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Mawkish charades

This book is an engaging rant against the folly, claptrap, self-indulgence and hypocrisy of mankind, written in the brisk and trenchant style which readers of the author’s Spectator articles will recognise.

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality Theodore Dalrymple

Gibson Square, pp.260, 14.99,

This book is an engaging rant against the folly, claptrap, self-indulgence and hypocrisy of mankind, written in the brisk and trenchant style which readers of the author’s Spectator articles will recognise.

This book is an engaging rant against the folly, claptrap, self-indulgence and hypocrisy of mankind, written in the brisk and trenchant style which readers of the author’s Spectator articles will recognise. Theodore Dalrymple has chosen a large target, which yields plenty of choice material. The more revered the individual and the more widespread the sentiment, the more acerbic the language in which Dalrymple mocks and reviles it. Not since Christopher Hitchens launched his assault on Mother Teresa have so many sacred cows been publicly slaughtered in one short volume.


Connoisseurs will particularly relish the footnotes in which Dalrymple adds the odd observation too outrageous or irrelevant to be included in the text, and defines for the benefit of his readers such expressions as Band Aid (‘an organisation of self-promoting hypocrites’) or the European Community (‘a means by which aging politicians can retain their importance for the rest of their lives without subjecting themselves to the humiliations, inconveniences and tedium of elections’).

Reading Spoilt Rotten is a cathartic experience for those who feel indignant about demotic culture, just as writing it must have been. But as with most such things, there are serious points behind the polemic. Dalrymple’s case is that the substitution of crude emotion for dispassionate analysis of public issues, and the mentality which demands exaggerated and public outpourings of mawkish sentimentality at critical moments, has distorted the values of public life, producing results which are useless, unjust or absurd, and quite often all three. The chapter on victim impact statements, in which those who have suffered as a result of violent crime are encouraged to pour out their emotions before a judge who is forbidden to take any notice of it, makes as good a case against these cruel charades as it is possible to make.

The public hysteria surrounding such high-profile incidents as the death of Princess Diana and the search for Madeleine McCann, or the eccentricities of the MacPherson report on the death of Stephen Lawrence are analysed with the author’s customary mixture of shrewdness, cynicism and misanthropic pessimism.

These phenomena have of course been analysed before, and many of the same points have been made. But Dalrymple is good at relating them to broader trends in our society: the problems of child-centred education, the distrust of moral judgments save on a handful of ‘approved’ issues, the breakdown of traditional sources of authority. Not everyone will agree with the diagnosis, but even for those who do not, it is refreshing to find these things taken seriously and treated as raising fundamentally moral issues, not just aesthetic ones.


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