Decline and fall

Our Culture, What's Left of It: the mandarins and the masses

Theodore Dalrymple <em>Ivan R Dee, 35

Even though he wasn't one himself, George Orwell used to say that the conservative pessimist has more opportuni-ties than others for saying "I told you so", given that most schemes for human betterment do in fact go wrong. Few writers today have been so unflaggingly pessimistic as "Theodore Dalrymple", the pseudonym of Dr Anthony Daniels.

He is a physician who has worked in Africa as well as in this country, where he recently retired after many years as a GP and prison doctor. That gave him an unusual authority, in more than one sense, to comment on the lower depths of English life (a previous book was called Life at the Bottom) and to criticise what he sees as the lamentable consequences of progressive social folly. He has been doing this for years in the Spectator, but most of this latest collection appeared in an American quarterly, City Journal.

If Dalrymple/Daniels can sometimes seem relentless, you have to admit that he has plenty of easy targets. He takes the Fred West case as an epitome of national decay, which may be a little sweeping, as is his accusation that the blame lies with a "psychotherapeutic world-view to which good liberals subscribe", in which "there is no evil, only victimhood". Yet it is true that the police were shockingly negligent: when one of the earlier victims was raped by Fred ("while Rose was upstairs making a cup of tea for them all, a peculiarly English touch to the story") and went to the police, she was persuaded not to press rape charges, because indecent assault would be much easier for everyone. And so, after a small fine, the Wests were able to proceed to serial murder.

What readers in this country may not know is how good a literary and cultural critic Dalrymple is. There are items here about social decay, but he is almost better when, for example, he dissects a piece in the Observer on the pop singer Marilyn Manson. According to the Observer writer, the singer's autobiography "revealed a smart, funny man - even if he did enjoy covering hearing-impaired groupies in raw meat for sexual sport". In his stage act, Manson often echoed Nazi rallies, but he "was making a valid point about rock'n'roll gigs and mass behaviour, as well as flirting with fascist style". Dalrymple has fun with this kind of posturing drivel, from a journalist so squeamishly observant of the canons of political correctness that he cannot write "deaf", but will gloat over a woman's humiliation.

Having written about the terrifying phenomenon of "Diana Week" eight years ago, I cheered Dalrymple's essay on "The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations". The worst thing about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was not the mass hysteria that followed it, but the way writers ostensibly on the left - even self-styled feminists - tried to make a heroine out of the poor girl. After years of sneering, the left-liberal press suddenly found that she embodied a compassionate alternative to Thatcherite selfishness. "She preached a doctrine of hugs, warmth and confession," wrote one Guardian writer, in apparent seriousness, "a revolutionary doctrine whose enemy was the frigidity of our habitual reserve."

Turning aside from these displeasing subjects, Dalrymple is at his most beguiling when he writes about books. He gets in some liberal-bashing here, too, when he returns to the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which produced a fine display of humbug on behalf of a remarkably bad book (whatever D H Lawrence's gifts as a lyric poet, a man who could write the lines "he saw nothing but the round wet head, the wet back leaning forward in flight, the rounded buttocks twinkling" was entirely without a sense of the ridiculous). There is a deft essay on Shakespeare, in which Dalrymple shows that while he was no sex-hating puritan (in Measure for Measure, Angelo's hatred of carnality and his hope to "extirp it quite" fly against human nature), he none the less saw that complete surrender to instinct is as disastrous as total repression. Another excellent essay, on Turgenev, compares the Russian favourably with his contemporary Karl Marx. Turgenev's intolerably poignant story "Mumu", about a deaf-mute serf forced to kill the dog who is his only friend, displays an authentic humanity that eludes political economists.

Another favourite is Stefan Zweig, whose memorable and haunting stories of old Vienna are sadly now best remembered thanks to the cinema: in Max Ophuls's hands, Letter From an Unknown Woman became one of the great Hollywood weepies. If Zweig is, indeed, "A Neglected Genius", Dalrymple may well help rescue him from neglect.

Having written with elegiac sympathy about Zweig's life and death, Dalrymple wonders if he would have liked the modern world: "The shrillness of our ideological debates, the emotional shallowness, the vulgarity of our culture, would have appalled him," he argues. He might have a point. Dalrymple has acquired a following on the sarcastic right; if anything, it is the thoughtful left that should be reading him.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's The Strange Death of Tory England is published in paperback by Penguin