Regular readers of Theodore Dalrymple will not have been surprised by the looting that spread through London and then to other English cities in early August. Indeed, one of the fascinating and appalling aspects of these disturbances, beyond the gleeful contempt for the law shown by the looters, and the complacency of the police who allowed them to rampage, were the familiar explanations offered by the offenders for their behaviour.
In interviews with reporters they sounded exactly like the amoral underclass interlocutors who have peopled Dalrymple’s writing for two decades. In the aftermath, the media was full of anguished discussion about what had brought Britain to this grim pass. Many of the talking-heads seemed shocked to discover that thousands of young people neither respect nor fear the authorities. It baffled them that, despite the material wealth of our society, a disturbing portion of “our” youth are vicious, selfish, greedy and callous to a degree that would shock the genuinely deprived inhabitants of South Asian slums or Mexican barrios.
If this bafflement was evidence of a dismaying ignorance and capacity for self-deception on the part of the political and media class, it also revealed the degree to which one of Britain’s most incisive, courageous, knowledgeable and clear-eyed public intellectuals has been ignored by or excluded from the dominant discourse. Theodore Dalrymple is that Cassandra, as well as, arguably, our greatest living essayist.
Dalrymple, whose real name is Anthony Daniels (a byline he has used more often in recent years), is a doctor and psychiatrist who practised for 20 years in a prison and an NHS hospital near Birmingham.
His calm, sardonic voice became well-known thanks to his “If Symptoms Persist” column in the Spectator. He was discovered in 1983 by the then editor Charles Moore, who says: “Daniels is the only lasting contributor I have ever found from unsolicited manuscripts. His wit and originality were immediately obvious.”
One of the things that make Dalrymple’s dispatches and analyses so powerful is that he could not be further from the stereotype of the “little Englander” conservative. His father, a Communist, grew up in an East End slum; his mother was a German refugee. He brings to his observations a wisdom gained from extensive travel, wide and deep reading, and having worked for long periods in places that most middle-class readers and commentators know only at second-hand.
Indeed the richness of his work proves how right Kipling was when he pondered, “Who knows England who only England knows?” Doctors often make observant writers and Dalrymple has practised medicine in places as exotic as the Gilbert Islands in the Western Pacific. Soon after qualifying as a physician, Dalrymple went out to work in Rhodesia, and spent much of the next decade in Africa. The politically-correct types who have reflexively labelled him a bigot would be shocked by his respect for Africans and unillusioned depiction of the last years of colonial rule. Back in the UK, he chose to work in deprived areas when he could have catered to the afflictions of the affluent. Reporting assignments took him to perilous places like Peru during the worst of the Shining Path uprising where teenaged cadres disembowelled government officials: “As a doctor I am accustomed to unpleasant sights,” he wrote with typical restraint, “but nothing prepared me for what I saw in Ayacucho.”
It is telling that much of Dalrymple’s best writing about England was published first in America, mostly in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly magazine. In a column entitled “Oh To Be In England”, Dalrymple writes much longer essays than he had in the Spectator. They take readers deep into the British underclass.
It is a world of self-pitying but otherwise pitiless prisoners, masochistic nurses defending the partners who beat them, children left adrift by parents and the state, and whole groups whose rights are trampled thanks to a cynical officialdom steeped in political correctness. For years Dalrymple was the only voice to raise the issue of the disappearance from school of thousands of girls from Muslim families once they reach marriageable age — and the subsequent kidnappings, forced marriages and rape to which they are often subjected.
Though Dalrymple had published books on travel and medicine, his superb, indeed essential, articles on the underside of British life went ignored in the UK. Mainstream publishers, it seemed, were too narrow-minded, conformist or cowardly to deal with such material. It was the US publisher Ivan R. Dee who collected them in Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Dalrymple has now written some 40 books, the latest of which is Litter.
He is understandably loathed by lockstep-liberals and what he calls “the bureaucratic caste”, but those in charge of Britain’s agenda-setting TV and radio programmes would do well to listen to him. Theodore Dalrymple brings to his arguments a combination of philosophical sophistication, genuine humanity and real-world experience that is unique.