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The British character?

Supposing it is possible to speak about national character, British doctor Theodore Dalrymple asks what, exactly, were the qualities of the British that so many people admired? He replies -

The British seemed. . .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.

Dalrymple, whose mother arrived in Britain during World War II as a refugee, deeply admires stoicism and consideration, the belief that "A man has to think of others, even when he is dying". He saw those in the British he met. Oddly, he does not directly mention courage when describing British character, though that was on vivid display during World War II.


Perhaps Dalrymple's idea of a national character is a little far-fetched. I can't see Winston Churchill, born yesterday in 1874, meeting his character criteria. For one thing, he's too ebullient - and so were many other Brits, though not, perhaps, when Dalrymple first met them, in the decade after the war.

Note: I've rewritten this post - not very happy with my first attempt - and think Dalrymple might want to reconsider his essay, too!

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