A Conversation with Theodore Dalrymple Part I

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist who is now a full-time writer. He happens to be one of my favourite living writers and it was an immense privilege to speak with him. I am not a professional journalist and it shows! TD is Theodore Dalrymple, AV is your humble servant.

AV: I just got back from the prison, by the way, where I had yet another heartbreaking clash with the bureaucracy of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

TD: Ah, yes!

AV: The language they use! English is my third language…

TD: Are you Bulgarian originally?

AV: I am half-Russian through my mother, but I was born and raised in Bulgaria, so I’m Bulgarian with a little bit of Russian, although my English, curiously, is better than my Russian because I’ve dedicated a huge part of my life (to) learning English and reading the literature. And let me just tell you right now that you, Sir, are one of my intellectual and literary heroes.

TD: I hope I don’t have feet of clay.

AV: Even though we completely disagree on D.H. Lawrence, in everything else I completely agree with you.

TD: It’s better to disagree about something than to agree about everything. Anyway, what did they do to you at the prison? All bureaucracies use this language, actually, now – the terrible language which…

AV: Abbreviations. Sometimes I think they don’t even know what they mean. And they just throw them out there in the ether and they expect me to know what is meant by this. 

TD: The point is to distinguish the sheep from the goats, the sheep being the ones who know what it means and the goats being those who don’t and, therefore, you are a pleb.

AV: This reminds me of what you wrote about A Clockwork Orange in your book Not With a Bang But a Whimper. The special slang that Burgess invents, just like any other slang, exists for purposes of exclusion. Well, they do manage to exclude me successfully. 

TD: I’d be very surprised if they didn’t.

AV: So, basically, I’m a musician but I took this job about 18 months ago. It’s an organization called InHouse Records, a Brighton-based organization which sends people like me – musicians with an interest in education – to work with prisoners. The hope is that music can help with prisoner rehabilitation. The theory and the basic principle that we follow and that inspires our work is that these men are in prison because they lack certain crucial skills and maybe through music those skills can be boosted. We refer to the three main skills – communication, adaptability and accountability. A lot of these men, as you know and don’t need me to tell you, lack a sense of personal accountability. They are not good communicators and when things change around them they don’t adapt. The theory is that music can help in all of these directions. The other guiding principle that we follow goes like this: “Focus on what is strong, not on what is wrong.” It’s supposed to mean that these men…they did commit terrible things, that’s not the question, the question is that they do have a certain skill set which potentially could be applied for better goals. It’s a slightly vulgar example, but it cannot be said that drug dealers are not entrepreneurial people. They are entrepreneurs. They are capable of hard work. They are capable of rising early in the morning…

TD: And their arithmetic is probably adequate.

AV: Exactly. The hope is that these skills can be used not for drug dealing but for other things. To be honest, I am not entirely convinced. I wanted to speak to somebody like you – with massive experience – and ask you for your thoughts on rehabilitation in general. Is it possible? If yes, how? If we succeed in doing it, how do we quantify it? When they ask me if what I do creates any meaningful change, I am not sure what to say. How do I quantify it? How do I measure it?

