Medical notes from underground

“Theodore Dalrymple”, anatomist of modernity (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
MARK GULLICK profiles the cultural commentator THEODORE DALRYMPLE

The English writer Theodore Dalrymple, whose real name is Dr. Anthony Daniels, spent much of his professional career as a hospital and prison psychiatrist. He has also written many books on a variety of subjects, and travelled the world extensively.

But, even given the breadth of Dr. Daniels’s voracious reading and the length of his journeying, his most memorable books report back from a place far bleaker than the many and often pitiful countries he has visited. These are the books and essays which deal with his experiences among Britain’s ‘underclass’, and his ruminations as to why these unfortunates are kept in their place by a society which is, by global standards, extremely wealthy. These are the writings I will concentrate on here.

To read Dalrymple’s accounts of the inhabitants of the prisons, hospitals and sink estates where he ministered to them is to enter a type of hell, but what is most frightening is not any inscription above the gate reading ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, but the simple four numerals at the end of many of the most appalling essays. For example, ‘1995’ and earlier. Does anyone believe things have improved in the quarter century since the good doctor painted his Bosch-like visions of Britain?

One of the most apparent aspects of Dalrymple’s talent is his ability to take the pulse of his own culture, and he is never more accurate in his many observations than when writing about his fellow Britons:

Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture, vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now – and the old modesty is scorned

Anything Goes

Although it is Dr. Daniels’s literary avatar Theodore Dalrymple (a pen-name which puts me in mind of some Dickensian notary public) who publishes these diagnoses of country, people, political regime, or seismic cultural shift, it is the doctor who really does know best. He is a hyper-realist and draws on professional experience, not on social theories that happen to be de rigueur, and he has the ability to bring analytical forensic skills as much to a society, culture or woeful institution as he would be to the body or mind of a patient.

The National Health Service (NHS) in particular presents unfavourable symptoms. There are many hustlers and grifters who have exploited Britain’s much-lauded health service for their own advancement and comfort, and at whom Dalrymple often takes aim:

Britain now has more educational bureaucrats than teachers, as well as more health-service administrators than hospital beds

Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

This in itself is a scandal and, having worked for the NHS in four different capacities myself, I can vouch for Dalrymple’s depiction of “a British bureaucratic zombie, for whom work is a painful interruption of entertainment” (If Symptoms Persist).

Dr. Daniels clearly sports the livery of old-fashioned Conservatism, which naturally earns him sneers and smears from the bien pensant class, displaying as they must their ‘woke’ insignia with misplaced pride. Dr. Daniels is everything ‘woke’ is not. He clearly feels for the British ‘underclass’, but is able both to state plainly that “I delighted in what my patients said” (Not with a Bang but with a Whimper), and to render them in miniature with merciless accuracy:

More flagrant injustices by far, worse physical conditions, greater exposure to violence, were of course to be encountered elsewhere: But for sheer apathy, for spiritual, emotional, educational and cultural nihilism and vacuity, you must go to an English slum

If Symptoms Persist

Anthony Malcolm Daniels was born in 1949 in London’s fashionable Kensington. Thus, he began his life in a recently bombed city in a district of which, the last time I visited it five years ago, seemed still to be a building site in perpetuity, but for more modern reasons of appreciating the value of property rather than rebuilding one of civilisation’s great conurbations.

His father, we are informed in an essay on the poverty of English post-war architecture, was a communist (and Dalrymple will have much to say on the subject of communism) and despised Victorian art and architecture, to the extent of destroying some quite valuable paintings from that era which he felt were taking up loft space. This may or may not be a Freudian moment which directed the course of Daniels Junior’s future beliefs. We will never know; Daniels is scathingly dismissive of Freud.

In 1980, Daniels, writing as ‘Theodore Dalrymple’, so impressed the editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, that he began a regular column in that magazine on the strength of unsolicited submissions, a breaking of precedent by Mr. Moore. There followed a string of books – as well as regular writings in various periodicals online and off – which were mostly received with discreet critical approval without the usual attendant razzmatazz of press and television appearances. Dalrymple has always swum against the stream of what is now called the ‘narrative’, a sort of media-instituted and pre-fabricated substitute for the truth, and his profile in the mainstream media is concomitantly rather sparse.

