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In defence of the stiff upper lip

20 April 2017

5:14 PM

20 April 2017

5:14 PM

At the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, Prince William and Prince Harry were in Balmoral. Somebody who claimed to know told me shortly afterwards that what the boys had most wanted to do, in reaction to the terrible news, was to go out and shoot a stag. They were not allowed to. I do not know if the story was true, but if it was, the boys’ desire seemed understandable. How could anyone — much less a teenager and a 12-year-old — ‘process’ such an event? The best immediate solace would be something strenuous, physical and wild. Twenty years later, Prince Harry has told us how it has taken him all this time — including ‘two years of total chaos’ — to deal with his shocking loss. Now he says — applying his own experience to wider questions of mental health — ‘I know there is huge merit in talking about your issues and the only thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only ever going to make it worse.’ He is surely right that it is important to feel that you can talk about painful things if you need to. It is particularly helpful that a young man says it, because young men find it hardest to navigate these shoals. In the royal case, it serves the added purpose of acting as a sort of advance party to prepare the ground for anything that Prince William may want to reveal on the same subject. But does it follow that not talking is ‘only ever going to make it worse’? Prince Harry speaks now because he feels ready to do so. It is not to his discredit that he, or his elder brother, did not feel ready before. Indeed, it might even have been a bad thing if he had spoken when still very young, because it might have been impossible for his adolescent sense of himself to have coped.

With anything serious — like love or grief, or the relation between the two — being silent can be just as valuable as talking. That is why Cordelia says ‘love and be silent’ and the insincere Goneril and Regan babble on. In the last 20 years or so, people who fought in the second world war or survived concentration camps have tended, in old age, to talk about what they have previously not wanted to discuss. Partly this is because the fashion for such discussion has altered, but I suspect it is more to do with the passage of time. It takes a very long time to understand traumatic or important things that happen to one, and to speak about them prematurely is to risk glibness, or harm to oneself or others. Prince William, following Harry’s remarks, said that the stiff upper lip is not always the best thing. He carefully did not say that it is never the best thing. Prince Harry’s words have been described as ‘a tribute to his mother’, and so they are. But the capacity to endure great difficulties privately in your heart for many years, as he has done with outward cheerfulness until now, is also impressive and sometimes necessary. That is a tribute to his grandmother.

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s column, which appears in this week’s Spectator

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