The British have a reputation for being reserved and for having a ‘stiff upper lip’. I believe that I might be one of the few people who know the source of this idea, and once you have heard my story I am sure you will agree that it is actually very reasonable.
When I was a student in the late 1950s I earned a little money by working for the Post Office at Christmas, helping to deliver the flood of Christmas cards and small parcels. Everyday I went to the Post Office in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where my parents lived at that time and collected my huge bag, heavy with mail.
I trudged my round, often in snow, ice or bitter rain. There was one house where I usually received a warm greeting. As I approached the door it opened and there stood an elderly gentleman, glass in hand. Our first conversation went like this:
‘A very happy Christmas to you, dear boy. Would you care for a drink to help you combat these challenging conditions? Come in. Come in. Put your bag down there and I will fetch the sherry.’
He came back with a carafe of sherry and another glass for me. He put the two glasses on the glistening mahogany side table and poured the large glasses to near the brim.
‘Cheerio! A very happy Christmas to you, young man!’
He dipped his upper lip over the brim of the glass and, to my amazement, appeared to suck the sherry out of the glass as if his lip were a straw. He hardly tilted the glass at all and in moments it was empty.
‘I say, did you see that?’ he said.
‘Err…yes!’ I whispered.
‘That’s the advantage of a stiff upper lip!’ he said. ‘And do you know why I have got a stiff upper lip?’
‘Err…no!’ I whispered.
‘I was a judge in India, all me life. Forty years on the circuit. Travelled thousands of miles. Small towns and villages mainly. With me trestle table, white table cloth and me law books. Usually with a British private soldier with a gun. No bullets in his bloody gun. Just for show. Wonderful life most of the time. Loved it. But sometimes there would be thousands of local people in the village square waiting for my judgement and if they were divided between two rival extended families both sides would be waiting for the decision to go their way. They sometimes got very excited and were jabbing their daggers in the air and shooting off their guns. I can tell you I was pretty damn scared. Practically shitting myself, quite frankly. Everybody watching me. Had to grip my lips together to stop them trembling. Couldn’t afford to show that I was scared. That would have been the end of me.
‘Well I did the job for forty years, gripping my lip, until my retirement in 1948 when independence was declared and then I found I had developed this stiff upper lip. It didn’t relax even in retirement. Good thing! Useful for drinking sherry! Have another glass.’
Whatever the rights and wrongs of imperialism, the individual British judges, soldiers, administrators and merchants were often on their own and spent a life time in the eye of thousands of people waiting for decisions to be made. This story offers an explanation of the origin of British reserve and the ‘stiff upper lip’.
I didn’t invent the incident…I have just described what happened.
Teachers of English often love this story because it offers a new perception on the idea of the ‘stiff upper lip’. School students probably have much less familiarity with the idea and the story would be largely irrelevant for them. I have never told it to students.