22 MAY 1993, Page 12

If symptoms persist.. .

WHEN I was a very young man I thought I understood people. All human conduct was attributable in the last ana- lysis to one or two simple motives, whose workings it required only a certain clear- sightedness (which fortunately I pos- sessed) to perceive.

Now that I have had a little more experience of people, I am convinced that I do not understand them at all. Oddly enough, the less I understand them, the more confidence they seem to place in me: and not a few treat me as an oracle or a Daniel come to judgment. Some even go so far as to follow my instructions, occasionally with unintend- ed consequences. For example, I once prescribed tablets for a man to take every eight hours. He returned a month later in a state of exhaustion verging on collapse.

The man had consulted me at 11 o'clock in the morning, and I told him to start taking the tablets immediately. Ever since then, he had taken them at 11 in the morning, 7 in the evening and again at 3 in the morning, setting his alarm to wake him at that wretched hour. I had ruined his life utterly, but he had kept on taking the tablets and I was rather flat- tered by his fidelity to the letter of my law.

Strangely enough, prisoners expect me to know everything, especially why they do what they do. An old lag, a recidivist burglar in his sixties, came to my room in the prison last week and asked whether had five minutes to talk to him.

`Yes,' I replied.

`Good,' he said, sitting himself down opposite me. 'I've wanted to talk to you for a long time. What I want to know, doctor, is why I keep breaking into peo- ple's houses.'

`Greed and laziness, I should expect,' I replied.

He looked a little startled.

`What?' he said.

`You want things but can't be bothered to work for them, so you steal them instead.'

`So it hasn't got nothing to do with my unhappy childhood, then?'

`No, absolutely nothing.' He mused for a moment, pondering these new and exotic ideas. Then, some- what in a tone of nostalgic regret, he said, 'But I had a job once, doctor.'

As an attempt to prove that he was not lazy, I found his reminiscence unimpres- sive. 'And what happened to it?'

`It didn't last. I couldn't do it.'

`Why not?'

`I'm a night bird, doctor, and I couldn't get up of a morning.'

`And so you returned to burglary.' `Yes. But I only stole from them what could afford it.'

`I expect they had more to steal,' I said.

The old lag rose from the seat.

`Thank you, doctor. I'm glad I've seen you.'

`Don't mention it,' I replied.

Next day, back in the hospital, I spoke to a man just before his discharge who looked like a professional hooligan: shaved head, ring through his nose, a skull tattooed on his forearm.

`What are you going to do when you leave hospital?' I asked.

`I don't know,' he said. 'You're the expert.'

Theodore Dalrymple