Whenever I return to England from abroad, which is often, a very troubling question comes insistently into mind: why are the people here so ugly?
I do not mean by this that I think all foreigners are handsome or beautiful, far from it. One of the tricks that Stepmother Nature has played on humanity is to give it an idea of beauty in its own kind, and then deny the thing itself to so large a proportion of the race.
Still, there is something special about English ugliness. It is not of the face alone, but of the soul. As Sir Thomas Browne put it (and he must have known, because he was a doctor): ‘For there are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read ABC may read our natures.’ And furthermore, as he says elsewhere: ‘… there are therefore provincial faces, national lips and noses, which testify not only to the nature of their countries, but of those which have them elsewhere.’
By what mechanism does the mental, the cultural and the social (or antisocial) become biological, for faces are as biological as intestines and the sternoclavicular joint? Furthermore, there seems to be something Lamarckian in the way ugliness now descends the generations. When one looks at English children, one cannot help but think that Lysenko was right after all.
This is not to say that conscious choice and deliberate effort have nothing to do with English ugliness: far be it from me to underestimate the part that free will and thought plays in human affairs. The English put more pins and studs and rings and metal bars in and through their faces than anybody else, as if they were trying to prove the truth of the hypothesis put forward exactly a century ago by the avant-garde Viennese architect Adolf Loos that there is an intimate connection in the modern world between bodily adornment and crime.
Was it ever thus with regard to English ugliness? I do not think that it was. A short while ago I saw a picture in a newspaper of the footballer Duncan Edwards, who was killed 50 years ago in the Munich air disaster. He was signing an autograph book for a schoolboy on a pitch. There was in their interaction a human decency, one might almost call it a refinement, that is very rarely encountered now. And let us not forget that football at the time was a much more exclusively working-class interest than it is now, when every plutocrat avows an allegiance to a team in order to escape the charge of elitism and social exclusivity.
The coarsening of our culture is written in our gestures, in our expressions and on our faces. Anger, suspicion and chronic resentment etch themselves on to our very features, that now require a Breughel, or perhaps even a Bosch, to depict. As you walk down the street, remember what the good Sir Thomas said, and tremble: ‘Since the brow speaks often true, since eyes and noses have tongues… the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations.’