In Praise of the Stiff Upper Lip
In 1588, England was threatened by invasion by a massive Spanish Armada. The Spanish planned to sail their huge fleet up the English Channel, rendezvous with a large army near Calais and escort it across the channel to invade England.
Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake — the great explorer, semi-official pirate and naval genius — was playing bowls at the time sightings of the Spanish fleet were reported to him. The fate of England stood in the balance, but, far from panicking, he calmly decided that there was plenty of time to finish his game of bowls, which he did, before sailing forth to meet the Spanish threat. He and his fellow commanders not only defeated and humiliated the Spanish fleet, but did so without the loss of a single ship. This is one example of the famous ‘stiff upper lip’ for which many British heroes are famed. It is not certain that Drake really did finish his game of bowls or that he was even playing a game of bowls at the time, but however it is illustrated, he most certainly did have a stiff upper lip.
The stiff upper lip is not an exclusive characteristic of the English or the British, of course. A famous American example was the incredible calmness of the crew of Apollo 13. They’d just experienced a large explosion as one of their oxygen tanks had ruptured. They were 200,000 miles from Earth, with no possibility of rescue. They were almost certainly going to die — probably rather unpleasantly as they slowly suffocated — and all Jack Swigert says, without the slightest suggestion of any panic in the face of almost certain disaster, is, ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’ They survived, of course, perfectly executing a ludicrously improbable survival plan — something that was only possible because of their superhuman calm and stiff upper lip attitude.
The concept of a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude, however, isn’t as lauded today as it has been in the past. Indeed, it’s sometimes derided as being representative of outdated, even repressive traditions that encourage people to ‘bottle up’ their emotions. Today, people are more likely to be applauded for ‘wearing their heart on their sleeve.’
It’s true that having a stiff upper lip means there is no fluster, no panic and no outward expression of fear or apprehension. It means not giving your enemies the satisfaction of seeing you in fear, thinking they’ve put you off your stride. It means that you refuse to be intimidated by your enemies or your problems. You face them square on, with staunchness and fortitude. But it’s entirely compatible with having and displaying strong emotions — just to the right people and at the right time. You don’t let those emotions get in the way of the important task you have before you.
And sometimes, the stiff upper lip is very much needed today. A well-known, relatively recent example was when, in January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger of US Airways Flight 1549 had to ditch his Airbus A320 aircraft in the Hudson River (in New York) following a massive bird strike that took out both his engines. His actions and those of his crew saved the lives of all 155 people on board. You can go on YouTube and listen to the recording of Sully’s exchange with air traffic controllers as he dealt with the incident. You can listen to that recording with the best pair of headphones you can get your hands on, but if you can hear the slightest trace of panic in his voice, then either you’ve got better ears than I have or you’re imagining it.
One final example: The Grand National is one of the most famous and most gruelling horse races in the world. It is run over more than four miles over imposingly large fences at Aintree, near Liverpool and has been going since 1839.
In 1997, however, before the race could begin, the racecourse had to be evacuated following a bomb threat issued by republican terrorists from Northern Ireland. No device was found, but racing had to be abandoned for the day while searches were being conducted. 20,000 spectators were stranded in Liverpool, unable to get to their vehicles which they’d had to leave inside the racecourse.
A disaster? A victory for the terrorists? Not a bit of it! The people of Liverpool simply opened their doors to accommodate the spectators who had been left stranded. Two days later, the race went ahead as if nothing had happened, in a joyous celebration of the stiff upper lip.
It was a spectacular own goal for the terrorists, who soon decided, after decades of bloody conflict, to give up their armed struggle and take a seat at the peace table instead. The people of The United Kingdom were obviously not going to be intimidated by terrorism. It wasn’t force that defeated the terrorists. It was the stiff upper lip.