What do we mean by poverty? Not what Dickens or Blake or Mayhew meant. Today, no one seriously expects to go hungry in England or to live without running water or medical care or even TV. Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor ex officio, as it were—poor by virtue of having less than the rich. And of course by this logic, the only way of eliminating poverty is by an egalitarian redistribution of wealth—even if the society as a whole were to become poorer as a result.
Such redistribution was the goal of the welfare state. But it has not eliminated poverty, despite the vast sums expended, and despite the fact that the poor are now substantially richer—indeed are not, by traditional standards, poor at all. As long as the rich exist, so must the poor, as we now define them.
Certainly they are in squalor—a far more accurate description of their condition than poverty—despite a threefold increase in per-capita income, including that of the poor, since the end of the last war. Why they should be in this condition requires an explanation—and to call that condition poverty, using a word more appropriate to Mayhew's London than to today's reality, prevents us from grasping how fundamentally the lot of "the poor" has changed since then. The poor we shall always have with us, no doubt: but today they are not poor in the traditional way.
The English poor live shorter and less healthy lives than their more prosperous compatriots. Even if you didn't know the statistics, their comparative ill health would be obvious on the most casual observation of rich and slum areas, just as Victorian observers noted that the poor were on average a head shorter than the rich, due to generations of inferior nourishment and hard living conditions. But the reasons for today's difference in health are not economic. It is by no means the case that the poor can't afford medicine or a nourishing diet; nor do they live in overcrowded houses lacking proper sanitation, as in Mayhew's time, or work 14 backbreaking hours a day in the foul air of mines or mills. Epidemiologists estimate that the higher rate of cigarette consumption among the poor accounts for half the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest classes in England—and to smoke that much takes money.
Notoriously, too, the infant mortality rate is twice as high in the lowest social class as in the highest. But the infant mortality rate of illegitimate births is twice that of legitimate ones, and the illegitimacy rate rises steeply as you descend the social scale: so the decline of marriage almost to the vanishing point in the lowest social class might well be responsible for most of its excess infant mortality. It is a way of life, not poverty per se, that kills. The commonest cause of death between the ages of 15 and 44 is now suicide, which has increased most precipitously precisely among those who live in the underclass world of temporary step-parenthood and of conduct unrestrained either by law or convention.
Just as it is easier to recognize ill health in someone you haven't seen for some time rather than in someone you meet daily, so a visitor coming into a society from elsewhere often can see its character more clearly than those who live in it. Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year's stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor.
At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. They themselves come from cities—Manila, Bombay, Madras—where many of the cases we see in our hospital would simply be left to die, often without succor of any kind. And they are impressed that our care extends beyond the merely medical: that no one goes without food or clothing or shelter, or even entertainment. There seems to be a public agency to deal with every conceivable problem. For a couple of weeks, they think this all represents the acme of civilization, especially when they recall the horrors at home. Poverty—as they know it— has been abolished.
Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. A Filipina doctor, for example, asked me why so few people seemed grateful for what was done for them. What prompted her question was an addict who, having collapsed from an accidental overdose of heroin, was brought to our hospital. He required intensive care to revive him, with doctors and nurses tending him all night. His first words to the doctor when he suddenly regained consciousness were, "Get me a fucking roll-up" (a hand-rolled cigarette). His imperious rudeness didn't arise from mere confusion: he continued to treat the staff as if they had kidnapped him and held him in the hospital against his will to perform experiments upon him. "Get me the fuck out of here!" There was no acknowledgment of what had been done for him, let alone gratitude for it. If he considered that he had received any benefit from his stay at all, well, it was simply his due.
My doctors from Bombay, Madras, or Manila observe this kind of conduct open- mouthed. At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude.
Case after case causes them to revise their initial favorable opinion. Before long, they have had experience of hundreds, and their view has changed entirely. Last week, for example, to the amazement of a doctor recently arrived from Madras, a woman in her late twenties entered our hospital with the most common condition that brings patients to us: a deliberate overdose. At first she would say nothing more than that she wanted to depart this world, that she had had enough of it.
I inquired further. Just before she took the overdose, her ex-boyfriend, the father of her eight-month-old youngest child (now staying with her ex-boyfriend's mother), had broken into her apartment by smashing down the front door. He wrecked the apartment's contents, broke every window, stole $110 in cash, and ripped out her telephone.