TD: Yes. Well, the first thing that I would say is that the idea of rehabilitation is in some way a bad one in that it implies, for example, being rehabilitated after an operation when your muscle has wasted and you have to do exercises in order to get it working again. Well, there isn’t anything wrong with people in the first place, in that sense, that needs rehabilitation. However, I don’t really want to get stuck over the words. With regard to your problem of trying to prove that it actually works – I don’t think you can prove that it works. Let me give you an example. In the prison in which I worked we had a writer who used to come in. He was a very nice man. He used to offer courses in writing to prisoners who were interested. And there were about half a dozen who joined the group or something like that. And what he said was extremely interesting to me. The reason he spoke to me was because the prison wanted to get rid of him. They were paying for him and they were trying to cut costs. And so he asked me to write a letter in support of him, which I did because I thought what he was doing was very good and of course that was the kiss of death as far as he was concerned – me supporting him! But anyway, what he said about the people he was teaching, tutoring, mentoring, whatever you want to call it, he found that what happened was when they started writing they wrote autobiographically, as most writers do, and they came to a point at which they stopped, they couldn’t go on. And that point was always the point at which they realized that the stories they’d been telling themselves – about their lives and about why they were doing the things they were doing – were false. And this was very hard for them. Eventually, they got over it. And now let us suppose that as a result of this experience they did start to behave better, or were rehabilitated. There are lots of problems with trying to prove it. They are a selected group of people who are already above average in some way to begin with. They are expressing an interest in something. There’s the question of age. If you look at the age at which prisoners are brought into prison for a new offence – by the age of 39 it almost disappears. So if you want to call it rehabilitation – they rehabilitate spontaneously! You don’t have to do anything, you just have to wait for the testosterone level to go down or whatever it is. They used to say, ‘I just can’t do my bird anymore’. They just didn’t want to continue doing it. Of course, there were exceptions. So you have to take that into account as well, if you’re trying to establish whether it works or not. And then you’d have to follow them up. And you’d have to have a control group whose main difference would be that they didn’t join the group. But if they didn’t join the group, they were probably prima facie different to begin with. It’s extremely difficult. Now, my argument in favour of this man was that he didn’t cost very much, it was not a major expenditure. And if what he did actually stopped one person from committing further offences, he had paid for whatever his cost was over and above his salary, which wouldn’t have been very great anyway. It seemed to me that this was worth taking a risk. But actually I don’t think a purely utilitarian attitude to it is right. I think it was right in itself to offer these prisoners something that enables them to expand their minds. As you know, I’m quite hard on prisoners. I’m not a sentimentalist. One of the things that I was struck by was that they were not deficient in intelligence. I know that there are people who do IQ tests and show that prisoners have got a lower-than-average IQ. All I can say is that I never had to adapt the way I spoke to them. I don’t know whether you found that, but I just spoke to them in the same way as I speak to you. I didn’t adapt my language for them specially because they were stupid. In my opinion, they were not stupid. I thought that actually one of their troubles was the terrible culture in which they lived and from which they came. Therefore, any attempt to widen, broaden their cultural outlook would be a good thing in itself. You could wait for it to have its effect and it would have its effect even after they stopped offending. I believe there was a BBC radio programme, it was unusually interesting and moving, actually. Some teachers went in to teach the prisoners a Bach cantata. And when they started off they thought that this was more or less the equivalent of homosexuality. But by the end they thought it was the most marvellous thing they had ever done. It wasn’t actually that they were incapable of appreciating something else, it was that it had never been offered to them. 

I had a similar idea in my prison in Birmingham. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which is a very good orchestra, were willing to come in for nothing to play string quartets to the prisoners. But of course the bureaucracy got in the way of that. The last thing a group of professionals want is somebody who is willing to come in and do something for nothing.

AV: When they fired Sir Roger Scruton you said the same thing.

TD: Yes. They hate that. It undermines professionalism – professionalism not in the sense of being good at a profession; professionalism in the sense of being able to extract money for their services. So it was very difficult. And if you were to say, ‘Well, how do you know if it did any good in the sense of rehabilitation, if you like, of course I had no idea whether it did them any good or not. But I think it would be a good thing to do it. And incidentally, and this might interest you as a musician, we had a man of Jamaican origin who was a prison officer. A very nice man, actually. Everyone liked him very much. He discovered himself that if he played Baroque music in the wing of which he was in charge, the prisoners began to behave very much better than if they were allowed to play their terrible rap music and so on. And here was a Jamaican, who after all was not culturally expected to like Baroque music, who realised the effect of music on people’s behaviour. This probably doesn’t help you very much. If I were in charge, say, and somebody says, “This man is coming in and teaching them music and how do you know that it does them any good in the sense that it prevents them from coming back into the prison,” I’d say I don’t really care all that much whether it does, because it’s impossible to know. Just because you can’t prove it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any effect. And the chances are it has a good effect. It’s more likely to have a good effect than a bad effect.