NASTY, BRITISH AND SHORT
Theodore Dalrymple gives his medical report
on the moral and cultural wasteland of modern England
I LIVE in a wasteland. In the council estates, the glass of many of the windows has been replaced by plywood; such gar- dens as there are have reverted to grey- green scrub, with empty beer and soft drink cans, used condoms and loose sheets of tabloid newspaper in place of flowers; and the people trudge through the desolation as disconsolately as in any communist (or formerly communist) land. When I visit such an estate, my first problem is to find the street in which my patient lives. The road signs have generally been removed or defaced beyond recogni- tion, and the residents do not know the names of the streets next to theirs; to ask the way is pointless. In any case, councils up and down the country have devised a method of naming and numbering streets which is incomprehensible to anyone but a thought-disordered schizophrenic. Streets change their names halfway along for no reason whatever, and runs of even-num- bered houses are replaced by runs of odd- numbered ones. The woman who lives in No 129 does not know where No 129A is, which is where the patient lives. 129A turns out to be on another street altogether (but mysteriously of the same name). Every- thing is disorientatingly arbitrary, just as bureaucrats like it: compared with the average British public housing estate, the Cretan Labyrinth was a model of classical regularity. Here, if anywhere, is where the rioting underclass lives and takes its being. Women shuffle along in jumble sale clothes and fly-paper curlers, prematurely under- going the physical shrinkage of old age, a cigarette attached by dried saliva to their lower lip; young men, bodily mature but with the mind and inclinations of juvenile barbarians, eye the world with sullen hostil- ity, which the tattoos on their knuckles, necks and forearms not infrequently express in words. They are unemployed and often profoundly unemployable: they are intolerant of any external restraint on their behaviour, and cannot fix their minds upon anything for more than a few moments. What job could one give them? This is a world in which schools not merely fail to educate, but are actually anti- educational establishments. I ask my young patients about their experiences at school, and they are depressingly uniform: vio- lence, boredom, indiscipline, insolence, intimidation, truancy and a determination to bring everyone down to the same abysmal level. Any effort to achieve is treated as treachery, and if persisted in leads itself to violence. I meet many teach- ers also, and essentially they tell the same story. Teachers soon come to have the same outlook as prison governors: to survive a day without serious incident is a success or even a triumph. There is no question of imparting knowledge: schooling is a form of remand in custody. A teacher told me of a recent circular from the headmaster of his school reminding staff that physical force was not to be used on pupils, except in self-defence. The same teacher told me about a recent parent-teacher meeting at his school: the parents of five out of 110 pupils found time away from their videos to attend. He telephoned the father of one of his pupils whose progress had been particu- larly poor (or whose regression to barbarity was particularly marked).
`I'm your son's class teacher,' he said.
`Are you?' came the reply. 'Well you can fuck off then.' And the father slammed the receiver down.
Stories such as this (which I hear almost every day) render the recently broadcast suggestion by Baroness Blackstone that more training was required for the under- class, not merely inadequate but laughable, the modern liberal equivalent of holding a religious procession to halt the progress of the plague. (In similar vein, Baroness Blackstone, Chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research, remarked that one of the reasons why she 'could not condone' the recent riots was that they took place in the deprived areas where the rioters them- selves lived, as if to say that it would have been more acceptable if the rioters had vented their spleen on more prosperous areas.) Yet it is far too comforting to suppose that the moral collapse I have described is confined to a small underclass of 5 or 10 per cent of the population, the mirror- image, perhaps, of a small and highly edu- cated elite. In the first place, the underclass is extensive and not readily distinguishable from the rest of the population; in the sec- ond place, more alarmingly still, the pau- perisation of the minds and spirit of our people extends well beyond the confines of any such underclass.
Whenever my foreign friends come to this country, they are struck — even if they come from countries much poorer than Britain — by two things about the British: the first is their crushed and defeated demeanour, the second the extreme ugli- ness of their lives. Just as my foreign friends confirm my judgment that British food resolutely remains the least appetising in the civilised world, so they confirm my observation from clinical practice that, taken all in all, the British are spiritually, culturally and emotionally the most impov- erished people in the world, compared with whom the slum dwellers of Mexico City or the tribesmen of the Congo (both of whom I have observed at first hand) lead fulfilling lives.
The problem is both philosophical and psychological, and is to be cured neither by pills nor by public spending.
The corrosive ideal of social justice has been etched on to the psyche of the British so that it has become the good that is the sine qua non of all other goods. If society is unjust, anything goes. The assumption of personal responsibility can be postponed until social justice (always defined by its absence, for defining it positively is rather difficult) has been attained. In the mean- time, one can behave abominably, yet feel aggrieved.
I meet a combination of aggressive irre- sponsibility and self-righteous resentment among patients almost every day. Mothers with four children by three different fathers complain accusingly that their lives are dif- ficult, as though something else were to be expected. The deficiency is not a cognitive one: they know where babies come from and they know about contraception. Our hospital serves a quarter of the city, and 70 per cent of the children born here are ille- gitimate. Either bastardy is not confined to the underclass, or the underclass is much larger than commonly supposed.
