Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 23 April 2005

There’s only one thing worse than slavery, and that’s freedom

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There’s only one thing worse than slavery, of course, and that’s freedom. I don’t mean, I hasten to add, my own freedom, to which I am really rather attached; no, it is other people’s freedom, and what they choose to do with it, that appals me. They have such bad taste.

The notion of self-expression has much to answer for. It gives people the presumptuous notion that somewhere deep inside them there is a genius trying to get out. This genius, at least round here, expresses itself mainly by drinking too much, taking drugs, tattooing its skin and piercing its body. On the whole, I think, the self is best not expressed and, like children, should be neither seen nor heard.

One day, I arrived on the ward to discover an enthusiastic self-expresser in the first bed. Her two-inch-long nails were painted lime green, and looked as if they gave off the kind of radiation that meant instant leukaemia. That, however, was the least of it.

She was lying in the bed, décolleté, to reveal breasts pierced with many metal bars ending in steel balls to keep them in place, and for what is known round here as decoration. I couldn’t look at them without wincing; ex-President Clinton would no doubt have felt her pain. As for her face, it was the modern equivalent of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. It was also the refutation of the doctrine that the customer is always the right. In the tattoo parlour, the customer is always wrong.

She had a ring through the septum of her nose, and a ring through her upper lip, so that the two clacked when she spoke. She had a stud in her tongue, and two studs through her lower lip. She had so many rings through her ears that they looked like solenoids. She had a metal bar through the bridge of her nose and rings at the outer edges of her eyebrows. If she were to die, she could probably be sold to a scrap metal merchant.

Her main problem was that she came from a strict Muslim family. Every time she had herself pierced, the entire family would set upon her and beat her. She would then take her revenge on them by having herself pierced again. This dialogue of the deaf had now continued for several years.

‘Why do you do it?’ I asked.

‘I just want to be me,’ she said. ‘But my family won’t allow it.’

How sad that personal identity should be dependent upon such horrible props: but such is the state of modern humanity.

My next patient was also a young Muslim woman. She was multiculturalism made flesh. Her head was wrapped in a Calvin Klein black headscarf (the designers have moved into the Ayatollah market), she chewed gum, and she wore a denim jacket over her shalwar-kameez. She had taken an overdose because it was the only way she could get out of the house, her parents locked her in as a prisoner. Her mother chewed gum and wore trainers.

My third patient was a prostitute from one of the eastern countries of the new Europe. She had taken more cocaine than was good for her and was careering round the ward, practising her English.

‘Motherf….r! Motherf….r! Motherf….r!’ she screamed at her invisible tormentors.

Theodore Dalrymple’s book, So Little Done: The Testament of a Serial Killer, Ferrington, £6.95, is now on sale.