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Theodore Dalrymple



Articles by Theodore Dalrymple

Life’s a Boar

22 days ago

On Christmas Day I sat by the fire in my house in France and read a charming little book, Tea With Walter de la Mare, by Russell Brain, published in 1957. Walter de la Mare, who died age 83 in 1956, was a poet, novelist, and short-story writer who was once very famous and popular, but of whom I don’t suppose many people under the age of 60 have heard. Russell Brain was one of the most prominent neurologists of his day, whose textbook went through nine editions.
The very title evokes a long-lost world, for who would now bother, as Brain did, to conjure up the conversations he had at afternoon tea with an author? Who, indeed, recalls the genteel ritual of afternoon tea? But Brain defends what he calls tea-talk:
A tea-talk is by its

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Pick Your Pronoun

29 days ago

Most of the time that I have spent informing myself about the world we live in, with only partial success, has been wasted, at least as far as practical effect is concerned. During the Cold War I read a lot about Marxism; then came Islam and Islamism; now it is COVID-19. My influence on world events has, of course, been zero, and will remain so, however much I inform myself, which given my bad temper is perhaps just as well. I would have been more profitably employed collecting stamps or growing tomatoes.
The books about the COVID-19 epidemic continue to pour off the presses, faster even than I can buy them, let alone read them. Most of them are discouraging, that is to say disparaging about the various efforts of Western

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The Decline of Cultural Understanding

November 28, 2020

Two friends in Paris invited us to dinner recently and then thought better of it. The problem was not that it would have been an illegal gathering, but that the woman in the flat between theirs was the kind of person who would delight in denouncing her neighbors. What greater pleasure in life, at least for some people, than that of causing difficulties for others in the name of the public good?
Denunciation, especially when made a habit, is unpleasant, but I would not go so far as to say that it is never justified. In my career as a doctor, I denounced two patients, both of them in prison. One said that he intended to kill his girlfriend on his release (which was in a few days), and I had the distinct impression that he was not

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In the Euston Road

November 21, 2020

Traveling between England and France recently was a profoundly depressing experience.
First I had to get to Euston Station and then walk the few hundred yards to St. Pancras Station. The Euston Road, which runs between them, is not a beautiful thoroughfare at the best of times, and this was certainly not the best of times. I never thought, however, that I would miss the suffocating traffic that normally clogs and chokes it, but this unpleasing phenomenon had been replaced by another, namely a dispiriting emptiness except for numbers of homeless people wandering intoxicated in the road or camping in urine-soaked sleeping bags propped up against walls, surrounded by the detritus of their appalling lives—bottles, packaging of junk

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Liars and Maligners

November 14, 2020

I would like to think that nothing human is alien to me (as the Roman playwright and former slave Terence put it), but it is not quite true. I draw the line, for example, at rap music, which always puts me in mind of experiments I witnessed during physiology classes fifty years ago, in which electrodes were placed in the amygdala of cats and stimulation of which caused a reaction of insensate and undirected rage (in the cat). To change the analogy slightly, rap music is the noise that hornets, if they could vociferate, would make when their nest was disturbed.
However, if some things human are alien to me, most are not, and talking to people who do jobs that one knows nothing of is a very good way of learning about the range of

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Odd Jobs

November 7, 2020

When I read that the United Arab Emirate’s Minister of Tolerance had been accused of sexual assault, I could not help but smile. The account of the assault itself, if true, was not at all funny, quite the reverse, but what caused me to smile was the very idea of a government minister of tolerance, presumably with a whole ministry to himself, complete with deputy ministers, senior and junior bureaucrats, secretaries, office cleaners, etc. No satirist could have invented anything better.
No doubt also the bureaucrats in the ministry had, in the words of job advertisements, “a proven track record” in the promotion of tolerance, for example by the public beheading or flogging of those convicted, or merely accused, of intolerance. The

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Pandemics Past

October 10, 2020

During my recent period of quarantine in England, I was surrounded in my study by piles of books that I have always intended to read before I die. Even this modest ambition is unlikely to be fulfilled, however, given their number, my life expectancy, and the rate at which I read them. It would require quite a number of breakthroughs in medicine for my ambition to be realistic.
Among the books was History of the Epidemic Spasmodic Cholera in Russia Including a Copious Account of the Disease Which Has Prevailed in India, and Which Has Travelled, Under That Name, From Asia Into Europe, by Bisset Hawkins, M.D., published in 1831. I cannot remember when, or where, I bought the book, or even whether at the time I had a particular

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The Selfie, the Defining Cultural Artifact of Our Time

