A long walk from Yokefleet to Drax, which I was excitedly told houses the biggest power station in England – although what you are meant to do with that sort of information beats me. A dreary place mouldering under indifferent countryside, set off with dirty sheet skies, all accompanied by an intermittent drizzle; the mix matched my mood to a tee. Whose daft idea is this sodding route? Jane was bustling along and as usual issued me with a string of breezy exhortations: ” Come on, Tom, please cheer up for Heaven’s sake and stop being so totally dreary,” Some hope.
Kind hosts last night in Pocklington who kindly made a picnic for us. As it was belting with rain we ate it in the car. Nothing like misted windows, farmyard smells and slanting rain to raise the appetite.
In deep thought all day about the ghastly spot dear Theresa has managed to paint herself into. Poor woman. What a dreadful job she now has. She is surrounded by critics and by people who call themselves friends but who want to ruin her and probably will.
I have commented before on the intrusive way the media tries to probe our emotions to enable its readers and viewers to indulge in some recreational grief. It’s a sort of emotional pornography.
“Mrs Peabody,” they ask with a camera up close: “What exactly was your reaction when you heard that your daughter had been killed by a mad axeman?” This is a line of questioning that always makes me want to reach for the sick bag. I always want someone to answer, “Mind your own sodding business!” – but they never do. The media and the public are hungry for emotional outpouring, so why indulge this appetite?
The escalation of our national emotional incontinence became apparent late last year when there was a debate in the Commons about women losing a child in infancy. Some MPs were apparently weeping and others joined in with their sad stories, as if the debate was some sort of group therapy. Is that what the House of Commons is for? Can you imagine the Iron Lady doing such a thing, or the late Barbara Castle, or Theresa May for that matter?
Infant death was a commonplace in previous centuries through poor medical treatment; and then, of course, young sons were slaughtered on an industrial scale in war, and the pulling down of blinds was ubiquitous. These generations had to face their heartbreaks with a considerable degree of stoicism because sadness was everywhere. The prevailing mood was just to get on with it, keep your upper lip stiff, then grin and remember the Sir Harry Lauder’s song: “Keep right on till the end of the road”. (Lauder’s son was killed in the First World War).
You can still see this today, but it is becoming uncommon. When my friend Daily Telegraph columnist Cassandra Jardine sadly died, her actor husband performed on stage that very night. He knew that was what she would have wanted. He didn’t weep on stage and ask for pity: he just did his job. And when home secretary Amber Rudd’s father died, just three days later she appeared on the election leader’s debate on television. Good for her, I’m sure that’s just what her father would have wanted.
Keep Calm and Carry On
There was a time when emotional restraint was considered to be a high form of courage. I think that this general need for public acknowledgement of distress weakens respect.
Reader, we have all had ghastly problems to live with, haven’t we? However, as Bear Grylls recently said, “When life kicks the shit out of us all, we have to get on with it for Buddha’s ‘Life is Suffering’ is a hole in one.” So when the shit hits our particular fan, we can either give way to despair and self-pity, or we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start all over again.
Would we rate our Police Chief, Commissioner Cressida Dick, more highly and sleep better in bed at night if we knew the detail of her heartbreaks? (I should add I know nothing of the good lady, all I am saying is we all have our miseries and failures, even she).
Would we feel more secure and respect our generals and admirals – those who are charged with the onerous task of our national security and the protection of our country – more highly if they were seen weeping over the ghastly scenes of carnage and horror in Afghanistan or Syria. Or would we feel less safe?
I would much prefer Theresa May to be tough, gimlet-eyed and unemotional as she negotiates the Brexit road ahead than weeping with stress in Number 10 and asking us to feel her pain. And emotional continence should not be mixed up with a ruthless determination to show the people she is on their side. It’s plain sad she seems unable to do this naturally. Churchill mixed with the crowds during the Blitz as did the royal family. Shyness and caution may cost Theresa her job.
Emotional outpouring was given astonishing momentum at the time of the faux grief expressed when Princess Diana died. I never understood who the weeping donors thought would benefit from their tons of flowers (other than florists and manufacturers of cellophane), for Diana – like Old Marley from A Christmas Carol – was as dead as a doornail.
For a while, the poor Queen was under considerable pressure for not demonstrating that she “cared” enough to satisfy the public’s taste for weeping and the rending of garments. She was obliged to leave Balmoral for London, and make a broadcast to confirm that she did indeed “care”. It’s beyond conceit, of course, for the public to assume to know how someone feels, but’s that’s exactly what happened. Once upon a time, you were once considered to be a good person if you acted honourably according to generally accepted codes of conduct. But today all this has collapsed in favour of individual expression and “feelings”; the public demonstration of suffering becomes necessary as a badge of honour, as it makes a person morally untouchable.
The audience signals its virtue by displaying compassion towards suffering people – “I feel your pain” – to show how warm and kind they are. Anyone who says this is sentimental and self-indulgent hogwash is accused of being unkind and unfeeling.
The young Royals seem to want to try and rebrand the monarchy and let emotion spill out. They seem much more like their mother and father in this respect than their grandparents. It was Charles who, like a big girl’s blouse, began to moan to the press about the way the media was making his life difficult “under the burdens of great privilege.” And can you ever forget Diana endlessly blethering on about depression, bulimia and her emotional longings?
Today William, Kate and Harry appear to have forgotten the words of Walter Bagehot who warned, “not to let daylight in upon magic.” That means preserving the mystery of the monarchy. I read that Prince Harry was pictured kissing his girlfriend Meghan Markle at a polo match: “The first public snog!” screamed the headlines. Then Kate was pictured topless in some foreign magazine, and both Harry and William decided to talk publicly about the pain of their mother’s death. On top of that, they set up “Heads Together” where they all sat on a beach and pretended to talk as normal human beings. They claimed it’s not about them, they were speaking to help others: but there is a lot of virtue signalling going on there, and it was all about them really wasn’t it?
Is all this wise? I think not. Apparently the Palace didn’t approve and the young Royals were told to stop emoting in public. Can you see the Duke of Edinburgh parading his heart on his sleeve, or the Queen? And have they been successful custodians of the Monarchy or not these past 60 years? The Queen knows she is hugely popular partly because she doesn’t go on about what is in her head. Nor does the Duke. Can you imagine his retort if he were asked how he felt when Mountbatten was assassinated or when his children got divorced?
The Queen and the Duke are wise old birds and they know instinctively that the public don’t want the Royals to be too familiar. The Queen and the Dukes’ reticence should be copied. If the young Royals go on sharing their pain with us and seeking sympathy, then one fine day, the capricious public will suddenly grow tired… Talk of slinging them out will slowly begin in the very newspapers that have been exploiting them by parading their pain, and pictures of wannabe President John Prescott or Diane Abbot will suddenly swim grinning into focus before our appalled eyes.