My wife, who is French, has lived in England for twenty-five years. When she arrived, she was both surprised and favorably struck by, among other things, the comparative uninterest, even of the rich, in material comfort and pleasures, and by the uprightness and straightforwardness of the public administration. Her subsequent career as a doctor was spent treating old people, and she developed a great respect for the British character as exhibited by her patients. Among their virtues, which visitors to our shores earlier in the century had also noted, were politeness, lack of self-importance, stoicism, fortitude, emotional self-control, and an ironic detachment from their own experience, especially when it was unpleasant. Irrespective of their social class, they had dignity, self-respect, and a fundamental integrity. Their virtues far outweighed their vices.
My medical experience of my older compatriots bears out this impression completely. I remember at the beginning of my career serving for a short time as a doctor in a rural area, where one day an old man called me out to his home. He had had rectal bleeding for some weeks, and by now had lost so much blood and was so weak that he had difficulty in raising himself from the sofa on which he was lying.
“I tried for as long as I could not to bother you, doctor,” he said, “but I can’t manage it any longer.”
What he meant by this strange but moving little speech—strange, for what could a doctor like me possibly have been doing that was more urgent than attending to someone like him?—was, “I am not so important that I expect others to dance attendance on me.” This kind of humility is not much in fashion nowadays, to put it mildly, because so few people are able any longer to distinguish between humility and subservience, convinced as they have become that the exercise of power is the only important or real relation that exists or can have ever have existed between men. We are all Leninists now: and “Who whom?” (who does what to whom?) is the only question worth asking.
The husband of another of my patients, a man in his late seventies, described how his wife’s compulsions—constant checking that the gas was turned off, for example, and repeated scrubbing of surfaces that were obviously already spotlessly clean—had sometimes made his life very difficult. His wife’s compulsions had lasted fifty years, and since she never completed her checking she was often unable to leave the house.
“Why did you stay with her?” I asked, my question demonstrating that I was myself a creature of the modern age.
“I made a promise in church fifty years ago,” he said. “And I meant it.”
These days, such an adherence to your word given half a century before, against your own apparent interest (which is, of course, to have as much pleasure as possible) would strike most people as risible, or at least retrogressive, rather than a sign of a deep, noble, and incorruptible rectitude.
Another of my patients, a man likewise in his late seventies, began to have nightmares, reliving over half a century later a dramatic and horrible event that he witnessed in the Indian Ocean during his war service in the Royal Navy. His ship had been torpedoed, and the lifeboats were so crowded that the sailors had to take it by turns to hang in the sea by gripping the lanyards. His best friend, whose turn it was half to immerse himself in the sea, was killed by a shark that bit off his legs.
My patient’s nightmares began when he received treatment for Parkinson’s disease. He had never told his wife what happened in the Indian Ocean, and she therefore could not guess the content of his nightmares. (Incidentally, he had known her exactly a month when he married her, marrying quickly while on leave because he thought he might not survive very long. How different are the reasons nowadays for swift decisions to cohabit!) He took the view that a trouble shared was not a trouble halved but doubled; he could see no good reason to distress his wife with his own experiences of utter horror. Such fortitude would now be thought of as absurd, laughable if it were not an irresponsible invita-tion to psychological breakdown, largely deserved because self-inflicted. But he had successfully sheltered his wife from knowledge of what he had seen and experienced for more than half a century, throughout which he and she had lived a satisfactory life. He did not regard himself as heroic, only as normal, for he had behaved as he thought anyone else, at least of his time and place, would have behaved.
On walking through the hospital in which I formerly practiced, I came across the husband of a patient of mine who had always accompanied her to her appointments. He was sitting down and waiting to be called for an examination. He was much thinner than I had seen him before, and he was so jaundiced that he was almost orange in color. At his age, this could mean only one thing: hepatic secondaries in the liver, and fast-approaching death.
I passed the time of day with him, and wished him and his wife well, though I knew that he was dying, he knew that he was dying, and he knew that I knew that he was dying.
“We’ll just have to do the best we can,” he said.
