Theodore Dalrymple

Medicine and letters

Though I say it myself, who perhaps should not, doctors make very good writers. They are usually down to earth, not a quality always found among the highly educated. They are the ultimate participant-observers of life; and a little literary talent, therefore, takes them a long way, further indeed than most others.

No doubt I shall be accused of prejudice in favour of my own profession. To demonstrate that I am an unbiased critic, however, I shall cite the work of a doctor who wrote very badly, execrably in fact, the late Dr David Cooper. He was an associate for a time of R.D. Laing, the talented but wayward and self-destructive psychiatrist, and during the Sixties and Seventies of the last century his ravings in book form had a vogue that was (how can I put this kindly?) disproportionate to their intellectual and literary merit.

I suspect, though of course I cannot prove, that he owed much of his success to his appearance, which was that of a rock star turned Old Testament prophet. How could someone with such a beard be other than profound? Tolstoy, Rasputin and the Mahaishi Mahesh Yogi played the same trick. It seems to work every time.

His writings are not so much an elucidation of anything as a mood statement, which perhaps is not altogether surprising because he was drunk so much of the time. Insofar as any definite ideas can be deduced from his words, they are that capitalism is responsible for all the ills of the world, that the family acts as capitalism’s unpaid policeman, and that come the revolution (the real, authentic revolution, that is, not the stunted Russian affair) life will become one long orgasm.

At his most limpid, Dr Cooper wrote like Dave Spart, the revolutionary whose immortal thoughts used to appear in the pages of Private Eye.

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