"He's very violent, doctor." She told me that he had broken her thumb, her ribs, and her jaw during the four years she was with him, and her face had needed stitching many times. "Last year I had to have the police out to him."
"I dropped the charges. His mother said he would change."
Another of her problems was that she was now five weeks pregnant and she didn't want the baby.
"I want to get rid of it, doctor."
"Who's the father?"
It was her violent ex-boyfriend, of course.
"Did he rape you, then?"
"So you agreed to have sex with him?"
"I was drunk; there was no love in it. This baby is like a bolt out of the blue: I don't know how it happened."
I asked her if she thought it was a good idea to have sex with a man who had repeatedly beaten her up, and from whom she said she wished to separate.
"It's complicated, doctor. That's the way life goes sometimes."
What had she known of this man before she took up with him? She met him in a club; he moved in at once, because he had nowhere else to stay. He had a child by another woman, neither of whom he supported. He had been in prison for burglary. He took drugs. He had never worked, except for cash on the side. Of course he never gave her any of his money, instead running up her telephone bills vertiginously.
She had never married, but had two other children. The first, a daughter aged eight, still lived with her. The father was a man whom she left because she found he was having sex with 12-year-old girls. Her second child was a son, whose father was "an idiot" with whom she had slept one night. That child, now six, lived with the "idiot," and she never saw him.
What had her experience taught her?
"I don't want to think about it. The Housing'll charge me for the damage, and I ain't got the money. I'm depressed, doctor; I'm not happy. I want to move away, to get away from him."
Later in the day, feeling a little lonely, she telephoned her ex-boyfriend, and he visited her.
I discussed the case with the doctor who had recently arrived from Madras, and who felt he had entered an insane world. Not in his wildest dreams had he imagined it could be like this. There was nothing to compare with it in Madras. He asked me what would happen next to the happy couple.
"They'll find her a new flat. They'll buy her new furniture, television, and refrigerator, because it's unacceptable poverty in this day and age to live without them. They'll charge her nothing for the damage to her old flat, because she can't pay anyway, and it wasn't she who did it. He will get away scot-free. Once she's installed in her new flat to escape from him, she'll invite him there, he'll smash it up again, and then they'll find her somewhere else to live. There is, in fact, nothing she can do that will deprive her of the state's obligation to house, feed, and entertain her."
I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman's situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural.
I often take my doctors from the Third World on the short walk from the hospital to the prison nearby. It is a most instructive 800 yards. On a good day—good for didactic purposes, that is—there are seven or eight puddles of glass shattered into fragments lying in the gutter en route (there are never none, except during the most inclement weather, when even those most addicted to car theft control their impulses).
"Each of these little piles of smashed glass represents a car that has been broken into," I tell them. "There will be more tomorrow, weather permitting." The houses along the way are, as public housing goes, quite decent. The local authorities have at last accepted that herding people into giant, featureless, Le Corbusian concrete blocks was a mistake, and they have switched to the construction of individual houses. Only a few of their windows are boarded up. Certainly by comparison with housing for the poor in Bombay, Madras, or Manila they are spacious and luxurious indeed. Each has a little front yard of grass, surrounded by a hedge, and a much larger back yard; about half have satellite dishes. Unfortunately, the yards are almost as full of litter as municipal garbage dumps.
I tell my doctors that in nearly nine years of taking this walk four times a week, I have never seen a single instance of anyone attempting to clean his yard. But I have seen much litter dropped; on a good day, I can even watch someone standing at the bus stop dropping something on the ground no farther than two feet from the bin.
"Why don't they tidy up their gardens?" asks a doctor from Bombay.
A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I've told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven't come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord's responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council's work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.
I ask my Third World doctors to examine the litter closely. It gives them the impression that no Briton is able to walk farther than ten yards or so without consuming junk food. Every bush, every lawn, even every tree, is festooned with chocolate wrappers or fast- food packaging. Empty cans of beer and soft drinks lie in the gutter, on the flower beds, or on top of the hedges. Again, on a good day we actually see someone toss aside the can whose contents he has just consumed, as a Russian vodka drinker throws down his glass.
