Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 26 March 2005

Ignorance, illusion, wilful blindness and wishful thinking have ever been the guiding principles of British government

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Medical students arrive for my tuition, fresh-faced and innocent, all eager for the treat. For the most part, they are still of conspicuously middle-class origin, despite the government’s desire to destroy bourgeois science and replace it with the true proletarian variety.

The contact these students have had with the seamy side of life has been either superficial or merely theoretical. They still suppose that most people are reasonable, decent and law-abiding, that they care for their children, etc. By the time they leave me, a week afterwards, their vision of life has darkened. Their eyes are opened to the existence of evil.

Of course, I am relieved in a way that innocence should persist, despite the forces ranged against it. On the other hand, it is slightly alarming that people could go through life in a small country such as ours without any knowledge of so considerable a part of its character. Ignorance, illusion, wilful blindness and wishful thinking have ever been the guiding principles of British government.

How young the medical students look to me now! I sent one off the other day to examine a patient who was no older than himself, but who had had a rather different experience of life from his.

The patient’s father — or should I say inseminator — had disappeared almost as soon as he was born. The mother took another violent drunk to her bosom, and he persecuted the child of her former lover with obsessive malignity, whipping and beating him, and even on one occasion knocking him over with his car. When he reached the age of 14, his mother decided he was de trop and threw him out of her home to fend for himself. Needless to say, the rest of his life had not so far been a triumph; so when he found someone willing to inject him with a would-be fatal dose of heroin, he took the opportunity.

The next patient was a Muslim girl who had been taken away from school by her father and married to a 60-year-old man in Pakistan when she was 12 years old, to prevent her from getting immoral Western ideas. Fortunately, he had died when she was still only 16, and she was brought home to marry a neighbour who was even older. Several times she had tried to escape, but she had been kidnapped on the street and returned to a proper decent life of domestic and sexual slavery.

On the way to the prison with my student that afternoon, I asked him to resolve a paradox. On the one hand, no one who is burgled or robbed on the street ever finds the police to be of any use: they seem to regard such events as beneath their august notice. On the other hand, our prisons are full of recidivists who have been caught burgling or robbing. How did he explain it?

Fortunately, the first patient in the prison helped. He had spent only three months of the last 16 years out of prison, during which he fathered four children.

‘Do you prefer life in prison?’ I asked.

‘I feel safer,’ he replied.

‘And do you arrange to be caught when you commit a crime?’

‘I don’t mind being caught. I’ve only been out four days this time.’

My student was silent as we left the prison. It had been rather a lot to learn in a day.

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