In February 2014, Tatler published an article on the stiff upper lip by the UK’s foremost art critic, Brian Sewell.

Sewell, to many of us Britons, is the only critic worth reading. He writes and speaks beautifully. What he does not know about classical painting, drawing and architecture isn’t worth pursuing.

I’ve read many of his columns in London’s Evening Standard and had the pleasure of hearing him give a lecture on art with a generous question and answer session. I was amazed that during this two-hour long engagement, Sewell did not take one sip of water. He was flawless, even though he was in poor health at the time.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that he wrote ‘Chin Up, Britain’ (pp. 62, 63, 143), exhorting us to embrace the stiff upper lip, which we seem to have forgotten about since August 1997, when Princess Diana died. Sadly, we became Americanised that day, in my estimation.

Sewell provided little-known facts about the stiff upper lip (p. 62):

– The term is an ‘Americanism’, dating from the early 19th century.

– It means, according to him, not betraying ‘the slightest hint of fear, funk or perturbation’.

– It signifies Fortitude, one of the four cardinal virtues of Christianity. The other three are Prudence, Temperance and Justice.

– Early Christians living in Roman times and many more martyrs thereafter have employed it to endure being torn apart by animals, gladiators and other methods of torture.

– Saint Laurence was sentenced to death by being roasted alive on a spit. When he could take no more flames on his back, he asked his tormentors to turn him over.

– Learning about martyrs at school as part of Religious Education taught centuries of British children how to accept pain and suffering without showing emotion.

– Boys’ books featuring protagonists of a young age never described them as crying or weak.

Sewell deplores the decline of a once-prominent British characteristic. He attributes its decline to a long period of peace, the abolition of National Service and the lack of reading classic boys’ books for pleasure.

Tatler included a side box of nine famous Britons — ‘The Stiffest Upper Lips’ — who positively exude this quality (p. 63). I was happy to see the Duke of Edinburgh mentioned for his resilience and perfect humour during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant which sailed the Thames in June 2012. A nonagenarian and not in the best of health, he stood at the Queen’s side throughout in cold, rainy weather. I watched the entirety on television in amazement. He was taken to hospital the next day for a bladder infection, where he remained for the remainder of the festivities.

Sewell exhorts us to turn away from emotion, tears in particular (p. 143):

Excessive emotion is about us everywhere.

He describes footballers who ‘kiss and cuddle’ each other when the match is going well and ‘weep’ when it isn’t. (This is one of the reasons why I prefer rugby.)

He writes of teenagers losing their self control when they get even mediocre passing exam results.


every ordinary birth, death and marriage is the occasion for an unrestrained torrent of tears, joy indistinguishable from grief.

I have noticed that old-school Britons, men in particular, shed a tear only when their children are born and at the funerals of immediate family members. That’s it.

Sewell doubts we can recapture the stiff upper lip as a primary British characteristic. He does not think appeals to schools for proper conduct in the classroom and on the playing field will work:

… these are common times and we’d not be understood.

The only way it might return is if we as a nation find ourselves embroiled in another war.

Sadly, I think he is right. However, that doesn’t mean we should not try to do our part to display Fortitude as much as possible.

The stiff upper lip — exhibiting this Christian cardinal virtue — can and should be learned. It takes time and is well worth the effort.