Thursday, April 28, 2011

Well, yesterday went down like a damp squib, a lead balloon. There were no celebrations due to ill-health and almost a visit to the hospital. The festivities will have to come later. So many birthday wishes I will never get around to answering them all so my thanks to those reading this who thought of me.

There is a song in the musical “Sweet Charity - I love to cry at weddings.” I know I said I wasn’t going to mention it again but I would think there will be millions blubbing into their handkerchiefs tomorrow. Britain’s stiff upper lip is evidently a myth. Take for example the national outpouring of grief at the death of Princess Diana. That is often said to be the moment the UK lost its stiff upper lip and the British started being comfortable crying in public especially for mass outpourings of national grief?

Has Britain recently become a nation of cry-babies, despite its long-held reputation for keeping emotions firmly under control? For politicians, public figures, anyone being given an award and not forgetting to thank their mothers for begetting them, and just about everyone on a TV talent show, and the tears flow thick and fast.

Often this shift towards public crying is linked with the death of Princess Diana in 1997. This collective moment of mourning is seen as releasing a nation from the restraints of being reserved and stoical. But the British actually have a long history of very public grieving and their reputation for being emotionally reserved is only a relatively recent thing, says historian Dr Thomas Dixon, who is researching a history of crying.

"We've been a pretty weepy country through the centuries until the 20th Century," says Dr Dixon, “when there was a lot of stoicism and reserve. But if we go back before the 20th Century, we have other peaks of sentiments, emotion and weeping in the late 18th and up to the mid-19th Century. There's been more crying than you might think.

Even in the 19th Century there were large outpourings of national grief in response to the death of famous figures, the death of Lord Nelson in 1805 for instance. "There was a huge state funeral and there were many pieces of journalism reporting the event in the national press and many of them talk about 'tears gushing from every eye' and the 'nation's tears', 'Britannia's tears' at the falling of her hero and poems about Nelson and so on," says Dr Dixon.

“The UK is currently in a middle of a new wave of weeping in public life,” he says. It started in the 1990s, with incidents like Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street with tears in her eyes in 1990. In the same year the footballer, Gazza bawled his eyes out at the World Cup. Then there was mass crying when Princess Diana died.

So where did Britain's reputation for the stiff upper lip come from? "That came from World War II," says Dr Dixon. "The 20th Century is where the tears started to dry up. A time of war is no time for weeping, whether you're on the home front or fighting the war against Hitler.

"It's at that point that however much private grief one might have, this ethos emerges that British people don't cry because they are strong and determined and resilient and stoical."

Social historian Dr Julie-Marie Strange says that until the mid-19th Century, it was considered fine for men and women to cry in public.

"It's particularly surprising for us when you get Victorian men crying in public. It was deemed fine to cry at bereavement, at a particular situation, for example because of the death of a child. Lots of people admitted crying at the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens."

Byron and Shelley were men who made careers and reputations from being very emotional, and when Byron died in 1824, nearly 20 years after Nelson, lots of young men wore black armbands and wept openly,” she says. But by the end of the century, the tone had changed so much that such behaviour was characterised as weak and intellectually stunted.

From the 1880s onwards, it became less acceptable for men particularly to cry in public, she says, partly due to the emergence of what has been called "muscular Christianity", which emphasised a vigorous masculinity in the face of anxieties about the decline of the Empire and the degeneration of Britain as a nation.

This change was best symbolised by writer Oscar Wilde, who sneered at the grief displayed by fans of Charles Dickens over Little Nell.

"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing," he famously remarked.

What Wilde would make of today's blubbing, one can only imagine.

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