Apart from the antisocial disregard of the common good that each little such act of littering implies (hundreds a week in the space of 800 yards alone), the vast quantity of food consumed in the street has deeper implications. I tell the doctors that in all my visits to the white households in the area, of which I've made hundreds, never—not once—have I seen any evidence of cooking. The nearest to this activity that I have witnessed is the reheating of prepared and packaged food, usually in a microwave. And by the same token, I have never seen any evidence of meals taken in common as a social activity—unless two people eating hamburgers together in the street as they walk along be counted as social.
This is not to say that I haven't seen people eating at home; on the contrary, they are often eating when I arrive. They eat alone, even if other members of the household are present, and never at table; they slump on a sofa in front of the television. Everyone in the household eats according to his own whim and timetable. Even in so elementary a matter as eating, therefore, there is no self-discipline but rather an imperative obedience to impulse. Needless to say, the opportunity for conversation or sociality that a meal taken together provides is lost. English meals are thus solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
I ask the doctors to compare the shops in areas inhabited by poor whites and those where poor Indian immigrants live. It is an instructive comparison. The shops the Indians frequent are piled high with all kinds of attractive fresh produce that, by supermarket standards, is astonishingly cheap. The women take immense trouble over their purchases and make subtle discriminations. There are no pre-cooked meals for them. By contrast, a shop that poor whites patronize offers a restricted choice, largely of relatively expensive prepared foods that at most require only the addition of hot water.
The difference between the two groups cannot be explained by differences in income, for they are insignificant. Poverty isn't the issue. And the willingness of Indians to take trouble over what they eat and to treat meals as important social occasions that impose obligations and at times require the subordination of personal desire is indicative of an entire attitude to life that often permits them, despite their current low incomes, to advance up the social scale. Alarmingly, though, the natural urge of the children of immigrants to belong to the predominant local culture is beginning to create an Indian underclass (at least among young males): and the taste for fast food and all that such a taste implies is swiftly developing among them.
When such slovenliness about food extends to all other spheres of life, when people satisfy every appetite with the same minimal effort and commitment, no wonder they trap themselves in squalor. I have little trouble showing my doctors from India and the Philippines that most of our patients take a fast-food approach to all their pleasures, obtaining them no less fleetingly and unstrenuously. They have no cultural activity they can call their own, and their lives seem, even to them, empty of purpose. In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement.
By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.
"On the whole," said one Filipino doctor to me, "life is preferable in the slums of Manila." He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.
These doctors have made the same journey as I, but in the reverse direction. Arriving as a young doctor in Africa 25 years ago, I was horrified at first by the physical conditions, the like of which I had never experienced before. Patients with heart failure walked 50 miles in the broiling sun, with panting breath and swollen legs, to obtain treatment—and then walked home again. Ulcerating and suppurating cancers were common. Barefoot men contracted tetanus from the wounds inflicted by a sand flea that laid its eggs between their toes. Tuberculosis reduced people to animated skeletons. Children were bitten by puff adders and adults mauled by leopards. I saw lepers with noses that had rotted away and madmen who wandered naked in the torrential rains.
Even the accidents were spectacular. I treated the survivors of one in Tanzania in which a truck—having no brakes, as was perfectly normal and expected in the circumstances— began to slide backward down a hill it had been climbing. It was laden with bags of corn, upon which 20 passengers, including many children, were riding. As the truck slid backward, first the passengers, then the corn, fell off. By the time I arrived, ten dead children were lined up by the side of the road, arranged in ascending order as neatly as organ pipes. They had been crushed or suffocated by the bags of corn that fell on top of them: a grimly ironic death in a country chronically short of food.
Moreover, political authority in the countries in which I worked was arbitrary, capricious, and corrupt. In Tanzania, for example, you could tell the representative of the sole and omnipotent political party, the Party of the Revolution, by his girth alone. Tanzanians were thin, but party men were fat. The party representative in my village sent a man to prison because the man's wife refused to sleep with him. In Nigeria the police hired out their guns by night to the armed robbers.
Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.
He's the psychiatrist who broke a taboo. In 1990, Theodore Dalrymple, prison shrink, slum area hospital doctor, and freshly appointed magazine columnist started telling the awful truth about Britain's poor. Long before motormouth welfare queen Vicky Pollard became the butt of a national joke on the television show Little Britain, Dalrymple was warning of a native underclass utterly impoverished not in money, but in language, ideas and ambition.
