The British are alarmed by their bodies. That's why they rush off to hospital as soon they have a touch of flu

They're everywhere. Whingeing, whimpering, wimping out, flu victims are swapping sad tales of woe. A bed-ridden week. A host of cancelled engagements. An ambulance ride to hospital.

While the sick days mount up, the soundtrack of cough, wheeze, sneeze - and above all snivelling self-pity - now forms the backdrop to every conversation, broadcast and even football match (the West Ham United squad, decimated by flu, lost to Swansea).

Among Italian mama's boys, neurotic New Yorkers or precious Parisians, this sorry spectacle would raise no eyebrows. But in a nation that prides itself on being unflappable and undemonstrative, where generations have been brought up in bootcamps that pass for schools and on a regimen of cold showers and hard knocks, this kind of behaviour is as unthinkable as Woody Allen playing James Bond.

Whatever happened to the stiff upper lip? What has become of the heroic shrugging of shoulders at every personal calamity, or the pooh-poohing of pain which demoted a major, blood-spurting gash to a "tiny scratch"?

What happened to the men who soldiered on, no matter what, and the women who braved the worst without a murmur? Alas, yesterday's stoic has become today's wimp. The people who once just got on with it now moan about it instead: molly-coddled by psychologists and chat show hosts into thinking that our most banal utterance is worthy of record, we now expect our every symptom to be of universal interest and our every ailment a source of fascination to others.

The selfishness of wallowing in our plight - not to mention the selfishness of causing an acute bed shortage in hospitals and of over-running the ambulance service with emergency calls - would have been anathema among the good sports of yore. In the age of the selfish gene, though, this kind of me-first attitude is an acceptable manifestation of the go-getting spirit that fuels our young, vibrant, new Labour society.

The current flu epidemic - or at least, the current epidemic of adults moaning and groaning about suffering from the flu - sheds light on the peculiar relationship the British have with their bodies. Despite all the diets and the aerobics and the catwalk modelling they have been exposed to in recent years, their fleshy form continues to alarm the Brits, who view it as a bizarre apparatus whose mysterious mechanics require a professional interpretation.

Part Puritan prudery, part anatomical ignorance, our inimical relationship with our bodies is also evidence of our new-found control-freakery. Once, we accepted that most things were beyond our control; today, when men and women aspire to control the economic cycle, the weather, human genes, evolution and even outer space, we cannot tolerate the idea that a bout of flu is beyond scientific intervention.

Mind over matter, we have read in every self-help tome on the shelves, is a proven panacea: the discovery that this is more myth than truth troubles a people brought up on the new optimism that infects our self-improvement culture.

Our great divide of the body from the rest of the "self" is a million miles removed from the classical approach of mens sana in corpore sano. While the ancients were truly holistic, modern Brits' uncomfortable relationship with their bodies means that any physical affliction sends them into a tailspin of panic and pain that threatens to destabilise them and others. Hence their unrestrained babbling and squawking; hence, too, their avid pursuit of, and faith in, Dr Fix-its.

This elevation of the doctor to miracle worker is partly the result of medical propaganda - but also of our gullible belief that science holds out a cure for every ill: every cold can be contained, every flu defeated. Pronto.

No one would discount the great advances made by modern medicine - the flu still has the doctors beat but the pox, cholera and other infectious diseases no longer pose death threats. Yet in our exaggerated expectations of medical practitioners, we forget that, as the Daily Telegraph's Dr James Le Fanu never tires of telling his readers, medicine remains a feeble science.

Today's British flu victim is no gormless hypochondriac. More than 3,000 Britons do, indeed, die from flu complications each year; and the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918-19 killed 20 million people.

When even hale and hearty Jeremy Clarkson is laid low with the bug, we cannot dismiss the influenza epidemic as a figment of our attention-seeking imagination. We can, however, bemoan the days of stoicism, that neglected virtue that divided not the body from the self but the men from the wimps.