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There’s nothing charming about false modesty

“Ostentatious languor” in Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Self-deprecation has to be one of the least appealing traits we English have, says James Marriott in The Times. You know the sort of stuff. The neurosurgeon in Kate Fox’s Watching the English who insists brain surgery is “nowhere near as clever as it’s cracked up to be… just plumbing really”. The writers, myself included, who insist their latest work is rubbish. We all do it, because we all love that “half-second conversational pause as you wait for the praise you have elaborately refused yourself to be politely pressed back on to you”. It’s the same with stories about our incompetence and failure. Many convince themselves that their “tales of personal disaster” are self-effacement, when really they’ve just “found another way to talk about their favourite subject”: themselves.

My suspicion is that we inherited this awful custom from our upper class, with their “ostentatious languor” and “cult of the amateur”. After all, drawing attention to one’s achievements does “rather suggest that your family isn’t quite magnificent enough to support you without them”. Most other countries grew out of this long ago, and began measuring social status on the capitalist values of hard work and openness. Here, alas, the “pose of aristocratic under-achievement” has retained its social caché. It was, I suppose, a “plausibly gracious” attitude back when Britain ruled the world. But today, “self-deprecation seems not polite but abject”. There’s nothing charming about it at all. Not least because “if Britain has ever needed vigour and self-assertion, it is now”.