Theodore Dalrymple delivers a Global Warning
It is when you see the English enjoying themselves that you realise the futility of life. Perhaps I should say trying to enjoy themselves: for in the attempt, rarely successful, they turn either glum or public nuisance.
The occasion of these melancholy reflections was a rainy weekend in Torquay, whither I had gone to attend a medical conference. It took place in the English equivalent of a grand hotel: a mixture of pomposity and grubbiness, whose management had managed to find the last waitresses in Eastern Europe trained in the Soviet school of hostelry.
During a break in the proceedings, I took a ride into the centre of the town. It was evident that 1950s gentility was in the death throes of its hopeless struggle against 21st-century vulgarity, the palm court having ceded to the cannabis plant. The taxi-driver, wheezing from the sheer physical effort of sitting at the wheel, pointed out the sites as we drove through the pastel-painted terraced houses.
‘That’s a drug drop,’ he said. ‘Everyone round here takes drugs. This is bedsit land. They come from all over the country to do nothing.’
I said something about it being a shame, that it must have been nice once.
‘They’ve all got several identities,’ he said. ‘So that they get a few cheques each week from the social security.’
Having expressed my pride in being a taxpayer, I asked him the crucial question for any taxi-driver about his job: did he work nights? He reacted as the Transylvanian peasants in Dracula reacted to the approach of dusk. ‘A friend of mine’s just got over his broken leg,’ he said. ‘Broken in three places it was when his passenger stamped on him because he didn’t want to pay the fare.’
‘Couldn’t he just have run away?’ I asked. A brief survey of the taxi-drivers of Torquay had convinced me that there were not many athletes among them who would catch up with a lamentably healthy young psychopath.
The driver hadn’t returned to work, even though his leg had healed. Who says that deterrence doesn’t work?
I found the only second-hand bookshop in Torquay. The man at the counter, who was about as healthy as the taxi-driver, and for the same reasons, was discussing the state of the book trade with a customer who had asked for the best price possible on a book marked at £1.50. He spoke with a dyspnoeic rotundity, gasping between phrases.
‘We’re closing down in a month’s time,’ he said. ‘We’re the last of ten shops in Torquay to go. It’s the internet that’s killed the trade.’ That, and the vile distractions of the younger generation.
A man came in who did not look so much unemployed as someone for whom the question of employment had never seriously arisen in the first place.
‘Have you got any books by Evelyn Waugh’s husband?’ he asked.
‘Who’s that?’ asked the man at the counter noncommittally.
‘Alec Waugh,’ said the potential customer.
‘Evelyn Waugh was a man.’
‘Was he? I thought he was a woman.’
‘No, he was a man.’
‘Funny name for a man, Evelyn. I always thought he must be a woman.’
Oh my country, how I love thee!