Dr Dalrymple is a recently retired prison psychiatrist, and on the evidence of this book in sore need of a change of scenery. Drawing on his experience with the damaged and often dangerous, he comes up with one depressive generalisation after another about the appalling way that pretty well everyone in Britain seems to him to live now. He admits that ‘It is true that my patients were a selected sample, and perhaps not representative of the population as a whole.’ No ‘perhaps’ about it; reading through these jaundiced chapters is to wonder when Dalrymple last mixed with ordinary, cheerful people, young or old. He particularly hates any type of education that tries to foster creativity as well as learning, roping in John Locke and Wordsworth as particular villains in this direction.
Another danger attendant on all psychiatrists is a tendency towards believing after years of giving out advice to the sick and dysfunctional that they do indeed know all the answers. So why, in Dalrymple’s case, go to the bother of properly researching all your reactionary prejudices if you are convinced you know the truth anyhow? And many readers love the result; this book boasts on its back cover that it is the ‘No 1 Telegraph bookshop bestseller’. Any bar-room or golf club bore looking for killer quotes about the general decadence of modern living have at last found their perfect source. The various straw men that Dalrymple sets up are effortlessly and too often facetiously pushed over one by one. But it is an easy victory when the author selects the facts that suit his argument while ignoring those that don’t.
There are occasions when he scores a palpable hit. He is excellent on condemning the grossly impertinent journalists who took the McCann parents’ unwillingness or inability to show grief in public about their missing daughter Madeleine as evidence of something more sinister. I also share his distaste for the ‘Tragic Life Story’ genre, now thankfully somewhat on the wane. But too often he wastes his fire on unworthy or pointless topics, from attacking over-emotional inscriptions on tombstones to complaining about the so-called ‘self-pity’ found in Sylvia Plath’s poetry. If this book were a stomach, I would recommend an immediate course of antacids plus a return to a plain rather than a prison diet.