Life At The Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple

Life At The Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple

Life At The Bottom is a non-fiction work about the lowest classes of people in England, and why they are there. I thought that was a good question: what is it about a poverty trap that keeps people in poverty? Why can’t they work their way out of it, or educate themselves out of it? Dalrymple, a doctor who has worked with the poor in Africa and in England, would be someone with some insight into this.

Dalrymple begins by saying that there is a hopelessness in the lowest classes of English society that he doesn’t see elsewhere. There is something peculiar to England. He sees women, not just patients but even the nurses he works with, who go from one abusive relationship to the next. One reason they give him is that they see the abuse as a sign of passion. They are so used to abuse that it looks normal to them; a man who is not abusing them just isn’t really interested. A second reason, which Dalrymple doesn’t really examine, is that without a man in their lives, they are likely to be attacked by any other of the men around.

The people don’t educate their way out of their situation because they are anti-intellectual. Equality, to them, means that whatever they think is as good as anything that anyone else thinks, so they don’t have to study.

Dalrymple blames it all on the middle-classes. The middle-classes came up with notions of equality, sexual freedom, and freedom of speech, without any thought as to the effect these philosophies might have on the uneducated lower classes who grab the slogans as a call to action without further thought. In fact, he sees the middle classes as dumbing themselves down, taking up the speech patterns of the lower classes, taking on the form of the working class that doesn’t actually work, and taking up footy hooliganism. An example of what Dalrymple is getting at would be that phenomenon on the web where people think their own opinion on anything is as good as anyone else’s, and that experts have no more right to be heard than someone who is merely het up by a headline.

Basically, people are trapped, according to Dalrymple, because of the ideas they hold. They don’t improve themselves because they see themselves as fine. Since he, as a doctor, is constantly patching them up, he doesn’t see them as fine at all.

So far so good. Really, the only reason I didn’t finish reading the whole book was that I felt that I had got his point and didn’t need it hammered home in example after example. There’s only so much hammering a girl can take.

Naturally, a book like this cannot be read unquestioningly, because that would defeat its purpose. My first question was whether it was fair to blame the middle-classes for the actions of the lower classes. My thought is that they were trying to save their own souls from quiet lives of desperation, and where did these intellectuals who came up with these dastardly ideas of freedom and classlessness come from anyway? Upper classes aren’t mentioned.

Talking about this, it was pointed out that the middle-classes are disappearing anyway. The loss of the manufacturing industry may have had something to do with it. Anyway, the middle-classes are being squeezed into the lower classes. Which is to say that there are outside pressures at work which are not taken into account by Dalrymple. This isn’t that sort of book.

I should probably add that I don’t really understand the class system anyway. That there are stratas of income, that because of wealth some people have more resources, and are more aware of the possibility of using them, such as not only going to school but endeavoring to do well there, of using the public libraries, I understand. But I gather that there is more to it in some places.