Book Review: Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses by Theodore Dalrymple

Lost virtue

Thirty years ago, Isaiah Berlin wrote a tribute to his Austrian friend Raimund von Hofmannsthal, who had settled in London after the war. “England seemed to him”, Berlin wrote, “the embodiment of a quiet, honourable, humane existence, above all of a civilisation singularly free from violence, hysteria, meanness and vulgarity.” Hofmannsthal’s sense of England was not over-idealized or inexperienced (he had lived in the United States too) but could not possibly be upheld today. The civic virtues, good manners, ingrained personal habits of self-control and moderation, and the national mistrust of excess have all been jettisoned or destroyed. Violence, hysteria, meanness and vulgarity are surely now among the leading traits of the prevailing English temper.


Few people have been better placed to record the catastrophic effects of the collapse of English manners and habits than “Theodore Dalrymple”, the pseudonym of a physician who until recently worked in a decayed district of the Birmingham conurbation and as a prison doctor. His essays — written mainly for American magazines collected in Our Culture, What’s Left Of It set out to map “the moral swamp that is contemporary Britain” and to study the “low-level but endemic evil” that he says is an “unforced and spontaneous” effulgence in the British underclass. He admires that most aristocratic of virtues, fortitude; and he detests the way that “the hug-and-confess culture” is extirpating emotional hardiness and self-reliance from British national character “in favour of a banal, self-pitying, witless and shallow emotional incontinence”. Overall, he argues strenuously — irresistibly — for the reassertion of traditional English virtues: “prudence, thrift, industry, honesty, moderation, politeness, self-restraint”.

Dalrymple has, it must be stressed, written an urgent, important, almost an essential book. Our Culture, What’s Left of It needs to be read and acted on by policy-makers, by opinion-formers, and anyone who wants to grasp why Britain has become so much less pleasant a country in which to live. The book is elegantly written, conscientiously argued, provocative and fiercely committed: “one gets more real truth out of one avowed partisan than out of a dozen of your sham impartialists”, Robert Louis Stevenson said. Dalrymple’s information is often unpalatable, but always arresting. He reports, for example, that many young Muslim women come to his practice in suicidal despair at their enforced marriages to close relations, “usually first cousins”, and deplores how journalists, “for fear of giving offence”, seldom allude to “the extremely high rate of genetic illnesses among the offspring of consanguineous marriages”. His measured polemics arouse disgust, shame and despair: they will shake many readers’ views of their physical surroundings and cultural assumptions, and have an enriching power to improve the way that people think and act.

He approaches his themes by four different routes. Many chapters describe with implacable force the brutal, sordid living conditions and the abysmal existence of the English poor. Others comprise a detailed indictment of the irresponsibility and fecklessness of the pundits from the educated classes whom he holds responsible for creating “a growing underclass devoid of moral bearings”. By contrast, in other chapters of delicate sensibility, Dalrymple extols and commemorates some great creative minds whose works exemplify the redemptive powers of art. “Human understanding, except in purely technical matters, reached its apogee with Shakespeare”, he declares. These essays comprise a collective plea for the restoration of cultural discrimination: for the recognition, which is crucial for human intelligence and for social well-being, that sharp distinctions are drawn between what is first-rate and what is third-rate. Dalrymple enforces this point by drawing on his extensive travels in the Third World to show what barbarism is, what barbarism means, and how closely barbarism is encroaching on contemporary England. Among many arresting images, one is unforgettable: his discovery, during the Liberian civil war, of the Centennial Hall in Monrovia, completely empty except for a Steinway grand piano, from which the legs had been sawn off and deposited on the floor nearby, together with little heaps of human shit. There are enemies nearer home, though, of intelligence, education and cultural discrimination.

