The Welfare Culture and Its Discontents
Theodore Dalrymple uses fiction to tackle a tough subject.
by Ian Tuttle at National Review
Theodore Dalrymple’s The Proper Procedure and Other Stories is filled with lousy neighbors. They play music loud and all night; they deal drugs; they urinate in the stairwells. The women seduce the men, and the men beat the women. The police visit occasionally but are loath to insinuate themselves. Everyone is, as the unhappy Miss Falkenhagen says, a “predatory beast.”
Miss Falkenhagen (who, make no mistake, has faults aplenty of her own) is a resident of Percy Bysshe Shelley House, one of several public-housing projects that appear in Dalrymple’s first book of fiction: Harold Laski House, Jane Austen House, William Cobbett Tower. What the author says of one goes for any other: “The tower blocks rose at intervals from the ground, creating wind tunnels between them. Most of the land had been concreted over; the grass in the few remaining patches was a scrubby brown-grey-greenish colour, scattered with plastic bottles, constantly swirling pages of tabloid newspapers, and packaging of half-eaten takeaway meals.” It’s difficult to say whether the sties make the pigs or vice versa, but whichever the case, the ten stories that constitute The Proper Procedure are replete with both.
Readers of, among many others, City Journal, The New Criterion, and National Review will be familiar with “Dalrymple” — nom de plume of British physician and psychiatrist Anthony Daniels — who has made, in addition to his medical career, a literary one chronicling the extensive social pathologies of the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most famous of his books is Life at the Bottom (2001), in which he examined at length the “specter . . . haunting the Western world: the underclass,” that sorry mass of persons — a product of personal failings, utopian political schemes, and welfare-statism — whose existences are constituted largely of “violence . . . neglect and abuse of children . . . broken relationships . . . victimization by crime . . . nihilism . . . [and] dumb despair.” The underclass occupies places such as Harold Laski House and Charles Dickens Tower.
About such people Dalrymple has never indulged any sentimentality. As readers of his essays know, he has never been impressed by the excuses his patients make to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions (many of which are criminal, some murderous), and he is equally uninterested in sociological narratives of systemic oppression, according to which abusers and rapists and murderers become abusers and rapists and murderers because of insufficient access to housing. “Agency . . . is the experience of us all,” he writes. “We know our will’s free, and there’s an end on’t.”
His fiction, too, is happily free of any mawkish pity, and the result is a delightful collection of tales rife with misfortune and misery, in which, for the most part, horrid little people do nasty things, and not-so-horrid people try to maneuver their way among the horrid ones, and everything is watched over (and hopelessly confounded) by various municipal bureaucracies. Most of the stories involve clinics, psychiatric wards, or hospitals; several end in untimely deaths; and those characters who are not boors often find themselves trying futilely to petition this or that administrative body.
This could make for grim reading except that Dalrymple, besides writing in limpid, elegant English, has an eye for the absurd, especially the absurdity of bureaucratic rigmarole. The title story, for example, “The Proper Procedure,” relates the elderly Miss Lilly Budd’s attempt to retrieve £2,000 removed from her person when she was admitted to the hospital. An illustrative exchange:
“Before we begin,” said the Administrator, sitting on the opposite side of the desk, “there are just one or two formalities we have to go through. I suppose you’ve brought some ID with you?”
“ID?” said Miss Budd vacantly. . . .
“Identification,” said the Administrator. “So that we know that you are who you say you are.”
“I’m Lilly Budd,” said Miss Budd.
“Yes,” said the Administrator, laughing pleasantly, “you and I know that, but not everyone might. We have to be able to prove it. . . . We have to be careful, Miss Budd. Someone could impersonate you. Pretend to be Miss Budd who wasn’t.”
“But I’m Lilly Budd, I always been Lilly Budd, ever since I was born.”
“Yes, I know you have,” said the Administrator. “But let’s suppose someone came in here claiming to be Lilly Budd who wasn’t, and then we just handed the money over, we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, would we? What would you say then?”
Dalrymple is expert with such situations. Fred Roberts, main character of the collection’s penultimate — and, to my mind, best – story, “Facing the Music,” finds himself trying desperately to get his new downstairs neighbor (“the old was sentenced to life imprisonment for a gang kidnap and murder in another part of the city”) to refrain from blasting his music all night, every night, through John Ruskin House. Naturally, when the “Noise Nuisance Team” (NNT) from the “Environmental Protection Unit” finally visits the apartment to take a noise reading, the neighbor is on vacation, and when Fred goes to the EPU’s headquarters to explain, the bored clerk at the desk predictably dismisses him, in broken English: “Rules mean one time only measurement. . . . You are no special.” The same bureaucracy is also unconcerned about “Fireman Charlie,” another occupant of John Ruskin House, who, “when he ran out of money in the winter because of his drug bills, and his electricity was cut off for non-payment . . . would warm himself around the fire he made from his furniture.” “There was no point in evicting him,” adds the narrator, “because he would only have to have been housed somewhere else; and the fires were never serious.” Well, then. Carry on.
Nonetheless, the occupants of NNT sinecures are not finally responsible for the unhappy lives of council-house tenants. For that, one must look to the residents themselves. Miss Falkenhagen, who appears in the collection’s opening story, “Bildungsroman,” may be sanctimonious, but she’s not altogether wrong when she says of her neighbors:
The people couldn’t even speak or spell their own language properly, and hardly knew that any other languages existed. They knew nothing of their own literature and cared even less; their pleasures were coarse and brutish, their food revolting, their manners, if such you could call them, appalling. It was not so much that they lacked refinement, these people; rather they hated refinement and persecuted it wherever they found or even suspected it.
The Proper Procedure and Other Stories is filled with such people — of no especial intelligence or virtue, self-absorbed,
Many of Dalrymple’s characters are more inclined to do their worst than to do their best.
Lucky for us, their worst frequently proves a revelation, not to mention a wicked delight.
– Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.