The final (and by far the juiciest) installment of my long conversation with the brilliant Theodore Dalrymple. Architecture, music, humour, the Eagles of Death Metal, Schubert.
AV: You’ve written about architecture on many occasions and I know how you feel about Le Corbusier and Brutalism and the like. From a more positive point of view, do you have a favourite architect or at least a style?
TD: No, not really. You see, I’m not an architect. I’m not sure I could build anything very well. All I can say is, for example, in the city of Birmingham there is a little area that modern architects have built that is modern – it’s clearly not of any other date or era but our own – and yet it’s highly civilised. And it’s a very small area and it’s pleasant to be in it. And I can think of very, very few equivalent places. It’s fairly humane architecture on quite a large scale, it’s not just sweet, tiny little cottages, it’s office buildings. But it’s extremely pleasant. Unfortunately, though there is this example before them, the architects in that city and many other cities continue to build completely inhuman… and it’s almost as if they want to be inhuman. And incidentally, as it happens, today I’ve been writing an article about music. Well, not about music but about a man who survived the Bataclan massacre in Paris. A history teacher and obviously an intelligent man. I don’t agree with all of his political views but he is obviously intelligent and thoughtful. Now, the kind of music that he likes – and he is 40, he is not a child anymore, he is not an adolescent, he is 40 – he thinks that the group called the Eagles of Death Metal is wonderful and he describes how at a second concert that he goes to one of the chaps in this band is drunk and drugged, he breaks the strings of his guitar, he sings badly – he is out of tune, insofar as there is a tune – and he is completely in accord with the audience. Well, this seems to me like a Walpurgisnacht. This is a kind of Black Mass of music. It was quite interesting. I didn’t know anything about the Eagles of Death Metal – I think the name alone tells you quite a lot. For some reason, when I looked it up on YouTube – you know when you look up things on YouTube other things come up as well, suggestions – and for some reason it was Horowitz playing a Schubert Impromptu.
AV: What prompted the YouTube algorithm to suggest Schubert?
TD: Well, maybe I had looked at Schubert before. I could stand about a minute, not even a minute, really, of the Eagles of Death Metal and I looked at Schubert. Listening to Schubert had the same effect on my mind as a shower has on my body after I’ve been involved in something dirty. The point about this is that the man that I am writing about is not an unfortunate who comes out of the slums of Paris, where people don’t have any hope, the education is terrible and there are no jobs and so on. On the contrary, he is well educated, he is intelligent, in a certain way cultivated, and yet he likes this almost satanic music – if that’s what you call it. And I thought, ‘This is a culture that is really in danger.’ I’m talking about the upper 5% of the population as far as knowledge and education are concerned.
AV: Yes, if history teachers listen to the Eagles of Death Metal…I agree that it’s a ridiculous band name and thought of an even more hilarious one. I don’t know anything about their music but from the name of the band I already know what to expect and I’ve protected myself from it. The name of the band is I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness.
TD: Well, in a way that’s what they’ve done, they’ve chosen darkness! ‘Evil be thou my Good.’ ‘Ugliness, be thou my beauty.’ And architects have done the same.
AV: Do you know why? After writing so much on the problem, have you come closer to the answer why it happened?
TD: I suspect part of the problem is this kind of romantic cult of originality.
AV: Originality at all costs?
TD: At all costs, yes. Originality as a virtue in itself. Like many virtues, it’s not a virtue in itself. There’s nothing easier than to be original. As Dr Johnson said of a book, he spoke to the author and he said, ‘Your book is both good and original but the parts which are original are not good and the parts which are good are not original.’
AV: What do you call this kind of compliment that’s not really a compliment?
TD: A backhanded compliment. In fact, it’s not a compliment at all, of course.
AV: On the surface it sounds a little bit like a compliment but it’s actually a terrible blow.
TD: Utter condemnation! It’s like Disraeli – he was at a large public dinner, at the end of the meal they served some champagne and he said, ‘Thank God for something warm at last!’
AV: British humour at its best! But you’ve also written about the decline on British humour.
TD: Yes, I think partly because of political correctness. Politicians now are afraid to make a joke because someone will take it seriously or claim to be offended. People like to be offended, actually. They like to feel offended. Or they like to feel that they feel offended. It’s all very dishonest. But of course if they are outraged, I suppose they feel they must be good people, because only good people feel outraged. When I was growing up almost every class of person spoke in a slightly ironical fashion. I remember – this was a very fine example of it, I think. I was speaking to a patient – he was a taxi driver – and I asked him to describe his childhood and I said, ‘Where did you live?’ and he gave the address. And then he said, ‘We lived there until Adolf Hitler moved us on.’ What he was describing was his house being bombed!
AV: But with a stiff-upper-lip attitude.
TD: And a detachment! Which of course makes it much easier to accept it – not in the sense that it is a good thing – but to bear it and to overcome it. I don’t think there’s anything like that now. It still exists a bit. I think that humour is in decline.
AV: I want to ask you about your musical tastes. You mentioned Schubert. Is he your favourite composer?
