The decline of civility in Britain has been the most common theme of Theodore Dalrymple’s writing. While exposing the appalling behavior of a growing number of young Britons and tracing their psychological lineage, he has often contrasted them with their older countrymen, especially the generation that defended the country in two world wars. In reading these essays, I have often longed for a fuller description of those earlier and more humane values, and Dalrymple has provided just that in the newest installment of his “Oh, To Be in England” column for the Autumn issue of City Journal.
What, exactly, were the qualities that my mother had so admired? Above all, there was the people’s manner. The British seemed to her self-contained, self-controlled, law-abiding yet tolerant of others no matter how eccentric, and with a deeply ironic view of life that encouraged them to laugh at themselves and to appreciate their own unimportance in the scheme of things. If Horace Walpole was right—that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel—the English were the most thoughtful people in the world. They were polite and considerate, not pushy or boastful; the self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid; and even the most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean of possibility, and might have been much greater if he had tried harder or been more talented.