September 12, 2020

The selfie is perhaps the defining cultural artifact of our time. Me and the Mona Lisa, Me and the Pyramids, Me and the Colosseum, with the emphasis on the Me, of course; at least COVID-19 has put paid to all that for a time, as well as to little Greta’s public harangues, which somehow manage to combine the qualities of the zombie and the hysteric. Alas, it could all come back.
Sometimes one reads about the taker of a selfie who has died as a result of a fall down a precipice because he was trying to get a better picture of himself. I know that in theory accidental death is something tragic and much to be lamented, but I would not be telling the truth if I were to deny that I did not experience a frisson of pleasure on reading of

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Beyond Reparations

July 18, 2020

There is no proposal so foolish that it has no advocates, or sometimes even its fanatics. If hope springs eternal in the human breast, delusion springs eternal from the human head.
Recently I was scrolling through The Guardian looking for easy targets—The Guardian is an inexhaustible source of these, which are, of course, any journalist’s best friends—when I came across an article by Dedrick Asante-Muhammad. I don’t know whether this was the name he had at birth, but whether it was given or assumed, it seems perfect for a monomaniac, a fanatic, or a mere political entrepreneur.
The idea propounded in the article was that every black person in the United States with an identifiable slave ancestor should be given, as of right,

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1968 Again

June 27, 2020

I have never been quite able to make up my mind whether there is no new thing under the sun or whether we live in completely unprecedented times. When we look at events close up and nearby in time and place, we are inclined to think that nothing like them has ever happened before; but with the passage of time, and a little calm reflection, we find analogies all over the place. I suppose the wise man is alive to both the similarities and the differences, but keeping both in mind at the same time is hard, like trying to see the old crones and the candlestick simultaneously in the famous diagram beloved of gestalt psychologists.
In light of the recent events in the United States and elsewhere (the elsewhere that has long imitated

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The George Floyd Mural

June 20, 2020

When I first saw the mural of George Floyd with large angel wings, I assumed that it was a satire on his sanctification—effective, perhaps, but not in the best of taste. Shortly afterwards, however, I realized that the mural was in earnest: The picture of the mural in the newspaper included a man genuflecting before it, and the caption said that he was making a “pilgrimage.” Apparently, St. Peter can no longer cope alone at the pearly gates; he need bouncers, too, heaven having become something like a nightclub.
George Floyd was not a saint; in fact, he was a bad man, and being killed by a brutal policeman does not change a man’s life from bad to good. He was a man of many convictions—criminal convictions, that is, not political

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The Limits of Punishment

March 11, 2020

A British court has just ruled that a couple accused of procuring the murder of a boy age 11 in India, whose life they had insured for a large sum of money, could not be extradited to India to face trial because they might, if found guilty, be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, which is against rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The little boy’s brother-in-law was also killed in the assault on him.
There was a lot of prima facie evidence against the couple. Where someone is murdered whose life has just been insured for a large sum of money, especially where he is the kind of person whose life one would not expect to be so heavily insured, it usually gives the police a strong clue as to the

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A Return to Beauty

March 3, 2020

The guilty flee when no man pursueth, says Proverbs, but it does not follow from this that the guilty do not flee when they are indeed pursued. The guilty also have a tendency to argue when they know that they are in the wrong, as for example architects who continue to deny that, for the past seventy years at least, they have been disenchanting the world by espousing a dysfunctional functionalism and constructing buildings so hideous that they make Frankenstein’s monster look like Clark Gable.
I refuse to think so ill of architects as human beings as to believe them to be totally unaware of what they have done. Rather, I pity them. They are like those unfortunate government spokesmen who have to defend the indefensible in public,

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Hiding Behind Psychobabble

February 17, 2020

There was a very curious letter to the editor in the latest edition of the English monthly magazine The Critic. It was from a correspondent who defended the type of architecture known as brutalist, that is to say of buildings constructed of and faced with large blocks of raw concrete. The letter concluded as follows:
I love Brutalism, and believe every example of it should be preserved, but I would never call it beautiful, any more than I would call it ugly. I just happen to find it unique and interesting, and I find it condescending to be told otherwise.
The writer seems to imply that aesthetic considerations played no part in his estimate of the worth of a building, only its uniqueness and interest. His ideal of a city, then,

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The Lessons of Richard II

February 11, 2020

For reasons best known to myself, last week I read a short book about Richard II, the English king who came to the throne at age 10 and was deposed 22 years later, in 1399, and murdered the following year.
It seems that Shakespeare got him more or less right, at least if the chronicles of the time got him right. Richard II was a young man of very poor judgment and a strong sense of entitlement (a common and disastrous combination), though he was not evilly intentioned in the manner of later dictators. He showered his court favorites with gifts and honors, at the expense, of course, of the rest of the population, then—as now—the taxpayers. Shakespeare memorably described the beneficiaries of Richard’s extorted largesse as the

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A Desperate Search for Uniqueness

January 27, 2020

O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!
The contrast between Prince Harry and his grandmother is not only that between one generation and another, but between one conception of life, one culture, and another. I know which I prefer, but others may think, indeed do think, different.
On the one side is an iron sense of duty at whatever personal cost, self-restraint, and a kind of existential modesty despite exalted position, and on the other is personal whim, self-expression as an imperative, and ego as the object of almost religious devotion. There isn’t much doubt as to which of these attitudes to life is in the ascendant, both sociologically and philosophically. As William Blake put it, ahead of his time, “Sooner strangle an

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On Whose Authority?

