I looked at her. She looked at me. “Oh dear”, I murmured. A moment later we were sitting with our heads in our hands, sobbing helplessly in full view of the general public. We weren’t alone.
She is my best girl friend. We’d gone to her local cinema The Gate in Notting Hill, to see a relay from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York of Massenet’s Werther, with romantic-tenor-of-the-moment, pin-up and all-round matinée idol Jonas Kaufmann. Oh, and he’s a very fine actor too. He speaks English like a native. He’s tall, dark and … is intelligent, articulate and personable. Apparently, he’s a dab hand at DIY. I have been reliably informed that he can fly in the air and can probably, if challenged, sing the whole Hallelujah Chorus like a one man choral society. I expect he’s nice to animals and helps old ladies across the road. He’s so good at everything that you could kick him in the shins – which is what I might do, if vouchsafed the privilege of standing in front of such a being [Please God …].
The opera was just ending and the hyper-sensitive young poet Werther, having shot himself in a fit of romantic angst, was about to breathe his last. The close up on the giant cinema screen left nothing under wraps, and the dying hero was being performed by a great singing actor. The scene is the sort that opera does best, indeed better than any other art form: telling the story, yes, but at the same time layering up a complex mix – the characters’ words and actions, obviously, but also their thoughts, their feelings, their pasts, presents and futures, and sometimes the thoughts of others. The orchestra tells you what the voices don’t, recapturing subconscious memories, sometimes contradicting what the character is saying and – OK I admit it – pressing all the buttons that bring out the emotions I have described. If I go to a film or a play and don’t laugh, scream or cry, I feel cheated. I feel the same with the opera – only worse, because opera can get you to do all three at once, and frequently does.
Why are emotions so important to me, a buttoned up Englishman? Because – and I am about to be very controversial – English people are among the most emotional in the world. [Before anyone starts – for all I know the Irish, Scottish and Welsh are exactly the same, it’s just that I can’t speak for them, so don’t expect me to.]
We are taught, you see, from an early age that, however strongly we feel about something, the worst thing we can do is show that to anyone. And, especially, we must never – never – let anyone else know the depth of our feelings. Watch Her Majesty on any public occasion: we all know she’s a real person who laughs a lot, in private at least, who gets upset from time to time and who’s seen enough not to take anything too seriously. Obviously she feels things as deeply as anyone else. But the public show is different and, give or take, we’re pretty happy to have it that way: even when Princess Diana died (did I say that the English are among the most emotional people in the world?) no one seriously wanted the Queen breaking down all over the TV screens. Would that have helped anyone? You know the answer.
It took someone called Kazuo Ishiguro (an English name? we should be told) to catch this, in his masterly depiction of the English character, The Remains of the Day. The butler Stevens, told during an important function at which he is serving that his father has died suddenly, pauses for a second then carries on as if nothing has happened. Perfectly, the scene as written catches the balance between the wave of numbness, disbelief, lightheadedness that invariably attends sudden bad news, and the intense emotions which are unleashed simultaneously, posing for an Englishman a terrible dilemma: how much to reveal, to friends, strangers and (be honest) oneself, of what is actually going on below? Sadly, the otherwise excellent film of the book with Anthony Hopkins raises a laugh at this point, getting it exactly wrong for me. It is the saddest and the deepest moment in the story, and deserved better.
The buttoning up that goes with an English upbringing serves many practical purposes and has, over the centuries, underpinned some modest (you see, there we go again) successes. The inevitable consequence is that, when emotion does come out, it comes out like an overdue earthquake or volcano (hashtag: Princess Diana again). But there it is.
On the rollercoaster of the last four years of my life I’ve learned, in all sorts of ways, not to be afraid of my emotions and I can talk about them freely, generally in private but even so to the alarm of one or two friends.
And, as we say over here, “The definition of a bore is someone who, when you ask him how he is, tells you”. So, just as I’ve had to learn how to sew on buttons, I still know well enough how to do them up. It all depends on the company, I suppose.