Eavesdrop on a conversation between two English friends or acquaintances, especially those for whom the years are tolling, and you’ll hear something like this:
Person #1: “Are you right?” (pronounced in Derbyshire as “rait” and meaning, are you all right? or how are you doing?)
Person #2: “Except for me [sic] gammy knee, but mustn’t grumble.”
And indeed they don’t.
This is not to say that English people don’t moan and complain; they do, but they are quickly told to “stop whingeing” or “stop maunging,” as they say in my family. Long-winded complaints aren’t tolerated and are quickly put to an end.
I don’t know where this comes from, but it does seem to be part of the British character: that is, to stoically bear life’s travails.
The American writer, Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island about his seven-week travel around England, says it far better than I:
“One of the charms of the British is that they have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their happiness. You will laugh to hear me say it, but they are the happiest people on earth. Honestly. Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won’t be more than a few seconds.
“I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians but with Britons–never.
“And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats–teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys–are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or a cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting–a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box–and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
“‘Oh, I shouldn’t really,’ they say.
“‘Oh, go on,’ you prod encouragingly.
“‘Well, just a small one then,’ they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All of this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American, the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You might as well say ‘Oh, I shouldn’t really’ if someone tells you to take a deep breath.
“I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies–‘well it makes a change,’ ‘mustn’t grumble,’ ‘you could do worse,’ ‘it’s not much but it’s cheap and cheerful,’ ‘it was quite nice really’–but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier. I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold cafe on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going, ‘Oooh, lovely!’ and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities–asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks at Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only needed one–as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer.”