His books, essays, and columns for The Spectator, The Times and the New Statesman, have been compared to Orwell in their observations of Britain. But the plight of Orwell's working class, stricken by the Depression and the collapse of employment is moving and dignified in a way that Dalrymple's post-welfare state underclass is definitely not. He shows a new Gin Lane, a Hogarthian horror show of self-destructive behaviour: drink- and drug-addled deadbeat parents, feral children, random violence and chosen idleness. Chaos and ignorance, encouraged by the welfare and education systems, and treated as both normal and unavoidable.
"I didn't start out to write that. I was just describing what I saw. I probably made it less terrible," he recalls as we sit down to lunch at the less fashionable end of Sydney's Pitt Street. "But I saw almost straight away that raw want was not the explanation. It just hit me in the face."
Blame is reserved for the intellectual class that made all this happen. Not through the indifference of the 1930s, but overindulgence. Trendy 1960s social theories have run amok and caused endless harm to the people they are supposed to be helping, he says. Academics, writers, artists and journalists tore down old values like personal responsibility and civility, replaced by ideas that "society is to blame" and a moral relativism that says that nothing is wrong.
"It has disastrous effects on those worst off," he says, "those least able to withstand the practical results" of that moral anarchy.
Zero self-control and zero connection between effort and reward did not make people happy, but left them trapped in "cheerless self-pitying hedonism and the brutality of the dependency culture", he wrote in the book, Life at the Bottom.
The start of the rot
Dalrymple hazards a precise starting date for this: when John Osborne replaced Terence Rattigan as the leading British playwright, he says, and angry young men replaced the stoicism of The Browning Version. It was people who "showed off their cleverness and their virtue" by attacking the status quo. The damage didn't matter, so much as their pet theories. It's the radical vanity I well remember at uni in the 1970s, I say, with intellect equated with contempt for conventional life. It's the same in art, he adds, where you have to be transgressive just for the sake of it.
Dalrymple is in Australia as the Centre of Independent Studies 2016 scholar-in-residence, and will also be lecturing on "Is Society Broken?" at the Sydney Opera House on April 18, and in Melbourne on April 21. Where Britain leads, he thinks, others – notably France – are only a few decades behind.
His prose uses adjectives as percussion to beat in the message. Militant philistinism, aggressive incivility. Some newspaper columnists are their writing made flesh. Dalrymple is not. In person he has an impish smile, and an animated laugh at his more outrageous suggestions. His voice is reassuringly doctorly. If you were a terrified newcomer in the prison system, you would be glad to see him.
We order. Sashimi to start, then gnocchi for him and salmon for me. No wine.
So how did a population that is now wealthier than ever become the world champions …"of such decay"? he says, finishing my question. Did Britain's old respectable working class, such keen self-improvers, just improve themselves out of existence and leave only a lumpenproletariat behind?
"Except now they are all the lumpenproletariat," he says with a straight face. He does not actually like the idea of some isolated underclass, when their vulgarity has become the ideology of the nation.
Having trickled down from the top, moral licence has now percolated up again from the bottom. Its tidemark, for Dalrymple, is tattoos. The middle classes began tattooing themselves out of empathy, he once thought, with marginal people like criminals or bikers.
"But unfortunately, when you imitate something, the role becomes the reality." Mass drunkenness and mass vulgarity is now routine across British society. In the 1960s, stung by criticism it was too middle class, the BBC hired Jimmy Savile, he says. Decades before Savile's sexual predation was revealed, "he was the start of an evangelical vulgarisation that has proved unstoppable".
A brutish nation
It's the biggest case of downward aspiration ever known, he jokes. Why? He's not sure. "Loss of confidence among the middle class – which is quite easy to enter, unlike France which is far more snobbish. And loss of British power and influence in the world. It's catastrophic when that happens." Leaders now follow the led. In France, politicians "pretend to be more cultured than they are'', he says. In Britain, "it's exactly the opposite."
Aren't you just exaggerating something terrible? I ask. The UK is supposed to be a world leader in soft power: influence through culture and image. Or do they have so much vulgarity they can export it? "Well, that is what is happening. Why anyone finds British culture attractive I can't imagine."
