Monday, May 16, 2005

Theodore Dalrymple

I am indebted to David Hadley for directing me to a most interesting article by Theodore Dalrymple. David rightly says that the article touches on a number of points that I have been making in the blog recently, but it turns out that there is much more of value in it than that. Not surprisingly, because Dalrymple is a man with a heavy punch; he's in an altogether different class from that inhabited by the average blogger.

Theodore Dalrymple, you mutter, who he? Well, he is a British psychiatrist and prison doctor, and you can find a short biography here -- he is listed under his real name, Anthony Daniels, halfway down the page. You can also find a much fuller profile of the man published in the New York Sun. No, I don't understand why it appeared there, either, but it's a bloody good piece of reporting.

I believe that there is some sort of rule or regulation which forbids British doctors from using their own name when writing for the press, so in the early days Dalrymple was very careful to preserve his anonymity, never telling us the names of the places he was referring to. Today, he seems to have abandoned that policy, perhaps because he is due to retire in 2005.

I first came across Theodore Dalrymple about fifteen or twenty years ago, when he began to write for The Spectator, and I was immediately impressed. Unlike most of those who pontificate about the ills of British society, Dalrymple knows what he is talking about, because he works at the sharp end of the business. He is intimately familiar with those at the bottom of the pile. The people whom he sees on a daily basis are the criminal young, the drug-addicted, the desperate immigrants, and the neglected elderly. As a result, he has few illusions about life as it is lived by what he refers to as the underclass.

An article by Theodore Dalrymple is not likely to contain many laughs. But by golly it will make you think a bit. So it is with the piece in The New Criterion, to which I was referred by David Hadley, and which is entitled 'An imaginary scandal'.

You really ought to read this article for yourself, because you won't find anything more worthy of your time in a month or two; but here, just to encourage you, is a brief summary of the major points that it touches upon.

Dalrymple begins by telling the story (which is not new but is worth the re-telling) of Rahila Khan. In 1987, Rahila had a book published by Virago, a press which specialises in contemporary feminist authors. The book was called Down the Road, Worlds Away. This, according to Virago's blurb, was a collection of 'twelve haunting stories about Asian girls and white boys... about the tangle of violence and tenderness... in all their lives,' and it was written 'with hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity.'

Everyone at Virago, it seems, assumed that Rahila Khan was a young Asian woman, a relatively recent arrival in the UK. In the course of time, however, it emerged that 'Rahila' was in fact a man. He was Toby Forward. And Toby was not just a bloke; he was a Church of England Vicar.

Confusion all round. Feminists in general, and Virago in particular, were not pleased.

Dalrymple takes us on a grand tour of the nonsenses and hypocrisies which surround this tale, and in doing so he exposes, yet again, the cretinous and self-serving nature of much of what passes, these days, for academic discourse. He is, as usual, utterly fearless and entirely convincing. The people who work in the humanities departments of universities are not going to like this article one little bit. Probably their best plan, however, is to ignore Dalrymple and hope that no one will notice what he says.

The article should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in the technical problems of writing fiction, because there is much to be learnt from the Khan/Forward saga about what it takes to write successfully about a given set of experiences.

Dalrymple being Dalrymple, however, we are offered a lot more than just a few hints as to how to improve your fiction. We learn a great deal about the uncomfortable position (I speak euphemistically) of young Muslim women in what passes for a civilised society. Dalrymple tells us, almost in passing, that his young Muslim patients 'all know of girls who have been killed by their own fathers and brothers when they refuse to accede to a forced marriage to their first cousin back home, or to a man four times their age.' But how many convictions have there been for such crimes?

As I say, you should read the article. Not only that, but those who wish to get a flavour of life in today's inner cities in the UK should read one or two of Dalrymple's books. There are about 20 of them, all told, including an extremely dark novel.

The Khan/Forward situation reminds me of a tale that I was told some years ago. It is a story which works best if told orally, but I think I can tell it in print with the aid of some phonetic spelling at the end. The account which follows came to me third hand, so I cannot vouch for every detail. But the details are in any case irrelevant to the central point.

I don't know what it's like in your part of the world, but here in England there are quite a number of grant-awarding bodies, funded by the government, which support the so-called 'arts'. I thoroughly disapprove of this system of state handouts, but no one takes any notice of me and the racket continues to operate.

These grant-awarding bodies have very definite views about the kind of people who deserve their money. They strongly favour the 'minorities'. Women, for some reason, are regarded as an endangered species, and particularly suitable for support; so are those who have recently arrived in the UK.

Some years ago, one of these grant-awarding bodies decided to run a competition for a drama script which reflected 'the black experience'. In the course of time they received the usual 200 or 300 entries, and to their pleasant surprise one of them was really quite good. It was about the life of a young black woman living in Brixton (which these days is a largely black neighbourhood), and it was obviously based on personal experience. The author was one Michele Celeste.

The competition organisers were particularly thrilled to have discovered a talented writer who was not only a woman (score 1 brownie point) but also black (score another brownie point); with a bit of luck, they thought, she might turn out to be a disabled lesbian as well, and then they would really have hit the jackpot.