For the British, at least, one of the most staggering allegations Dalrymple makes is that social services have absolutely no intention of helping those under their care. The NHS – at least at the level of management – are not overly interested in sick and injured people or their recovery, teachers are actively opposed to well-tried educational methods on ideological grounds, and the police would look askance at anyone suggesting they went out preventing crime by their presence as they used to do.

An example – from many candidates – concerns the British police. The ‘TICs’ mentioned here are ‘Taken into Considerations’, or crimes the defendant admits to in order to lessen the likely sentence for his present misdemeanour. A defence counsel will use these playing cards blatantly and the police will be all the more grateful for that, and for the following reason;

TICs are the means, roughly speaking, by which known criminals admit to offences they didn’t do, in order for the police to clear up crimes they can’t solve

Life at the Bottom

Criminals in one area tend to know each other, and these TICs serve as a kind of barter system. Added to this, the criminal serves less time for his act, and possibly none at all, while the police delight their masters by delivering improved statistics. Everyone, as they used to say at British fairgrounds, is a winner.

This wholly twisted version of policing is typical of Dalrymple’s dealings with the public sector in Britain, although many of his interactions provoke laughter as much as despair. Dalrymple is a comic writer in that he presents a lacklustre reality and invites the reader to find it grimly funny – Alan Bennett does something similar – while always gently reminding us that if we do find ourselves sniggering at this shabby round-dance of foolishness and ignorance, our laughter is very much in the dark, and we, like him, are whistling past the graveyard.

Although Dalrymple is an intellectual by definition, and one who indeed finds much compensatory delight in his studies of literature, we are fully aware of his ingrained attitude toward the intellectual class, “whose livelihood depends on ceaseless carping”. We recall Thomas Sowell, among others, when Dalrymple writes that:

[M]ost of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia

Life at the Bottom

It is no longer government that threatens social cohesion and culture, he writes, but “the universities and the intellectuals, or semi-intellectuals, that they turn out” (ibid).

Dalrymple is less an intellectual than a professional with both the life experience and the depth of reading to make him a perfectly capable philosopher. Indeed, he gives one of the finest mission statements for philosophy (my own subject) that I have come across:

The philosopher is an archaeologist of knowledge, rather than a builder of it: he strips away the misconceptions that have accreted since birth

In Praise of Prejudice

This definition is in bold contradistinction to the destructive, moth-like work of the intellectual, and bad ideas, when their time comes, can only lead to what modern sociologists term ‘bad outcomes’. One more than others.

Outside of the mainstream media, the dread realisation is taking place that the West is undergoing what I call ‘Sovietisation’ (although I am sure I am not the first to coin the phrase). It can scarcely be said that Britain, as one of the most egregious examples, is moving away from rather than towards the type of societal control around which the communist apparatus was constructed.

Writing from experience, Dalrymple has made many points concerning communism, but they have as their centre of gravity the same essential statement; the point of lying to the people, a practice inherent in the communist system, is not to persuade the populace of the truth of what is being said, but to humiliate them in the realisation that they must believe or, in many cases, die. This summation comes from The Wilder Shores of Marx:

Apart from the massacres, deaths and famines for which communism was responsible, the worst thing about the system was the official lying: that is to say the lying in which everyone was forced to take part, by repetition, assent or failure to contradict

Dalrymple still writes for several online magazines, and the closest he has to a mantra follows him there:

In my study of Communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate…

Interview with FrontPage Magazine

And, along the same lines: “[T]he purpose of political correctness is not to enunciate truth but to exercise power” (‘Rigid Diversity’, Taki’s Magazine).

A modern refusenik, then, but if Dalrymple is a contrarian, that should be placed in context. The British media has a rather cunning way of appearing to be in touch by occasionally feinting a blow at the clumsily named cultural phenomenon known as ‘political correctness’ (a chrysalis whose emerging creature is ‘woke’). But this is mere nose-thumbing for effect, and there is another aspect of modern cultural dysfunction that is sacred for the media – victimhood.

