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.

Comrades in Hollywood

Trumbo, dir. Jay Roach
Reviewed by Aleksandar Vasilkov

I had a vague idea of who Dalton Trumbo was before I saw this film. As a penniless student in Copenhagen, I was expected to be working on my thesis on Aldous Huxley, but instead spent my days busking and my evenings bartending. Still, from time to time I managed to read a book by or on Huxley, and I learned about his brief spell as an outrageously overpaid screenwriter in Hollywood. Fascinated as I was, and still am, by Hollywood, I read more about its origins, structure, and internal mechanics. I discovered that screenwriters are unionized in a guild. I discovered that some of them were even members of the Communist Party USA. 

Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten – writers and directors accused of Communist sympathies or downright membership of the Communist Party USA. These men were blacklisted, barred from work, subpoenaed, fined, jailed. Their careers were destroyed, and some even died in the midst of the ordeal. After many years of writing anonymously or under other authors’ names, Trumbo was finally recognized as the author of his own work.

We are at the outset of the Cold War and another Red Scare is brewing in America. Dalton Trumbo, a successful and wealthy Hollywood screenwriter, turns out to be a devoted Communist willing to offer a serious fight in defence of his beliefs (He may be delusional about Communism, but it is his right to be delusional). The Hollywood establishment quickly organizes to crush him. Snide remarks, flippant Dosvidanyas in front of his children. Anonymous threats from neighbours. Subpoenas from Congress, jail. Cranston is extremely convincing as a loving, if distant, father and husband who risks it all in the pursuit of what he believes is right (major Breaking Bad flashbacks). Dame Helen Mirren is marvelous as the main antagonist. John Goodman is as funny as ever in a small role. 

This film is a reflection on the potent power of paranoia, the tendency to see enemies everywhere, to stir up scares, to bully and silence. It is a must-see for anyone serious about freedom of speech and freedom of expression.


I think NFTs are an incredible opportunity for musical artists to put out new, interesting music and reach interesting audiences. I think of NFTs as a vehicle for creating meaningful artistic value. Exciting stuff.

Whales Weep Not by D.H. Lawrence (read by Dylan Thomas)

I hope you enjoy this powerful poem by a very, very strong poet.

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea!

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.
Then the great bull lies up against his bride
in the blue deep of the sea

as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:
and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale blood
the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and comes to rest
in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s fathomless body.

And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the wonder of whales
the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and forth,
keep passing archangels of bliss
from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim
that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the sea
great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.
And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-tender young
and dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of the beginning and the end.

And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring
when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood
and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat
encircling their huddled monsters of love.
and all this happiness in the sea, in the salt
where God is also love, but without words:
and Aphrodite is the wife of whales
most happy, happy she!

and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin
she is the gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea
she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males
and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.

Ne pas céder sur son désir

Mr Lubomir Terziev from the American University in Bulgaria has written an enlightening and revealing review of my album Cassis. We artists need this kind of guidance and I am forever grateful. Here it is:

Cassis: Ne pas céder sur son désir

Centuries before Horace came up with his famous ut pictura poesis (as in painting, so in poetry), Simonides of Ceos formulated the same similarity between poetry and painting in much more specific terms: “Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens” (poetry is a speaking picture, painting silent poetry.”

I am not much of a believer in the continuity between the semiotic systems of the different arts, and yet if I were to extend Simonides’ analogy, I would say that music could sometimes work as a “painting of sound.” This phrase represents accurately my response, on the level of affect (blended, inevitably, with cultural memory), to Alexander Kyd’s album Cassis.

The fluttering guitar chords in the eponymous opening piece – Cassis – transport me to a grassland area in the summer. The tall green blades lean to one side pressed gently by the breeze. I wish this picture were a product of my own imagination, but I should admit it is evoked by the memorable grassland scene in Tarkovsky’s Mirror.

With a Wordsworthean “gentle shock of mild surprise,” Pegasi I pushes me uphill towards a peak that I may never reach. It’s as if a force, physical rather than mystical, carries me on, and I cannot resist it. Not that I want to. In Pegasi II, the climb is over, and the trumpet makes me see myself in an armchair amidst a well cultivated yet natural garden. I am filled with sweet nostalgia over the peak I never reached.

Faithful to its title, Sever wrests my mind out of the embrace of memory and brings me back to a present bond with the world out there. This time I see myself on the shores of a lake. The waters are alluringly still. I am blissfully alone, and yet I expect, with a hardly perceptible anxiety, the remote voices at the beginning of the piece to re-appear. They never do.