TD: Well, one of them. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn. I’m afraid it’s a fairly conservative kind of taste. I haven’t been for a long time, but I used to go to the opera fairly often. I used to know lots of classical musicians when I was younger. People would say, ‘Your dislike of the Eagles of Death Metal is just prejudice against what seems to be demotic.’ But that’s not so. One of the things about a lot of Western popular music is that it seems so completely savage to me by comparison with the popular music of almost any other area of the world. The man writing the book I told you about says that he went to this concert, where they were singing of fun and sex. And then he says, ‘In other words, Life.’ Well, this seems to me a very crude view of what life is. And certainly of music. What about love rather than just sex? Or happiness rather than fun? And it seems to me that the connection between love and sorrow of course and so on is much stronger, shall we say, in African popular music now than in our music. So it is actually we who have become uncivilised in this respect. The same is true of Arabic music or Indian music or Latin American music. It may not be my favourite music but it doesn’t have this hatred of life that this horrible Eagles of Death Metal, et al. – I mean they’re not the only ones, they’re not even the worst ones. They are far from the worst. I mean, I was once sent by a newspaper to one of the worst. This particular group specialised in urinating over the audience while calling the audience ‘You motherfuckers.’ There were thousands of people who wanted to go to this. I mean, they were not musically accomplished. What on earth is going on that people want this? Another one I went to – this was in Glasgow. They sent me to go. This time I identified myself as someone who is going to write about the so-called concert for a newspaper. So the first thing the press secretary did was to give me some earplugs. I said, ‘Does this not strike you as a little odd that you give someone earplugs who is supposed to listen to the music and report on it?’ And he said, ‘This is normal, it’s to prevent the tinnitus after.’ Well, what kind of world is that? And that’s the world I think that probably your prisoners are largely living in. Musically, anyway. It’s not that I’m completely close minded. It’s just that I think that some things are horrible.
AV: They are horrible and honesty is the best policy. But too few people think that way.
TD: The other thing that’s very interesting is that when I wrote about this – I used to write a column in a Belgian newspaper – and I said something about this, I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was probably very similar to what I’ve said to you – and they produced howls of outrage! There is no subject on which people feel so deeply, actually.
AV: Than the vulgarity of their music?
TD: Yes, they don’t like being told that their music is vulgar. It’s worse than telling someone that he smells. Except that I was telling hundreds of thousands of people that they smell.
AV: You’ve mentioned that you found your popularity in Brazil very surprising. And people from Brazil have told you that they recognize everything that they’ve read in your books from their own lives in poor parts of Brazilian metropolises. When I read your writings on architecture, I immediately recognized my own surroundings from my childhood in Sofia. I was surrounded by Soviet-style Brutalist tower blocks. And it made me appreciate more the humanity of traditional Bulgarian architecture, for example from the mid to the late 19th century. We call it the Bulgarian Revival. When I read your thoughts on Brutalism, it opened my eyes to the warmth of this much more humane style of building. And it struck me immediately that these beautiful houses from the mid 19th century in rural Bulgaria were built by unschooled people, by peasants. A merchant would pay the most skilled artisan to design and build a house. And then a hundred years later, professional architects and construction engineers educated in Sofia and maybe even Moscow would come up with these monstrosities. And they are still there.
TD: And the worst of it is that people will not admit what has been done. I’m in Paris at the moment. It’s very difficult to think of a single building after the Second World War which does not detract from the beauty of the city. It’s difficult to think of any. There are hundreds which are monstrous. They are not even monstrous just because they are huge. Some of them are only the same size as 19th century buildings. But they are hideous. And they’ve done this with the example before them. Before their very eyes they can see what has been done before. Of course, people say, ‘We can’t build in the same way.’ – for various reasons, materials, the cost of labour, or whatever it is – but that’s a different argument from saying that it’s good architecture.
AV: I don’t understand this. Of course, I’m not an architect. But if it’s possible to build a brand new place like Dubai from scratch, how is this less difficult than building a new Bath or a new Florence?
TD: I don’t know. You’ll be interested to know that in the 1950s the council of Bath wanted to pull it all down. They wanted to build a sort of Novosibirsk-on-Avon. And they would have succeeded if the population had not sufficiently protested. As it is, they’ve managed to destroy Brighton. And this has happened all over. In Britain, after the Second World War, there was of course a lot of bomb damage, but much of it could have been repaired. But they didn’t want to repair it. If you take Coventry, for example. Coventry was one of the finest medieval cities in Europe. True, it was bombed. And what they’ve built now is a kind of World Heritage site of modernist monstrosity. Unbelievably awful. It’s so awful, it’s almost comical. It’s almost funny. Except, of course, that people have to live in it. What is to me extraordinary is that the architectural profession refuses to see what has been done. Or to admit it.
AV: Within the realm of music, there are fashions. Short-lived fashions. And they are forgotten very quickly. I think that’s our only consolation. But in architecture, it stays.
TD: Yes. If I were to write a very bad poem, no one would have to read it. But if I build a very bad large building, people can’t avoid it.
AV: You don’t have to listen to my music, but if I build something across the street from you, it’s now part of your life forever.
TD: Well, until it’s pulled down and it will be replaced by something even worse.