This is the second in a three-part series on Theodore Dalrymple’s book Life at the Bottom, which explores the lives of the ‘underclass’ living on schemes and council estates in the UK.
Dalrymple’s chapter ‘Goodbye, Cruel World’ is particularly helpful in catching the underlying social pressures of living on a council estate. He talks of meeting young, intelligent people too afraid to try at school because it was socially unacceptable to do so. It’s a huge problem when children who could be doing so well educationally are mocked by their peers, and, worse yet, by their parents (where they exist) for being ‘brainy’ or ‘getting above themselves’. For example, I was badly beaten and abused by my stepmother whenever I brought home a good report from school.
Dalrymple’s observation on the search for meaning is particularly tragic. He observes that many of his patients are so desperate for attention that they frequently take overdoses in order to go the hospital to receive some love and care. ‘I’m treated, therefore I am’ is the maxim of the day. He tells us: ‘To swallow an overdose without seriously intending to die is a curious thing to do, after all, and this is specific to Western, or Westernised, society. They don’t do it in Senegal or Outer Mongolia’ (p24).
Dalrymple astutely compares the effects of those in the welfare state, where beneficiaries don’t have to struggle for income, against those in Africa who live a subsistence lifestyle. The Africans, he says, are motivated to work to live, and their battle for work every day to gain food for their families at least gives some meaning to their lives. They possess a drive and ambition to better their lot. Not so, he says, among the poor and unemployed. Because they have nothing to fear in terms of real hunger, and because they receive benefits, it has left them without any real hope, meaning or purpose in their lives. Whether you agree with him or not, and I think the problem is obviously more nuanced than that, it is still a fascinating observation. And it is certainly a fact that most of the young men and women I deal with in my community lack any sense of ambition or dreams for the future. ‘What, then, is left for them? Entertainment and personal relationships’ (p24). In Dalrymple’s view, many of the addicts he deals with are frustratingly lazy when it comes to finding work but have no issues with pursuing all avenues to score their drug of choice. In fact, he says, ‘This pursuit is often the only serious business of their lives’ (p58).
Despite the fact that the book is less than two decades old, it it surprisingly quaint in places. But alongside that quaintness is an almost Nostradamus-like prophetic view of the future. ‘The cult of stupidity has become in England what the cult of celebrity has in the United States’ (p68). Nowadays, as we know, the cult of stupid celebrity has overtaken everything. The dreams of young scheme girls now are tied into whatever reality crap is hot at the moment. At some points Dalrymple’s snobbery shines through when he bemoans the rise of the regional accent in all facets of society, including the media. At these points I picture him sat at his antique writing desk, puffing furiously on his pipe, a brandy by his side, while he pounds into an ageing typewriter.
In ‘The Heart Of The Heartless World’ he turns his attention to religion, although it is patently obvious he is not a believer, nor does he have any true understanding of the church, other than a passing acquaintance. He rightly picks up that those at the lower echelons of society are usually very religious, although I would say supernaturalistic. This belief in the supernatural, he observes, ‘has not necessarily gone the same way as attendance at the Church of England’ (p90). My response is that when they don’t preach the gospel, they won’t see an increase in anything. Church of England (and Scotland) buildings can be found up and down the council estates and schemes of our land but they are, by and large, empty and dying. Certainly, they are burying more than they are baptising. To be fair to Dalrymple, he does see that there is a spiritual vacuum and he comes mighty close to offering the solution. ‘Despite its appearance of religious indifference, then, our city has an unexpectedly intense religious life. In an age of relativism, people seek certainty; when violence strikes at random, they seek transcendent meaning; when crimes goes unpunished by the secular power, they seek refuge in divine law; when indifference to others reigns, they seek community’ (p100). Every time there is a crisis in our community, whether it be the death of a child (common) or problems with the brew (social security), even the hardest-hearted, self-confessed atheist will come running to the church for comfort, help and support. It’s why we need local churches in our communities more than we’ve ever needed them before.
Perhaps his most cynical chapter is ‘There’s No Damned Merit In It’. He talks of observing women in bingo halls who ‘with the mobility of beached whales refresh themselves constantly with large piles of cholesterol-raising food and large volumes of tepid, watery English beer’ (p105). He is brutal as he continues, ‘Tomorrow, of course, they’ll go to their doctors and tell them that, however hard they try, they just can’t seem to lose weight: they only have to look at food, and the pounds go on’ (p106). His critique of men is no less biting. Talking about the working (and non-working)-class obsession with the betting shop, he claims, ‘They’re the kind of men I know well from my medical practice: men whose chronic backaches prevent them from ever again undertaking gainful employment, but who are capable of surprising feats of physical endurance in the right circumstances, such as a pub brawl’ (p108). Ouch! He’s not far off though.
I remember going jogging with a young man we were weaning off Heroin a few years back. We got up to 5km a day as he got stronger and stronger. Then, one day, he came into the church and he was incandescent with rage. ‘What’s up?’ I asked him. ‘The brew (the social) have screwed me over!’ he whined. ‘How so?’ I asked. ‘They reckon I’m fit for work but everybody knows I’m not.’ ‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘You run 5km with me every day. You are fit for work.’ ‘Yeh. Well they don’t know that. It’s not fair!’ That is a very common conversation in my weekly life. The really tragic thing about that conversation is that he genuinely felt that an injustice was being done to him!
In Part Three I’ll look at Dalrymple’s conclusions. Unfortunately he offers no solutions, but luckily I have one to offer!