” In no country has the process of vulgarization gone further than in Britain: in this, at least, we lead the world”, Dalrymple insists. “A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and anti-social attempts to satisfy them.” The mass drunkenness every weekend which renders British town centres “unendurable to even minimally civilized people goes hand in hand with the appallingly crude, violent and shallow relations between the sexes”. In the course of a superb essay contrasting the dignity and humane pleasures of contemporary Italian life with the degradation and lack of self-respect of contemporary Britain, he recalls his experiences working in East Africa within a few miles of two construction projects, one Italian and the other British. “The British construction workers were drunken, violent, debauched, and dirty, without shame or dignity. Utterly egotistical, yet without much individuality, they wrecked hugely expensive machinery when drunk, without a moment’s regret, and responded with outrage if reprimanded.” Dalrymple reckoned them “truly representative of a population which has lost any pride in itself or in what it does, and that somehow contrives to be frivolous without gaiety”. The neighbouring Italians, by contrast, were “hardworking, disciplined and clean, and could enjoy themselves in a civilized way even in the African bush, drinking without drunkenness, or that complete lack of self-control characteristic of today’s British. Unlike the British, they never became a nuisance to the local population, and everyone saw them as people who had come to do a job of work”.

Part of the blame for this degeneration Dalrymple attaches to the Welfare State:

“Like French aristocrats under the ancient regime, are — thanks to Social Security — under no compulsion to earn a living; and with time hanging heavy on their hands, their personal relationships are their only diversion. These relationships are therefore both intense and shallow, for there is never any mutual interest in them other than the avoidance of the ever-encroaching ennui.”

Working in an English slum district, he sees what the sexual revolution has brought to the underclass: “No grace, no reticence, no measure, no dignity, no secrecy, no depth, no limitation of desire is accepted”. For Dalrymple, the proliferation of single-parenting among his patients has no benefits. “Britain’s mass bastardy is not a sign of an increase in the authenticity of our human relations but a natural consequence of the unbridled hedonism that leads in short order to chaos and misery, especially among the poor.” He is appalled by the social irresponsibility and self-destructiveness of his women patients, who produce a series of children by different fathers, who are almost invariably violent, criminal or abusive. “The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism and joyous malignity” that leaves him “more horrified after fourteen years than the day I started”.

Dalrymple does not seem to be a Christian, but he regrets British secularization and its attendant social evils: “The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition — that man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable — is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute — the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures — is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.”

He loathes the way that Christian ethics and community morality have been replaced by the puerile and fitfully livid morality of tabloid newspapers:

“To make up for its lack of a moral compass, the British public is prey to sudden gusts of kitschy sentimentality followed by vehement outrage, encouraged by the cheap and cynical sensationalism of its press. Spasms of self-righteousness are its substitute for the moral life.”

He suggests that the illimitable prurience of British newspapers, and their ruthless, sanctimonious targeting of public figures, “has an ideological aim: to subvert the very concept and deny the possibility of virtue, and therefore of the necessity for restraint”. Surely the collective intention of British smut-hounds is to deny or nullify any authority other than their own: to discredit specialized expertise, disinterested professionalism, educational superiority, technical precision, so that every over-emotional, stridently emphatic and ill-educated member of the public can believe that their opinions even on the most intricate subjects are as valuable as anyone else’s.

Intellectuals, writers and artists who frivolously or exploitatively play with images drawn from real-life cruelty, and who express mitigating admiration for violent ideas, self- immolation and sterile self-absorption draw Dalrymple’s sustained contempt. He cannot forgive “the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics” for ruining the British underclass with “disastrous notions about how to live”. He is an acute cultural commentator -as misanthropic at times as his fellow physician Celine -with a powerful ability to make uncomfortable connections. “A crude culture makes a coarse people”, he stresses. He approaches the sink of contemporary emotional squalor from many angles: his account of the trial of the Soham child- murderer Ian Huntley and his accomplice Maxine Carr, his retelling for American readers of the sadistic serial killings perpetrated by Fred and Rosemary West, and his scornful essay “Trash, Violence and Versace” about Sensation, the exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection at the Royal Academy in 1998, demonstrate how a millionaire’s art accessories are part of the same mental world as a mass murderer’s torture dungeon.