January 21, 2020

These days one doesn’t know—if one ever did—what to believe. We are told, for example, that Hungary and Poland are sliding into authoritarianism, but is it true? Most of us speak neither Hungarian nor Polish, and those people we know who do so are usually parti pris. It all depends on whether we trust our informants, and largely we do not.
In Hungary, it is said, the media—television and newspapers—are increasingly in the hands of the governing party; but even if true, how much would it matter? We are also told that such media are of ever less importance in forming public opinion, especially among the young. Much stricter control of the media than anyone has alleged against Hungary has proved perfectly compatible with popular

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The Trouble With Nature

January 8, 2020

Nature, which we are taught to revere and which in Europe is relatively benign, can nevertheless sometimes be a bit of a nuisance. For example, when I returned to my house in the country after an absence of a few months, I found that the flies had taken up residence between one shutter and a window, and the ladybirds—thousands of them—behind another. There are few sensations more unpleasant than being swarmed by flies on opening a window, unless it be the cold, slimy, squishy sensation of slugs that have taken up their residence under logs for the wood-burning stoves, or of dead mice (one of them fairly recently deceased, to judge by its consistency) in the middle of the pile of tea towels. George Orwell once wrote of his time

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Evening Above the Hell-Bar

December 23, 2019

There are few sounds more frightening than that of the English young enjoying themselves. The English, it was once said, take their pleasures sadly; but now they take them loudly, which is far, far worse. Their pleasures are brutish, and the sounds the men emit while experiencing them are indistinguishable from those of a mob indignantly beating someone to death. As for the women, they never speak but they scream, as if being chronically raped. Of course, they all have to raise the level of their vocalizations because there is the perpetual background throb and thump of background music, or para-music, turned up to maximum volume, so that the ground vibrates beneath you like a ripple bed in an intensive care unit.
Recently I

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Teddies for All

December 18, 2019

The Swedes are a coldhearted people. When a 15-year-old boy was gunned down in a busy square in Malmo recently, a photograph showed that the townspeople had placed only seventeen candles and seven bouquets of flowers on the site where he had fallen. If the murder had happened in Britain, the ground on which the young victim had been shot would have been covered for yards around in candles, flowers, and teddy bears. In Sweden, by contrast, there was not a teddy bear to be seen.
In Britain, there would have been “tributes” to the young victim. He would, of course, have been described as possessed of a lovely smile, as having been friendly and helpful to anyone, a bit of a rogue perhaps but with a heart of gold, and more than likely

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Snake Charm

November 29, 2019

A woman in Indiana was recently found asphyxiated to death by a snake—a reticulated python—still wrapped round her neck. This was a death so horrible that you avert your mind from imagining it too closely.
In England two years ago a young man was found strangled to death with his pet python coiled beneath a nearby chair, as if trying to disavow its responsibility for the death or complacently surveying its handiwork (it is difficult to tell with a snake).
Both the killer pythons were eight feet long, less than a third as long as their maximum length.
I first became aware of the subculture of keeping such reptiles more than forty years ago when I had a patient who kept a boa in his flat that had grown so large that he was now

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An Ill-Defined Petition

October 9, 2019

Thirty thousand people—I was tempted to write harridans and harpies, but there must have been some emasculated men among them—have petitioned the Oxford University Press to remove words such as bitch, in the meaning of unpleasant female, from the Oxford English Dictionary as being derogatory of, and offensive to, women.
“A soft answer turneth away wrath,” says the good book, and of course the OUP answered that it would take the petitioners’ views seriously. But in the modern world a soft answer often does not turn away wrath but only provokes further demands. The only time the hospital in which I worked received a written complaint about me was when a Mr. A… said that I had not been helpful in signing a sick note for him. One was

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Whose Arson Is Preferable?