The voices do re-appear towards the end of These Waters Remember I. That’s all the comfort I need. I don’t need physical human presence, just a trace of it. I am transfixed. Now I don’t want to move away from the lake (no peaks, no seas can tempt me). I remember Horace’s dictum “Caelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt” (They change the sky, not their soul, those who travel across the sea). I am self-sufficient and content to contemplate the unruffled surface of the lake. Don’t give me any fake depth, please. Thank God, the other three parts of These Waters Remember, despite the occasional screeching pizzicatos in Part IV, satisfy my yearning for the calming depth of the surface. The voices at the end of the “water” sequence come as a rewarding repetition of the human trace.

Fountains Fraught with Tears gently ruptures my peace on the shores of the lake. What bugs me is the surplus of harmony. Questions creep up in my mind. Why am I here? May I be missing out on something in the world beyond the lake? Do I need “real” human presence?

Obsidian, the last piece in the album, comes to prove that the best cure for surplus is surplus. With its uncompromisingly repetitive leitmotif and, towards the end, with the echo which sounds like ghostly human voices, Obsidian seems to be telling me: “Stay put near the lake! Don’t you dare blame yourself for your jouissance!”

Lubomir Terziev

03 August 2020

Do these rays heal?

Mr Lubomir Terziev, who teaches literature and creative writing at the American University in Bulgaria, has written a review of Rays that Heal which I find interesting and illuminating. Here it is:

Do these rays heal?

As a form of artistic expression, minimalism relies on one of the following effects:

a) the “less is more” technique leaves the reader/viewer/listener with enough space for interpretation. Think of Lydia Davis’ flash fiction hiatuses or Giya Kancheli’s unexpected silences. As one of my favourite lit teachers used to say, such works of art “begin when they end.”

b) repetition invites the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s mind to actively pursue the signs of difference in the sameness established by, say, that several-minute-long shot with the rain refracting the neon light in the background in Bela Tar’s Damnation. Ditto the solid, mural-like soundscape of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Such works of art are designed, I think, to never begin and never end.

Alexander Kyd’s minimalistic composition “Rays that Heal” seeks to constitute itself in the space of repetition. It is always an elusive space, but what makes it particularly precarious in this case is that it hangs between two identifications. On the one hand, the gentle and unruffled riffs of Kyd’s guitar, which recall the serenity of Baroque composers like Corelli, could lull the listener into perceiving this piece as yet another composition that adds to the overwhelmingly vast and underwhelmingly predictable “music for meditation and relaxation” category on YouTube. There is no daring experimentation with harmony here, and the listener’s spirit is left, as it were, to frolic in subtly melancholic delight. Hence, the healing.

A second, more careful listening yields a different vista. There is a tension between repetition and variation in Rays which stimulates the mind to discover the less than comforting dimension of this music. The dialogue between the guitar in the foreground and the orchestral echo in the background reminded me of Deleuze’s astute observation that “variation is not added to repetition in order to hide it, but is rather its condition or constitutive element, the interiority of repetition.” It is this inherently dynamic dimension of repetition that I’d rather take away from Rays. I can use some healing, but I’d rather be healed by failing to identify with an origin and a closure.

Give me repetition anytime.

Rays that Heal

A new piece of music is ready and will be released soon. Its title is Rays that Heal (there is a pun somewhere and I hope you’ll be able to detect it). David Llewellyn produced it, the talented artist Gerry Aneva created the beautiful artwork, and your humble servant wrote and recorded it on a portable Tascam recorder. Judah Armani and Tim Howarth at InHouse Records provided spiritual support, for which I am grateful. I will release it on Bandcamp soon and I expect it to hit the streaming platforms about six weeks later. Rays that Heal is intended to have a soothing and calming effect, which is obviously much needed these days.

Doni & Momchil

Doni & Momchil were a Bulgarian pop duo active throughout the 90s. Doni is a remarkably gifted vocalist, while Momchil is a brilliant, prolific composer and producer. Even their silliest pop tunes are very well-crafted. Here I’m reimagining one of their tracks as a dreamy guitar loop. I am naming this style Post-Nylon music. Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more!


Julia by Emil Dimitrov – an iconic pop tune from the 70s – reimagined as a slow, dreamy loop. I like doing this to old tunes. Next on my list are some more Bulgarian pop standards (tracks by Tangra, Doni&Momchil, Atlas, etc.), a handful of songs by Ostava (my favourite Bulgarian band), and – why the hell not! – a few chalga anthems.