:: Article

The People of the Abyss

By Max Dunbar.

Second Opinion, Theodore Dalrymple, Monday 2009

Monday Books has been publishing tales of urban Britain for a while now. Its authors are paramedics, teachers, police officers, blogging anonymously from places they call Alterdale or Blandmore, struggling against violent recidivist ‘customers’ and meaningless targets and management initiatives. Your typical Monday author is reactionary, world-weary and misanthropic, dealing as he does with the low end of human nature.

At first glance Theodore Dalrymple’s Second Opinion seems like more of the same. Dalrymple is a prison doctor and hospital consultant and the book consists of short pieces in which the doctor makes observations about human nature and society based on his day to day routine. He is distinctive in many ways. The first is in the quality of his work. Bloggers like Inspector Gadget and Ellie Bloggs tend to produce angry, declarative posts, dashed off between snatched sleep and shifts, expressing the frustrations and horrors of their working lives. It is old-school writing as catharsis.

By contrast, Dalrymple’s prose feels restrained and worked on. The two-page articles are polished and subtle, small black bombs. Also, people like Gadget and Copperfield are everymen. You probably wouldn’t agree with them but you can empathise with them. Dalrymple has a literary aesthetic, and scatters his vignettes of drug addicts and killers with quotations from Waugh, Lombroso, De Gaulle, Wordsworth, Marx, Dickens, Nietzsche. This brings insight to his writing but also makes Dalrymple seem as alien in his way as the offenders that he treats.

In his preface, the doctor writes that he gave up keeping a diary ‘not through laziness but simply because what I recorded was far too horrifying for anyone (including myself) to read.’ The reader will empathise. I actually left this book alone, midway through, for a couple of days, because it was so hard to take. The misanthropy rivals Houellebecq, even Lovecraft. As Dalrymple says, the sample of humanity encountered in Second Opinion is small but not unrepresentative. There are people in England living in conditions similar to the Victorian slums. The lives of Dalrymple’s female patients resemble those of women in sub-Saharan Africa. These are the people of the abyss.

You can’t even talk about the cycle of violence and the need for redistribution of wealth, for Dalrymple makes it clear that even if the cycle was stopped for good, cruelty and evil would still exist – not to the same extent of course, but still there, with an independent intent and power. Liberal solutions presume rational actors and the actors of Second Opinion are anything but rational. Why keep derelict properties in London for the express purpose of torturing random people in them? Why rape elderly women? Why push your pregnant girlfriend down a flight of stairs? Many of Dalrymple’s pieces consist of inverted Socratic dialogues with prisoner patients. When asked: why do you do this? the answer is always a variation on just because.

The result is a terrifying journey into the night of twenty-first century Britain. Dalrymple offers no strategies or action plans, no closure or catharsis. Despite the doctor’s loathing of strong emotional expression, Second Opinion is one long cry of despair and rage.



Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 13th, 2009.