In a series of essays of fine sensibility, Dalrymple gives wonderfully sympathetic readings of Shakespeare, Turgenev and Zweig. He feels Zweig has indispensable messages for twenty-first-century Britain: “that only the reticent and self-controlled can feel genuine passion and emotion”; and that “the nearer emotional life approaches to hysteria, to continual outward show, the less genuine it becomes”. Another angry, funny chapter gives a devastating reading of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which he thinks would be better titled How To Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.

But though Dalrymple has superb descriptive powers, and deploys his evidence irreproachably, his analysis is flawed and suffers from one huge, grievous omission. He has little chronological sense. It is not clear enough when he thinks the damage was inflicted on British self-control and self-respect: by Virginia Woolf and social theorists of the 1930s; by the Attlee Government’s institution of a Welfare State in the 1940s; by the calamitously misconceived urban rebuilding programmes that began in the 1950s; by fools like Kenneth Tynan saying “Fuck!” on television in the 1960s; or by the destruction of community spirit by a monetarist government in the 1980s. If Isaiah Berlin and Raimund von Hofmannsthal were right — and as emigres they had specially privileged vantage points — Britain was still reasonably honourable and humane in the early 1970s. Dalrymple’s failure to impose a clear chronological sequence on his narrative of British decline weakens the clarity of his case.

This makes his attack on cultural mandarindom seem far too oversimplified. Certainly, he quotes loathsome fatuities from the Observer, and is unsparing of the irresponsibility of columnists in the Guardian; but these essays (it needs always to be remembered that they were originally written for conservative or neocon American magazines) sometimes sound like Spiro Agnew’s rasping, spurious diatribes against liberal intellectuals, dressed up in urbane English accents. Can it really be right to attribute the sordidness of contemporary Britain to the fact that, as he claims, Virginia Woolf’s cast of mind in Three Guineas — “shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal” — has triumphed among Western cultural elites?

Even the most grateful convert to Theodore Dalrymple’s beliefs cannot believe that this is so. He diminishes his case by relying so heavily on the Spiro Agnew school of causation and scapegoating; and as a result his compelling book is dangerously incomplete in its diagnosis. It seldom mentions the United States, scarcely acknowledges the impact of American popular culture on Europe, says nothing of the overwhelming impact on the television-dependent British underclass of the vulgarity, violence and emotional puerility of American programmes which have inundated this country since the 1970s. Indeed Our Culture, What’s Left of It is written at times (it is painful to say) in the ingratiating tones of a sidling courtier in the household of an opinionated neocon potentate. The gentle little jibes against France are not as crude as Richard Perle’s denunciations at the time of the Iraq invasion, but they reinforce the same triumphal message of American invincibility. Dalrymple’s essay “When Islam Breaks Down” — written explicitly for “American readers”, though it contains interesting descriptions of Muslim criminals in English prisons — promises and flatters Americans that “the fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle”. Similarly, his magnificently vivid essay on Castro’s Havana, which makes the poverty and despotism palpable on every page, comforts American readers with the assurance that official Cuban harping on the “horrible social breakdown . . . in the United States” bores even hardline Communists.

Nowhere does Dalrymple hint that the vices, the ugliness, the emotional infantilism of contemporary Europe might be inspired by American cultural infiltration. He complains — and it is a crucial insight into the unpleasantness of contemporary Britain — that “adolescents are precociously adult; adults are permanently adolescent”. Does he really think columnists on the Observer are more to blame for this than the incessant message of American prime-time serials so excessively broadcast in Britain for thirty years? The men of the British underclass whom he sees professionally, or scrutinizes on Black Country estates, have been “reduced” — he thinks by the Welfare State and Social Security handouts — “to the status of a child, though a spoiled child with the physical capabilities of a man: petulant, demanding, querulous, self- centred and violent if he doesn’t get his own way”. The escalating violence of these men becomes habitual: the “spoiled brat becomes an evil (domestic) tyrant”. How can Dalrymple possibly argue that the sometimes exiguous sums paid to shiftless members of the underclass have been more powerful in creating this underclass of spoilt, selfish, violent Englishmen than the example — dinned into them by constant exposure to American television — of the richest, most powerful republic in the world as the birthplace of the spoilt brat, and, indeed, now as the dominion of rich brats; for what is the Bush family if not the most powerful brat-pack in the world?