September 2, 2019

“The Machine Stops” is a story by E.M. Forster published in 1909, the year of my father’s birth. Forster is not usually considered a writer of science fiction, any more than is Jane Austen, but his one attempt at the genre was truly remarkable.
In the story, humans lead completely isolated lives in underground cells. They communicate not directly but electronically. Face-to-face contact is regarded by them with fear, distaste, and even disgust. Their every wish is attended to by a giant supply mechanism of whose working they know little or nothing but upon which they are completely dependent. Then the machine begins to break down, and the subterranean inhabitants are as helpless as maggots in a fisherman’s tin.
I don’t think I

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Choose Your Words Wisely

August 20, 2019

Is attention to the correct use of words mere pedantry or, as Confucius thought, the necessary foundation of a healthy state? I am with Confucius on this, which is why I was disturbed by President Trump’s words after the recent mass shooting in El Paso. They were exactly wrong.
The president called the perpetrator cowardly. This was wrong for two reasons. First, he was not cowardly, and second, bravery in the commission of such an act is not a virtue.
To take a gun and shoot people down in the knowledge that you will more than likely be killed yourself, or if not killed will face the grimmest of futures, is not cowardly and takes more courage than most of us have. Indeed, if such acts as this required no courage, they would

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Fare Warning

July 29, 2019

It has been very hot in my part of France lately. Not far away, the temperature in the shade has been as much as 45 degrees centigrade (113 Fahrenheit). No doubt it is often hotter in the Empty Quarter of Arabia or in the Mojave Desert, but for us poor Northern Europeans it seems pretty brutal. It’s even worse when you’re getting on in years.
My insurance company sent me an email. “Heat wave in your area,” it said. Then it gave a little advice:
Avoid going out in the hottest part of the day, select cool places and drink regularly.
Wear light clothes.
Avoid unventilated places and do not stay in a car or a closed space in the sun.
I imagine that few would quarrel with this advice. Who, for example, would advise people to walk

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The Great Hate Debate

July 15, 2019

I justifiably criticize and reprehend, but you hate. I have well-thought-out, rational opinions, but you have mere prejudices.
I hate hatred. I hate those who hate, especially those who hate the wrong things, that is to say the things that I do not hate. Such people are hateful. It is a pleasure as well as a duty to hate them. If you do not hate something or somebody, after all, do you really believe in anything?
Those who desire a world as bland as cottage cheese, without hate or even disdain, forget that one of the prime human needs, almost as great as that for love itself, is for someone to look down on and despise. Everyone wants to feel superior to, or better than, someone at least. Prisoners despise sex offenders, rapists

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Man’s Ingenuity and Foolishness

June 13, 2019

I am an admirer of ratcatchers; in my experience, they respect their enemies and love their work. I have never met a bored ratcatcher, or one who gave the impression that he wished he was doing something else. They are always knowledgeable in the ways of the Rat, and since the Rat is cunning, they have always to use their intelligence to the full to outwit him. They have many stories to tell. There is no final victory over the Rat—though he may one day win a victory over us.
Once we had a dead rat under the floorboards of our dining room. I would not have credited that so small a creature could cause such a smell. It was intolerable. We called the municipal ratcatcher and in those days he was a genuine public servant, that is to

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Never Too Young

June 5, 2019

The headmistress of a school in Birmingham, England, decided that it was high time her pupils—or students, as I suppose we must now call them—learned a little tolerance. By the age of 4, it was surely essential that they should learn that not all children had a mummy and daddy, but that some had two of one and none of the other.
This teaching did not altogether please the parents of the children, 50 percent of whom were Muslim. Some of them started to demonstrate outside the school, among them those dressed in coal-black crow costumes. One of the local members of parliament supported the parents, to an extent. Surely, he said, this could all wait until the children were, say, 7? Thus he hoped to have it both ways and garner the

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Fitness for Execution?

April 24, 2019

In the days when there was still capital punishment in Britain, the prison doctor had to certify a man fit for execution before he could be hanged. What fitness for execution consisted of, I am uncertain: It was a concept that was inadequately taught in medical school.
Presumably fitness for execution had nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the man to be executed, or his moral desert; that was hardly a doctor’s business. It could hardly have had much to do, either, with his physical fitness; you wouldn’t postpone an execution just because of a cold or a touch of osteoarthritis. Apart from anything else, executions, like trials, require coordination and are difficult and expensive to arrange.
I think the main medical

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The Threat to Notre Dame

April 22, 2019

President Macron’s speech to the French nation about the fire that destroyed so much of Notre Dame contained a terrible threat: he said that the cathedral would be rebuilt, to be even more beautiful than before. This might seem an innocuous, even laudable aim, but the announcement of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe that a competition would be held to design “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time” should send a chill down the spine of anyone familiar with the efforts of modern architects in Paris, the effects of which can be seen all around the city.
The monumental public buildings constructed using techniques to meet the challenges of our time include the Centre Pompidou, the Tour Montparnasse, the Opéra

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