So, losing no time, the organisers wrote to Michele and told her that she had won. To celebrate the occasion, they said, they would be holding a short ceremony at a given time and date; this would be attended by all those involved in the competition, various representatives of other bodies, local dignitaries and politicians, and as many members of the press as could be attracted by copious free drinks.

Michele wrote back and said that she would be delighted to attend the prize-giving. Looked forward to it.

Come the day, and a considerable crowd assembled to partake of free food and drink. But, sadly, there was no sign of Michele. There were a number of black ladies present, but none of them answered to the name of Michele Celeste.

The organisers waited fifteen minutes. And then another fifteen. Until eventually the man in charge felt that he just had to go ahead without the star of the proceedings. So he rose to his feet and said that he was terrible sorry, ladies and gentlemen, they had been hoping that the winner of first prize in their extremely successful writing competition would be here to receive her prize, but regrettably she seemed to have been delayed.

Whereupon, a small, dark-haired man jumped to his feet from the front row and shouted, 'No, no, iz me, iz me -- Michele Celeste, I am here, I am here!'

Confusion all around, once again.

It turns out, you see, that Michele Celeste was not a black woman at all; he was a young man of Italian origins. And the name Michele Celeste is not pronounced Me-shell See-lest; it is pronounced Mi-kay-ly Chell-esty.

Such are the bear traps which await those who rush to judgement about who is capable of writing what.

Of course, the organisers ought to have realised that the female name Michelle is normally spelt with two Ls. But then who the hell can spell nowadays?

9 comments:

Anastasia said...

It makes one question the accuracy of the stories behind the authors. One case here, which originated from the US as the book was edited there( not sure whether this book was released in the UK) pertained to Norma Khouri, a genuine (biological) female who wrote a memoir about her supposed best friend who was killed by her family in Jordan. The novel Forbidden Love was bought by Random House Australia, thousands of copies were sold and it reached the top five lists here only for the information to be fictitious. Khouri couldn't corrobate her information (which makes me wonder how this book was accepted in the first place in the pre-production phase) and subsequently all copies had to be recalled.

I suspect the same kind of 'mythology' exists behind the Jean Sassoon 'Princess' series that depicts the lives of Saudi Princesses but because this series came out a while back no one's really questioned them even though the author's only claim is that she has had a longstanding friendship with a Saudi Princess who remains anonymous.

We had a case here years ago with Helen Darville aka Demidenko who fabricated her heritage by claiming she was Ukrainian prior to being awarded The Vogel/Aust Literary Award for The Hand that Signed the Paper (1993) and the Miles Franklin Award in 1995.
She was judged, according to various opinions, based on the quality of the fiction but prior to that she was giving interviews and referring to her heritage, which was false. Thomas Keneally wrote Schindler's List and he didn't have to resort to creating a false identity so I don't think it's justified. I know it sounds naive, but if a story or novel is 'good' it doesn't matter whether the author has a specific heritage or not that relates to the actual story. One of my favourite biographical books about the Saudi Royal family is The Kingdom (Robert Lacey) that came out many years ago, he didn't have to pretend he was Saudi and the tome wasn't sugar coated either due to the fact of him being non Arab.

Iain said...

Thank you, GOB, for pointing me in the direction of Theodore Dalrymple. It shames me that I had never come across him before. That he is not better known may tell us something about today's literary values.

It is heartening to know that George Orwell did not in fact die around the time I was born, but lives on in the pseudonymous person of Mr Dalrymple. ('Smelly little orthodoxies', incidentally, is an Orwellian coinage, but he would have been pleased to lend it to Mr Dalrymple.)

I was intrigued to read his account of the Rahila Khan scandal, because I remember it well from the time. I recall a radio discussion in which Toby Forward/Rahila Khan said that he chose to write under an assumed identity because he did not believe he would be published otherwise. Arguing against him was a woman who was clearly desperate to strangle him with his dog collar.

But I could do with more information on Virago's reaction to the revelation of Rahila Khan's true identity. I didn't know that they had actually pulped the unsold stock.

Dalrymple says that they made it clear that they still backed their literary judgment of the book. But this must be hypocrisy, mustn't it? Surely their actions could only be interpreted as meaning that they decided on reflection that it wasn't really any good after all.

For purposes of comparison, let's take a recent example of real literary fraud. A few years ago a Swiss man by the name of Grosjean published an account of the time he spent as a child in Auschwitz. It was all lies. Can't remember the details, but you could look it up on a search engine.

Now when the truth is revealed in such a case, you would fully expect the publisher to want to pulp all unsold copies, because this is fraud pure and simple.

But fiction is an entirely different matter. No publisher ever withdrew a novel on the grounds that it was all lies. If anyone can give any detail on Virago's stated reasons for pulping Forward/Khan's book, I'd be interested to hear them.

The truth, I fear, is all too clear. Orwell expressed it as 'four legs good, two legs bad.' Virago's version, I suspect, would be 'Asian woman good, Caucasian man bad.'

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Toby said...

on Theodore Dalrymple -- I'm near the end of 'Life at the Bottom' -- and I'm stunned by the clarity of thought, and great writing. Your link to a 'short biography' leads to someone else with the same name ... check them out.

I first heard Dalrymple interviewed on CBC Radio [I live in BC, Canada] and wanted to read him -- through interlibrary loan I was able to get Life at the Bottom, which I cannot praise too highly.

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