Describing the excesses of Dianamania in Britain in 1997, Dalrymple laments that “the British, under the influence of the media of mass communication, which demand that everyone wear his emotion or pseudo-emotion on his sleeve, have lost their only admirable qualities -stoicism, self-deprecation, and a sense of irony -and have gained those only worthy of contempt”. He is right; but where does he think the commercial exploitation of emotional extremism originated: in the novels of his bugbear Virginia Woolf, or in Oprah Winfrey’s broadcasts? If the British pride in understatement has been largely destroyed, if the public-school values of emotional reticence and self-mastery are widely regarded now as obsolete or as emotional disorders, surely the aggressive, degrading spectacle of shrieking pseudo-emotion of American television is most to blame.

Elsewhere, in a shrewd discussion of Aldous Huxley’s anxieties about the insidious Americanization of English culture and feelings, Dalrymple summarizes Huxley’s expectation that a society geared to instant gratification of desires would create a shallow, egotistical populace demanding “entertainment unto death”. Dr Dalrymple makes splendid objections to the way that human frustration and quotidian dissatisfaction are treated as medical conditions, and describes his patients’ demands for anti- depressants because of the creeping belief that “everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed)”. But these ideas of human fulfilment did not originate with effete, reckless English cultural mandarins but with the Founding Fathers of the Land of the Free. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, runs the US Declaration of Independence, “that all men . . . are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The trouble started with the pursuit of happiness being enshrined as a political right.

One of the ways that the foolish English nowadays deliberately diminish their personal dignity and self-respect is by dressing down, Dalrymple asserts. He loathes the way that prosperous people ape the clothes of the ragged poor and dress in worn and torn threads fit only for tenement life: “it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors, who struggled so hard, so long and so bitterly that we might be warm, clean, well fed and leisured”. Yet liberal intellectuals, and columnists on the Guardian, certainly have the most limited influence on English clothes fashions. They cannot be blamed. Surely the fake shabbiness, inverted snobbery and romanticization of human failure that characterize contemporary dress styles are American in origin. It was millionaires’ wives in Manhattan, not Englishwomen in Holland Park, who first started to dress in expensive clothes that aped those of street criminals. It was middle-class adolescents in plush American suburbs, not in Milton Keynes, who first started wearing beltless jeans, hanging halfway down their backsides, in imitation of black prisoners, who are deprived of belts in the American penal system, lest they hang themselves.

Dalrymple recalls with pain the self- inflicted malnourishment that he has seen in so many English patients and prisoners. He describes so-called “food deserts”, poor urban areas containing few shops selling fresh food, badlands where the mass diet is fast-food, take-aways, or other unhealthy, expensive, microwaved pap. But he does not name which nation owns the most obnoxious, unhealthy and aggressively marketed fast-food outlets in Britain. In another section he complains, rightly enough, that Britain has become too mealy-mouthed and litigious; that ordinary discourse is held captive by silly but strident specialinterest groups. “In a society that forms sexual liaisons with scarcely a thought, a passing suggestive remark can result in a lawsuit; the use of explicit sexual language is de rigueur in literary circles, but medical journals fear to print the word ‘prostitute’ and use the delicate euphemism ‘sex worker’ instead.” True enough; but where did this begin?

Theodore Dalrymple does not tell his American readers what they do not want to hear. He confronts so many bullies and demolishes so much delusive thinking in this brave, emphatic and undeniably important book; but the greatest ogre of all he will not even name.

A review by Richard Davenport-Hines


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