Victorian Terseness

15 September 2022

Victorian Terseness

Let’s have it back.

By Robert Kilconner

Every now and again it is good thing to clear out old family files and while I was doing that this week I came across a letter addressed to my great-grandfather, a Lt Col in the Royal Artillery. It was in pencil and dated 6 June ’01, yes that is 1901 and not 2001, and posted in Krugersdorp, a town in the Transvaal.  The writer was his son. The whiskers of those interested in military history will be twitching by now because in those days the Transvaal was a war zone between the British and the Boers so what would a young Englishman have been doing out there then? You have got it of course, fighting. The letter is one from a young British officer who was either sick or wounded to his father back at home. The style is strikingly Edwardian.

The young man, who was clearly on the point of recovery, begins with the words “I am nearly all right again now and hope to be out of hospital and able to get back again in a few days. I shall not be able to ride however another fortnight or three weeks at least.” That is all he says about his health. No complaint about his circumstances and nothing whatever about his feelings. Just blunt facts.

Then he goes on to describe a recent action in which we had lost 40 dead but had “buried 50 Dutchman” commenting that “it was rather a bad business having so many casualties but I expect the Dutchman did not like it much.” Again, laconic, to the point and terse, the words “a bad business” covering regret for lost colleagues as well as for a botched military operation. Perhaps that is always a feature of communications between soldiers but the words have a brevity which is at odds with the modern style.

Willingness to attach importance to people’s state of mind is one of the least attractive features of 21st-century life and probably has its origin in the need to fill column inches. A blunt factual statement about an incident, a car crash, say, would only take a couple of lines. Add a general bleat about how upset the witness was, how the accident put them off lunch and how the risk of anything like that happening again has made them afraid to go outside their own front door and you have a story. By the same token no account of rudeness is complete without blather about how the victim must have felt disrespected or intimidated. Bullying always undermines the confidence of victims as does shouting at them. How many of those commanded by the great Duke of Wellington would nowadays protest that his acerbic commands in battle could be taken as undermining them? Yet the chances of survival dropped if you were commanded by the soft-spoken Lord Raglan.

The recent report by Sir Thomas Winsor WS on the role of Sadiq Khan in forcing the resignation of Cressida Dick provides an illustration of this. Fact: the Mayor did not follow procedure; but then the comment that the Commissioner felt intimidated. Really, the head of the Metropolitan Police intimidated? The officer responsible for crushing gang violence intimidated? Surely not. If that was true it would really be a problem but more likely the comment has slipped in, whether from Dame Cressida’s evidence or at the report level, because it is the sort of thing which it is fashionable to say nowadays.

Oh for that Victorian terseness. It may have repressed feelings and left the public in the dark as to the inner workings of mankind, but the current fashion of treating the reader to everyone’s emotions has a greater weakness than this. It is very boring indeed.

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