Theodore Dalrymple: To Judge By Appearances

March 1, 2012

New English Review:

When I was young I wanted to be a bohemian when I grew up. I cannot quite recall how and why I formed this ambition. I suppose bohemianism seemed to be both a way of asserting my individuality (it did not occur to me that bohemians were just as much a herd as an other) and of doing God’s glorious work, which was annoying the grown-ups.

I suppose my model was Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet. He, it seemed to me, had lived as a free man ought to live. This conclusion could only have been drawn by someone who actually knew rather little about his life; and certainly I never had a vocation for excessive drinking. When I reached the age at which I was free to drink as much as I liked, or had money for, I soon discovered that I did not really like the feeling of drunkenness; particularly disagreeable was the sensation when one went to bed that the ceiling above was going round and round. I was fortunate enough also to suffer severely from hangovers, and since (quite apart from the unpleasantness of the hangover itself) I have always been attached to clarity of mind, in so far as I have been able to achieve it, I abjured drunkenness, at least in any regular form. I did not, however, foreswear alcohol altogether; and now not a day goes past, at least unless I happen to be in a place like Somalia, when I do not drink – in moderation.

Dylan Thomas’ life (minus the drink, if such a thing can be imagined) seemed a model. At the time, I would not have understood John Malcolm Brinnin’s assertion (in his book, Dylan in America) that his life was just plain boring, meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis following meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis. The important thing in life was to cock a snook, almost irrespective of the target.

But Dylan Thomas was the real thing, a man of talent if not of genius. Perhaps there is something too theatrical for modern tastes about his public reading of his poems, but I at least am still moved by it. The emotion in his voice and in his lines is real, not bogus; and if his life sometimes seemed almost a caricature of itself, this at least was genuine. I do not see how anyone with even the most minimal feeling for poetry could fail to be stirred, for example, by his In My Craft or Sullen Art. Fifty-eight years after his death, his frequently disgraceful behaviour seems a small thing to set against the achievement.

Incidentally, and a propos of nothing, his grave in Laugharne church cemetery, in South-West Wales, is one of the most moving graves known to me. It consists of a mound with a simple white cross, painted (and no doubt regularly re-painted) with his name and dates. Beside it, in exactly the same form, is the grave of his wife, Caitlin, with whom he had a passionate cat-and-dog relationship. ‘Reunited’ does not seem so ridiculous a cliché here, though Caitlin survived her husband by forty years. Perhaps it is partly because I love the landscape of that part of the country so much that I can return to Laugharne cemetery and know that I shall be overtaken by pleasantly melancholic sorrow.

I did not come from a bohemian family, far from it. My mother went to the theatre often, including to all the supposedly shocking new plays, but this was mere diversion from her own unhappiness. I had one bohemian cousin, who lived in Paris for a time, moved among poets, write a little poetry, and had a brief affair with Richard Wright (of Native Son fame); but she did not have, nor was she allowed to have, much influence on my life.

Alas, as I grew up the times became less and less propitious for real bohemianism. There were a number of reasons for this.

The first was economic: cheap garrets and boarding houses disappeared. Increasing wealth, luxury and housing regulation meant that no one any longer could or was permitted to live in a single room without proper heating, lighting or plumbing. The areas in which bohemians had once gathered were either gentrified, or – to indulge in neologism – millionairified. It is difficult, not much fun, and possibly even slightly dangerous, to be a bohemian in a dingy lifeless suburb without real bars, full of people with nine-to-five jobs trudging to and from work every day. The effect of the demise of the boarding house upon English literature has never been fully documented, but I suspect that it was devastating. No doubt boarding houses with their imperious, mean-spirited, prurient, tolerant landladies had their disadvantages from the point of view of raw physical comfort; but they relieved countless people from the sapping tedium of looking after themselves. They allowed people the greatest luxury of all, the one that we have forgotten: time.

But while real bohemianism has become difficult or impossible – it has gone the way of genteel poverty which, alas, no longer exists or is possible, if only because rents are now too high in the areas where the genteelly poor once gathered – a kind of bogus bohemianism has become the rule. In a sense, everyone is a bohemian now.

Walk down any street in the western world and try to estimate the proportion of people dressed in a conspicuously bourgeois manner. Except possibly in the financial centres (and Swiss cities) it will be very low. The great majority of people whom you pass in the street will be dressed in a manner which, sixty years ago, would have been thought bohemian. And this is so despite the fact that one of the principal past-times of enormous numbers of people is shopping for clothes. It is as if they are studiously sloppy.

Naturally, sloppiness in dress is a convention like any other: for if there is one thing that human beings cannot escape, other than death and taxes, it is convention. So the question is not whether a certain form of behaviour is conventional, but whether it represents a good convention.

I am glad to be able to report that, on the question dress I have changed my mind completely. I am glad to be able to report it because it demonstrates, to myself if to no others, that I am not totally inflexible mentally. Evidence, reason and reflection can still cause me – occasionally – to change my mind, even if it takes me many years to do so…

Read it all.

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