But surely, I hear liberals sigh, you don't want to bring back stigma? After all, there is no intrinsic reason why unmarried par- ents should not look after their children perfectly well: to which I reply that many surgical operations can be performed on the kitchen table, but that is no reason why they should not be performed in hospital. I live in a world so liberal that no stigma attaches to anything (with the exception of constructive effort at school). But a world without penalties, where anything and everything is both understood and forgiven, and where everyone expects rewards irre- spective of his or her own behaviour, is a nightmare world without meaning.
Last week I was consulted by a woman whose husband had left her. He said he wanted a divorce, but that if the court ordered him to pay maintenance for his three children, he would cease working rather than comply. At the same time, he would demand access to his children, as of right. I have no doubt he will get away with it. In the wasteland, rights multiply, but duties wither away.
In the absence of a system of values, ado- lescent revolt has become a permanent state of mind. The lack of belief in anything is compensated for by shrillness, as if mere noise could fill the inner void. The malaise is not confined to an underclass: every week I meet members of the middle classes who consider themselves victims of some injustice or other in order to lend signifi- cance to their lives. But they are only vic- tims in the sense that Marie Antoinette was a shepherdess.
The attempt to find transcendent mean- ing in social justice has strange conse- quences. It destroys or perverts aesthetic
appreciation: for how, it is asked, can beau- ty and injustice subsist in the same world? The aggressive ugliness (not mere lack of taste) of the mode of dress of many of my younger patients, especially those with intellectual pretensions, is intended to pro- voke the very rejection that will then be used to justify the resentment that gives meaning to otherwise meaningless life.
I recently treated the daughter of a quite senior diplomat who complained that soci- ety was too intolerant to see beyond her appearance. As this consisted of hair dyed red and done into spikes, a steel ring through her nose, black boxing boots and black culottes, and a multicoloured serpent tattooed on her forearm, I remarked mildly, in the circumstances — that she seemed rather reluctant to compromise with society in this regard. She flared up and said that so intolerant a society was rotten. By what historical standard, I asked, or by comparison with what ideal?
There was no social justice, she said: some were rich while many were poor.
It took only a short Socratic dialogue to discover that her indignation was mit strict- ly proportional to her knowledge of history or the coherence of her moral standpoint. One did not have to be Freud, either, to discover that her essentially personal dis- satisfactions (of the kind attendant upon life) were projected on to society as a whole. This projection, of course, has its advantages: it absolves one of the often painful necessity of self-examination. But it breeds the angry passivity that is now almost a national characteristic.
It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. A passive population that considers itself victimised by society is distinctly advantageous to certain groups, among them politicians who promise salvation and professional humanitarians who regard self-reliance as a petty bourgeois vice. When Mr Hattersley thunders that some- thing must be done for the underclass, he reinforces the mindset that makes it the underclass in the first place. (The Chinese r
in Britain are not a racial minority precisely because they refuse to play the role of vic- tim that the humanitarians would like to cast for them.) When Mr Des Wilson ful- minates at the Liberal Democrat party con- ference against the terrible corruption of the British political system — as if Britain were Peru or North Korea — he reinforces the notion that political power in a liberal democracy is all-important, when it is pre- cisely the glory of liberal democracy that politics are not all-important. When Baroness Blackstone calls for job creation, she implies that the number of jobs (unless the Government intervenes) is a fixed quantity, independent of the quality, incli- nations and proclivities of the people seek- ing them. Meanwhile, millions of people are waiting for Godot.
There appears to me to have been a ter- rible deterioration in the character of the British people over the last few decades. I know that people have been saying this kind of thing for centuries, but this does not prevent it from being true at some time in history, and we live in such a time. The sullenness of many of my young patients is not mere adolescent rebellion, it is a per- manent condition: they will not grow to courtesy. They do not have the dignity or self-respect of previous generations which have known suffering that is not self-inflict- ed. Persuaded of their rights, they think that authority is continually cheating them.
No doubt Thatcherism will be held responsible, but the deterioration was evi- dent many years before her advent to power — which changed nothing. Mrs Thatcher was an epiphenomenon in the life of the British people. The mother-in-law of the nation spoke much, but achieved little. She was unable to defeat what has become the essential British addiction: blaming others.
No complex phenomenon has simple causes. The decline of religious belief in Britain, which provided a basis for personal responsibility, occurred at the same time as a decline in our world power. Intellectuals, impotently enraged by this, mocked at every value and belief, without providing alternatives. Unlike France, which remained the standard-bearer of a lan- guage and a culture, Britain was turned into a province, a deep humiliation for a country which had been metropolitan for two centuries. Our young people have been deliberately deprived of any knowledge of British achievement: they know nothing (I have asked them) of Shakespeare and Dickens, Newton and Darwin, Brunel and Lister. They know of nothing of which they can feel proud. They have been left with a culture that is not a culture, but a form of ruminant grazing, They believe life is, or should be, a video film.
A nurse from one of my wards recently returned from a holiday in Hong Kong. It opened her eyes. The trouble with this country,' she said, 'is not the Government. It's the people.'