Morality, British-style

When my family vacationed in London two years ago, my wife had an episode of bad health — nothing serious, but it looked worse than it was, and it entailed a trip in an ambulance and a visit to the emergency room.

Londoners showed nothing but kindness during her ordeal.  People in the street stopped to help.  The paramedic allowed our distraught young daughter to ride in the back of the ambulance, and spent the time chatting with her about pop singers.  Despite the horrors one hears, primarily from the British, about the British health system, everyone at the hospital was friendly and efficient.

In a couple of hours, my wife was back at the hotel, on the mend, and treated by the rest of us to a late dinner of (yes) Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Virtually all our experiences in London reflected well on the population.  We even encountered a homeless person resting on the floor of the Tube who, on hearing us voice uncertainty about our location, proceeded to volunteer crisp and accurate directions.

In a piece decrying the loss of British manners and morals, Theodore Darlymple (at City Journal) provides a wonderful sketch of what those manners and morals consisted of.  He describes the qualities admired by his mother, a foreigner who came to Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

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.

The art of understatement was, of course, taken to its highest level of achievement by the British, who could rarely be persuaded to take anything seriously, including death.  Dalrymple, a physician, relates this moving anecdote:

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.

“The habit of indirection in speech,” Dalrymple writes, “combined with probity in action, gave English life its savor and its interest.”  He cites a French author, who provided a list of translations:  from Brit-talk to real meaning:

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.

On reading this, I was both pleased and surprised, because these “indirections” are routinely uttered in Northern Virginia, where I live.  I even hear them in my own home, among a family given to a certain vigor of expression.  How much our American manners are a legacy from Britain is a subject I won’t speculate on.  But the phrases cited above, which I have heard reproduced with exactitude in Fairfax County, suggest a certain moral kinship if not a line of descent.

Dalrymple’s argument is that self-effacing British manners belong to a vanished world.  It’s hard to remember a time when British sports crowds were famous for their orderliness.  Darlymple’s mother, who had never been a victim of crime, was robbed twice in her last five years of life:  crime has risen by 900 percent since 1950, with the homicide rate doubling during that time.  Public drunkenness has gone from illegal vice to mandatory therapy for young people.

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).

I have had one experience with this night world.  Several years ago, I travelled for work to a village west of London.  I arrived at my hotel — a picturesque-looking inn, really — after midnight.  On the way to my room, I passed the bar:  it was full on a Sunday night, and I have rarely encountered such dark-spirited, threatening faces as emerged from the shadows of that boozy hole.

Nothing happened.  But it made me think:  two Britains exist, literally one by day and a far less attractive one by night.  The inhabitants of Day Britain retain some of the old kindness, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing manners.  My family’s experience in London would scarcely be duplicated in any other great city.

This friendly place, as Dalrymple writes, “transforms by night.”  Dwellers of Night Britain are drunken, aggressive, vicious, debauched, exhibitionistic, self-pitying, self-indulgent, and not much fun to be around.  Dalrymple considers them the future.  I think back on the kind Londoners who helped my family, and hope he’s wrong.


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