Indeed, he died two weeks later. There had been no protest, no self-pity, no demand for special attention. He understood that I commiserated with him, though I said nothing except that I was sorry to see that he was unwell, but he understood also that my commiseration was of a degree commensurate with the degree of our acquaintance, and that demanded no extravagant and therefore dishonest expression. By controlling his emotion, and his grief at his own imminent death, so that he should not embarrass me, he maintained his dignity and self-respect. He retained a sense of social obligation, a vital component of what used to be called character, until the very end of his life.
I mention these people not because they were in any way extraordinary—a claim they would never have made for themselves—but because they were so ordinary. They were living up to a cultural ideal that, if not universal, was certainly very widespread (as my wife would confirm). It is an ideal that I find admirable, because it entails a quasi-religious awareness of the metaphysical equality of mankind: that I am no more important than you. This was no mere intellectual or theoretical construct; it was an ideal that was lived. Unlike the claim to rights, which is often shrill and is almost so self-regarding that it makes the claimant the center of his own moral universe, the old cultural ideal was other-regarding and social in nature. It imposed demands upon the self, not upon others; it was a discipline rather than a benefit. Oddly enough, it led to a greater and deeper contentment, capacity for genuine personal achievement, and tolerance of eccentricity and nonconformity than our present, more egotistical ideals.
I don’t think there is much doubt that the ideal that I have described has been abandoned as absurd, oppressive, and anachronistic by more than one generation of Britons. Self-control now seems merely ridiculous to them, and even harmful. If you feel like screaming and shouting in public (the guarantee that at least you feel something), why shouldn’t you? Who has the right to tell you not to get drunk en masse with your companions, if that is what you want to do? Who has the right, justified from Cartesian first principles, to stand in the way of the expression of your whims? For the modern Briton, the self is sovereign, and everyone is a shopper in that great existential supermarket called life.
It is not surprising, to me at least, that the new national character is a deeply flawed and unattractive one, as charmless as any that I know, completely unbalanced by any compensating virtues. It is composed of disinhibition, vulgarity, aggression, self-importance, egotism, and arrogance. It makes the British, at least wherever they gather abroad, intensely and justifiably disliked and feared. Official genuflections in the direction of multiculturalism notwithstanding, the British assume that their tastes, almost always for the most debased products of their increasingly derivative material culture, are universal; they are multiculturalists only in the sense that they believe everyone has the duty to put up with them, because public drunkenness and aggression are part of the culture, and all cultures and therefore all modes of conduct are by definition equal and thus permissible.
Of course, I am aware of objections to my observations. It might, for example, be objected that nothing human ever remains the same for very long, so that it is pointless to lament change, or that my observations are inaccurate, or at least only partial, or that they are merely the consequence of the approach of late middle age, when men are almost biologically programmed to regret the passing of the world of their youth.
But even if change is inevitable, that portion of change that is the result of human thought and decision is susceptible to moral evaluation. Change is inevitable, but not any and all change; some of it is the work of deliberate destruction. And while any observation upon a complex society is necessarily partial, its partiality is not in itself proof of its inaccuracy. The essential truth of 1984 is not invalidated by the survival in the Soviet Union of Richter and Shostakovitch. Finally, even if it is true that old men by nature lament, sometimes they have been right to lament, and sometimes they have not lamented enough. It all depends.
I am not alone, of course, in my observations. Foreigners who know our country well have noticed the same changes—immigrants too. Moreover, evidence from statistics points in exactly the same direction, towards a deterioration in the national character: and a country that in my youth was as orderly (without order being heavy-handedly imposed by authority) as any modern society could be has changed within a few decades to the least orderly and most crime-ridden in the western world, where the young impose a curfew on the old (and where authority is increasingly heavy-handed without being effective). It is now estimated that the average Briton is photographed 300 times daily by closed-circuit cameras, but this seems to do nothing to improve his public conduct.
The result is that I feel I inhabit a different moral and cultural universe from that of my young compatriots: I feel more abroad when I am at home than I do when I am abroad. I realized recently that there was an unbridgeable gulf of sentiment between us when I was teaching a master’s course to toxicology students. Needless to say, they were far from being bad young people: they were intelligent and pleasant, even if their cultural interests were scarcely distinguishable from those of people much less educated than they (this is a characteristic of modern Britain). Somehow or other, the subject of self-control came up after my lecture, and I described how, in my childhood, it was regarded as a rather low-grade thing to do to eat on the street, and furthermore that it was regarded as a moral discipline not to eat between meals even if you were hungry. You ate with others, or not at all, and the fact that you sometimes refrained from eating when you were hungry, and were sometimes obliged to eat when you were not hungry, taught a very important lesson, namely that your inclination of the moment was not the only thing to be consulted in making a decision as to how to act.