It is axiomatic for the British media class that, in a dreary revival of Marx’s misplaced dictum in The Communist Manifesto, everything must be viewed through the (distorting) lens of class conflict, and that battle to be further parsed into the constant war of oppressor and oppressed. This now has its new identity as racial/social justice. This is succinctly summed up by Dalrymple in his collection Farewell Fear. The author is describing the appeal of conversion to Islam to a woman named Lauren Booth, half-sister-in-law to ex-British Prime minister Tony Blair. Ms. Booth displayed, writes Dalrymple,

…the very characteristic thirst of modern people who have lived privileged lives for the safe psychological haven of victim status

Just as Dr. Johnson was of the opinion that patriotism (or the pretense of patriotism) was the last refuge of the scoundrel, now another doctor indicates that victimhood is the first refuge of scoundrels we must now call ‘woke’.

Here we are at the heart of cultural darkness, the blind spot that seems to affect Western governments. If whole generations of the ‘underclass’, along with ethnic minorities, and those of one non-heterosexual persuasion or another, are constantly told that they are neither culpable for their actions or, perhaps, in need of psychological care, and also that they are and have been somehow repressed by a supposedly dominant ethnic group, they will gladly accept the nomination.

And as victimhood is offered freely and for free, courtesy of the state in Britain, so too its status seems to absolve the victims of responsibility. Dalrymple makes a comparison between African countries (specifically Tanzania and Nigeria) and Great Britain:

Yet nothing I saw [in Africa] – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England

Life at the Bottom

You will emerge from the writings of Theodore Dalrymple enlightened and entertained, but also disgusted and with a stain on your soul, which admittedly doesn’t sound like an endorsement. It is a stain no soap could ever wash away – disgust with the weakness of people who could be helped by even a small show of strength on their part, disgust with the frankly wicked waste of money spent in the callow belief that it is a god who will answer the petition of prayer and provide for the meek and lowly, and disgust for the level to which British culture has been allowed, and even intentionally manipulated – to sink. Above all, you will feel a searing disgust with those ‘in charge’, those in well-remunerated positions of power who believe they are doing good when what they are in fact doing is misusing money to salve their negligible consciences and inflated egos, as well as adhere to political dogma which would disgrace a poor African nation, what Dalrymple calls “the baleful influence of mistaken ideas”.

The collected works of Theodore Dalrymple, advised as he is by his éminence grise, Dr. Anthony Daniels, should be read by every social worker and politician, every police officer and NHS manager, every journalist and every teacher in Great Britain, but of course they will not. Quite the opposite. They will be cast into the fire so that those people – many of whom Dalrymple describes as performing “makework” jobs – can return to the state-funded, well-sucked thumb of Critical Race Theory, or whatever name it has this month. As the good doctor himself quotes more than once from T S Eliot, “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.

Dr. Daniels was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for The Brazen Head…

BH: Is there any hope for the British public sector?

AD:  There are three main problems, it seems to me. First is centralisation. Second is the size and the number of the tasks it is expected to perform. The third is its corruption – moral, intellectual and increasingly financial. They are interconnected. In most cases, people have little idea what the purpose of their organisation is, and goals have been obscured by ideology and political entrepreneurs. As far as financial corruption, I am afraid it was Mrs. Thatcher who started the ball rolling. It is much worse than the offering of money under the table. Financial corruption has been legalised. 

BH: Do you see in the response of Western governments to the COVID pandemic reason and measure, or have they used it for a more sinister accumulation of power?

AD: I have some sympathy with governments that clearly had to do something. It is rarely, however, that governments relinquish powers willingly that they have taken in emergencies. Therefore, the return to the status quo ante will be difficult – and it wasn’t so very splendid to begin with.

BH: Do you see what I have called a ‘Sovietisation’ of the UK?

AD: I definitely see a Sovietisation of Britain – but not only of Britain. People are now afraid not only to voice opinions in public but (what is worse) not to subscribe publicly to opinions that they do not hold. They thereby lose their probity and therefore their locus standi to oppose the grossest absurdity and violation of common sense. As for Soviet-style langue de bois, it is everywhere: you can hear it uttered even in private. 

BH: I gather that you spend most if not all of your time in France. Do you ever feel a prophet without honour in your own land?

AD: I do not feel a prophet without honour because I do not feel a prophet. I often wonder whether I’m exaggerating things, whether I am too gloomy because of my personal experience, because gloom is easier to write about, at least interestingly, than success. I often ask myself how seriously people should take me, and I have no definitive answer, and certainly no tablets of stone to bring down from any mountain.