Brutish behaviour happens in a brutish aesthetic. He bemoans the destruction of graceful cityscapes by careless civic planners. We are lunching at the Primus Hotel, a newly restored art deco gem with huge red marble columns that a Venetian doge would be happy sitting among. It was once Sydney's water and sewage department: a palace of civic efficiency and pride – precisely the thing that has gone down the drain in Britain, he says.
British urban dwellers, he wrote in his book Our Culture, What's Left of It, are like barbarians camped out in the ruins of an older, superior civilisation they don't understand. You can study them through their litter; there is so much of it, and local councils feel no shame in being unable to control it. That is a deeper corruption of their purpose than in Italy, he thinks, where at least you can pay under the desk and things happen. Litter is dropped everywhere, by everyone, he says: there is no underclass in the Lake District. "You don't have to wait 3000 years for litter to become archaeology before it tells you something," he says. "You can track diet, habits, attitudes, and how people see the world."
"It's a complete loss of interest in the public space", he thinks. Graffiti artists have taken it over, but as expression he says, graffiti is just individualism without any individuality – another modern condition. "People have great difficulty marking themselves out as individuals. I didn't, but then I'm odd." How odd? "Well, from an early age I was contrary. Not in any aggressive or egotistical way. But I was always quite happy that I knew best. It's not true of course, but never I let it destroy the illusion."
What if in a parallel universe Dalrymple too found himself at the bottom of the heap? What would he have done? "I have often thought the worst fate is to be an intelligent and sensitive person born into the British underclass. The social pressure on you to fail is enormous. I remember a girl who wanted to study French but, 'they said I was stupid because I was clever'. Can you imagine growing up in that environment?" He looks sad as he says it.
What's the answer? The real problem is "the modern miracle of British education, in which people come out of school knowing even less than when they went in". When he talked to patients at the hospital where he worked, "you were plumbing the shallows. I couldn't find anything that they knew".
"The problem is the extremely low cultural level in England, at least on a mass scale. They are so degraded culturally they can't even answer the telephone properly."
The difference is, he says, that you could run a hotel in France with French staff. In England, employers would choose a Pole. Their English is more functional and their attitude better. The locals "can't tell the difference between service and servitude, which is a terrible thing in a service economy''.
The theme at the bottom of much of Dalrymple's writing is lack of self-restraint, from serial litterers to serial killers. He says that he once signed up as the vulgarity correspondent of the Daily Mail – he smirks at that one – sent on assignment to an England soccer friendly in Italy. A hundred middle-class Englishmen he travelled with routinely hurled abuse at any passing Italian. "I asked one of them, a computer programmer, why he did it. He said, 'you have to let your hair down'. I said, 'well, no, you don't. You should keep it up'. We used to be known for our emotional constipation. Now it's emotional incontinence.
"If you let your hair down often enough, it becomes your character."
He says there is nowadays an odd fear of bottling up emotions. Dalrymple once talked to a man who had just murdered his girlfriend. "He said to me: 'Well, I had to kill her, doctor, or I don't know what I would have done'." We can only laugh at the lack of irony.
Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of the real Anthony Daniels, who was still working in the health system when he began writing. Why did he become a psychiatrist? "The gossip," replies Daniels. And he liked the idea of working not just with people's physiology, but their lives as well. Is Anthony as angry as Theodore? Both are just disappointed that things are not as good as they could be, he says. "But disappointment is the permanent condition of mankind. Life would be intolerable without it. We would all be so smug."
Isn't it just part of a liberal democracy to tolerate difference and to make allowances for some, even if you find them obnoxious? "Well, a society that tolerates everything is rather bad. Shouting, screaming, and intimidation? We are prepared to tolerate public vomiting, but if you use the term 'actress', you are a sexist. A very well-educated lady told me public vomiting is all right: 'They can clear it up.' This is how the elite now thinks. They are so anxious not to seem narrow-minded or bigoted, or of being 'judgmental'. How did that word become a term of abuse?"
The Wilmot Restaurant
339 Pitt Street, Sydney
2 business lunch courses, $110
2 hiramasa king fish sashimi
1 potato gnocchi
1 Tasmanian salmon fillet
1 Berloka sparkling water, $10
1 green tea, $6
1 English breakfast, $6
Total with tip and surcharges: $140.30