The students laughed, much as they might have done had I been describing some outlandish practice of a backward or primitive tribe. How peculiar it was to them that anyone should think of delaying gratification when there was no necessity to do so. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that many of the criminals whom I used to meet in the prison in which I worked had never, in their entire lives, sat down and eaten at a table with another person.
How did this radical asocialization, visible in minor degrees everywhere in our streets, and that gives to daily life in Britain an unpleasant tenor despite a great increase in material prosperity and improvement in almost all phases of physical existence, come about? Was it the result of a spontaneous demand from below for greater freedom from restraint, or was it the result of an intellectual movement that worked its poison?
There is little doubt that man’s recurrent and eternal desire to escape his bonds, to go beyond the limits laid down for him, however necessary or beneficial they might be, was present in an acute form in Britain after the years of sacrifice caused by the war, years that were gray and seemingly without end. And along came intellectuals who either ridiculed those restraints, and showed them to be merely ridiculous, or who claimed that they were positively harmful. Something akin to a gestalt switch took place, and those cultural attributes that had previously been deemed good were now bad, and those that had been bad were deemed good. Not long ago, I shared a public platform with Germaine Greer in which she stated that to be good—to lead a virtuous life—entailed faithfulness or truth to one’s inclinations. It is scarcely any wonder that young Britons can no longer see what is wrong with vomiting drunkenly in the street, or screaming with either pleasure or hostility. If your inclination is to be a barbarian—well, be true to yourself, be a barbarian.
One of the currents that brought about the great British cultural gestalt switch was the psychotherapeutic view of life, in a distinctly sub-Freudian form. It was, as Auden so perceptively said in his obituary poem for Freud, not so much a theory as a whole climate of opinion, a zeitgeist whose practical effect took years to manifest itself. Of course, Freud’s view of human life was tragic, in the sense that he recognized that mankind was imbued with desires that could not all be satisfied simultaneously; frustration of one kind or another was therefore man’s lot. But he was soon misinterpreted to have said something much more gratifying to those craving more gratification than the old culture allowed: that an uninhibited festival of the Id would solve man’s problems, and give him pleasure without unpleasant remainder. Adultery used to be known as petty treason: the new petty treason was to the self, when it failed to do what it was inclined to do, and therefore poisoned itself with unnecessary frustrations.
At the same time, the white man’s burden became the white man’s burden of guilt. The nationalist movements in Britain’s former colonies were successful not only in gaining their independence, but also in persuading their erstwhile masters that British history was nothing but a catalogue of crime without achievement. It followed, surely, that all the moral values that were associated with that bloody history were tainted by it, and indeed were mere masks for oppression and exploitation. Out, then, with the old, and in with the new: the new being, as far as possible, the opposite of the old.
Yet you don’t have to be an imperialist of the kind intent upon proving that imperialism was a good thing because Egypt under British suzerainty was able to borrow money on the international market at a lower rate than it would have been as a fully independent state (and was therefore able to develop economically further and faster than it would otherwise have done), in order to assert that there the British left behind them something more than a memory of oppression and despoliation. That is why British cultural patterns persist so tenaciously in India (and elsewhere), to which you must go if you want to hear spoken British English of heartbreaking purity, and meet real Britons of the best kind.
The strange thing is that when I meet young Indians, admittedly of a certain class—I do not encounter the children of untouchables—I do not feel, as, increasingly, I do when I meet young Britons, that I am encountering creatures across a gulf so great that it amounts to a species gap. On the contrary, I feel an instinctive affinity with them, an instant sympathy. And this reassures me that my perception of what has happened so disastrously, so hideously, in my own country is not merely the psychological product of embittered old age, in which the ancientry as a matter of course decry and deride youth as being nothing but the getting of wenches with child and stealing and fighting, but something more accurate and objective. And this in turn is depressing, for it means permanent exile and estrangement from the land of my birth, wherever I may live.