English that when they were ill they usually apologized: “I’m sorry to bother you, Doctor.”

No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”

From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.

I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.

I often remember the nobility of this quite ordinary man’s conduct and words. He wanted an appropriate, but only an appropriate, degree of commiseration from me; in his view, which was that of his generation and culture, it was a moral requirement that emotion and sentiment should be expressed proportionately, and not in an exaggerated or self-absorbed way. My acquaintance with him was slight; therefore my regret, while genuine, should be slight. (Oddly enough, my regret has grown over the years, with the memory.) Further, he considered it important that he should not embarrass me with any displays of emotion that might discomfit me. A man has to think of others, even when he is dying.

My wife, also a doctor, worked solely among the old, and found them, as I did, considerate even when suffering, as well as humorous and lacking in self-importance. Her patients were largely working-class—a refutation of the idea, commonly expressed, that the cultural ideal that I have described characterized only the upper echelons of society.

Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture, vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now—and the old modesty is scorned. It is as if the population became convinced of Blake’s fatuous dictum that it is better to strangle a baby in the cradle than to let a desire remain unacted upon.

Certainly, many Britons under the age of 30 or even 40 now embrace a kind of sub-psychotherapeutic theory that desires, if not unleashed, will fester within and eventually manifest themselves in dangerous ways. To control oneself for the sake of the social order, let alone for dignity or decorum (a word that would either mean nothing to the British these days, or provoke peals of laughter), is thus both personally and socially harmful.

I have spoken with young British people who regularly drink themselves into oblivion, passing first through a prolonged phase of public nuisance. To a man (and woman), they believe that by doing so, they are getting rid of inhibitions that might otherwise do them psychological and even physical harm. The same belief seems universal among those who spend hours at soccer games screaming abuse and making threatening gestures (whose meaning many would put into practice, were those events not policed in military fashion).

Lack of self-control is just as character-forming as self-control: but it forms a different, and much worse and shallower, character. Further, once self-control becomes neither second nature nor a desired goal, but rather a vice to avoid at all costs, there is no plumbing the depths to which people will sink. The little town where I now live when in England transforms by night. By day, it is delightful; I live in a Queen Anne house that abuts a charming Elizabethan cottage near church grounds that look as if they materialized from an Anthony Trollope novel. By night, however, the average age of the person on the street drops from 60 to 20, with few older people venturing out. Charm and delight vanish. Not long ago, the neighborhood awoke to the sound of a young man nearly kicked to death by other young men, all of whom had spilled forth from a pub at 2 am. The driver of a local car service, who does only prearranged pickups, tells me that it is now normal (in the statistical sense) for young women to emerge from the bars and try to entice him to drive them home by baring their breasts, even pushing them against his windows if for some reason he has to stop in town.

I laughed when hearing this, but in essence it is not funny. The driver was talking not about an isolated transgressor of customs but about a whole manner of cultural comportment. By no means coincidentally, the young British find themselves hated, feared, and despised throughout Europe, wherever they gather to have what they call “a good time.” They turn entire Greek, Spanish, and Turkish resorts into B-movie Sodoms and Gomorrahs. They cover sidewalks with vomit, rape one another, and indulge in casual drunken violence. In one Greek resort, 12 young British women were arrested recently after indulging in “an outdoor oral sex competition.”

No person with the slightest apprehension of human psychology will be surprised to learn that as a consequence of this change in character, indictable crime has risen at least 900 percent since 1950. In the same period, the homicide rate has doubled—and would have gone up ten times, had it not been for improvements in trauma surgery and resuscitation techniques. And all this despite the fact that the proportion of the population in the age group most likely to commit crimes has fallen considerably.

Two things are worth noting about this shift in national character: it is not the first such shift in British history; and the change is not entirely spontaneous or the result of impersonal social forces.

Before the English and British became known for self-restraint and an ironic detachment from life, they had a reputation for high emotionalism and an inability to control their passions. The German poet Heinrich Heine, among others, detested them as violent and vulgar. It was only during the reign of William IV—“Silly Billy,” the king before Victoria—that they transformed into something approaching the restrained people whom I encountered as a child and sometimes as a doctor. The main difference between the vulgar people whom Heine detested and the people loathed and feared throughout Europe (and beyond) today is that the earlier Britons often possessed talent and genius, and in some sense stood in the forefront of human endeavor; we cannot say that of the British now.

But the second point is also important. The moralization of the British in the first third of the nineteenth century—their transformation from a people lacking self-control into exemplars of restraint—was the product of intellectual and legislative activity. So, too, was the reverse movement.

Consider in this light public drunkenness. For 100 years or more in Britain, the popular view was that such drunkenness was reprehensible and the rightful object of repression. (My heart leaps with joy when I see in France a public notice underscoring the provisions of the law “for the suppression of public drunkenness.”) Several changes then came: officials halved the tax on alcohol; intellectuals attacked the idea of self-restraint, making it culturally unacceptable; universities unapologetically began to advertise themselves as places where students could get drunk often and regularly; and finally, the government, noting that drunkenness was dramatically increasing, claimed that increasing the hours of availability of alcohol would encourage a more responsible, “Mediterranean” drinking culture, in which people would sip slowly, rather than gulp fast. It is difficult not to suspect also the role of financial inducements to politicians in all this, for even they could hardly be so stupid.

Habits become character. Perhaps they shouldn’t, but they do. Therefore, when I hear that some American states seek to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, on the grounds that it is absurd that an 18-year-old can join the army and die for his country but not drink a beer in a public bar, I experience a strong reaction. It is a more important goal of government to uphold civilization than to find a general principle that will iron out all the apparent inconsistencies of the current dispensation.

Not long ago, I attended the graduation of a friend’s son at an upstate New York university. The night before, and the night after, I observed the students through the windows of their frat houses getting drunk. They were behaving in a silly way, but they were not causing a public nuisance because they did not dare to step out of their houses. If they did, the local police would arrest them; or, if not, the university authorities would catch them and suspend them. (This, incidentally, is powerful evidence that drunks do know what they are doing and that the law is absolutely right not to accept drunkenness as a negation of mens rea.)

No doubt the student drunkenness in the frat houses was unsatisfactory from an abstract point of view; but from the point of view of upholding civilization, to say nothing of the quality of life of the townspeople, it was all highly satisfactory. In England, that town would have been a nightmare at night that no decent person would have wanted to be out in.

So I say to Americans: if you want your young people to develop character, have the courage of your inconsistencies! Excoriate sin, especially in public places, but turn a blind eye to it when necessary—as it often is.

Top Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP via Getty Images


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