Theodore Dalrymple

Global Warning | 31 May 2008

Theodore Dalrymple delivers a Global Warning

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Life has taught me very little, but one thing I have learned is that the only employee of local councils with a genuine vocation is the rat-catcher. He always loves his rats, eliminating them with the deepest respect, and is extremely knowledgeable and interesting about their habits — which are, indeed, very interesting.

The last time I had to call a rat-catcher out, I smelt a rat under my dining room floorboards where it had died. The rat-catcher confirmed my diagnosis and told me that I had two choices: I could lift up the floorboards and remove the rat, or I could wait six weeks, after which the smell would go. Because I knew that rat-catchers are always competent, I trusted him and decided to wait; and lo, the smell disappeared after exactly six weeks.

I have always found it worthwhile to talk to people whose work many intellectuals would dismiss as uninteresting. For example, I have found that insurance loss adjusters have the deepest insight into human nature this side of Shakespeare. One of my favourite books, incidentally, is by John B Lewis, MD, and Charles C Bombaugh, MD (2nd ed., Baltimore, 1896). The title of the last chapter more or less sums up British social policy of the last 20 years: Self-Mutilation in Accident Insurance: 16 Illustrative Cases of this Criminal Folly. How else is one to explain the fact that our welfare state has produced more invalids than the first world war?

On returning to France, where they order these things very much the same, I called our bee and wasp man, who is an infallible guide on everything to do with bees, wasps, hornets, ants and termites — in short, the order Hymenoptera. The bees around us are dying out, but not the wasps, the hornets, the ants and the termites; he told us also that we had in our trees nests of a certain species of caterpillar, Thaumetopoea pityocampa, whose hairs caused severe skin irritation when they drop from the trees, like leopard in the African bush, on to unsuspecting people below. By coincidence, I read later that day an article in Liberation about this creature, which apparently is creeping northward in France and by the year 2025 (at its present rate of advance) will reach the Luxembourg Gardens, and make them intolerable to nannies with babies.

Truly, we are surrounded by unseen dangers. In Le Monde’s Saturday colour supplement I read an article about a new disease in Sweden that seems likely to spread to the rest of Europe across the Kategat. (Or is it the Skagarak? I always muddle them up, just like stalactites and stalagmites and Scylla and Charybdis.)

Thousands of people in Sweden now claim to be electrosensitive, that is to say sensitive to microwaves in the environment that make them ill; they have to have their homes insulated from such microwaves (at public expense of course), and walk about in electrorepellent metal netting while drawing sick pay.

Far be it from me to suggest that this illness is connected in any way, even remotely, with Stratagems and Conspiracies to Defraud Life Insurance Companies. Middle-class Swedes, the main sufferers, are just not like that. It is simply that their illness is in advance of its times. I have seen the future, and it does not go to work.