There’s nowt so queer as folk

Travelling to the Persian Gulf, Dalrymple visits one of the Trucial States. Here he observes with great interest a procession of flagellators.


A Mussolinian end for Erdoğan

That is what a friend of Dalrymple’s foresees. But Dalrymple points out that

a bad end is often also a bad beginning.

At Istanbul Atatürk Airport, Dalrymple finds the crowd

very interesting to observe.

On the one hand

are the women who are dressed in a strange fashion that I have not noticed anywhere else in the Muslim world: a kind of long and shapeless gabardine sack of the most negative possible allure in the dullest of shades, that of concrete in the rain, that makes women look like a harvest of potatoes. By comparison with this, the burqa is attractive and elegant.

On the other hand

are the young men and women bearing tattoos. There has been a sudden explosion in their numbers: I noticed an increase in the last year alone since I was last there.

What is happening? Dalrymple says:

It looks as if people are digging themselves into one of two incompatible identities, rather as they seem to be doing in many other countries. I sense that it will end badly.

A human triumph

Port of Antwerp

The port of Antwerp, Dalrymple notes,

is the centre of a vast chemicals industry.

The industrial landscape, he writes,

has romance and beauty, though ecologists, observing the smokes of many colours emerging from the forest of tapering chimneys, would see nothing but the death of wildlife and the production of the canopy or pall of pink-gray-mauve that covers so much of the earth’s surface, the price of industrial abundance.

Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia

By contrast, the chimneys and their plumes of smoke

would have delighted the inconographers of communism, who would have regretted only that it was capitalism, not communism, that created them.

Antwerp port’s

immensity, its concentrated ingenuity, intelligence, and industry, is best seen from aerial photographs. One sees the first artificial dock: it was constructed under the orders of Napoleon, who recognised the strategic importance of Antwerp in the imposition of his Continental System on Britain, a system that the European Union, in order to survive, will have to try to impose (under different guise) once more. Napoleon bestrode the world, and his struggle with Britain seemed titanic, of world-historical importance, to all involved, and to historians ever after.

Antwerp, Dalrymple points out, is not even among the largest 15 ports by tonnage: Rotterdam is at least half as big again. Antwerp’s port training school educated the chief executive of the port of Shanghai, it is true.

It is humbling to gain a glimpse of the scale of human practical intelligence.

Bonaparte disembarks at Antwerp

Belgium, says Dalrymple,

is a conundrum. It functions though it is dysfunctional.

The Continental System

Port of Rotterdam

Port of Shanghai

Like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board

The essays of Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple,

often combine delicacy with irony—a combination that few writers, especially in our times of stridency and parti pris, achieve.

Dalrymple cites the opening of Leys’ An Introduction to Confucius:

If we consider humanity’s greatest teachers of wisdom—the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus—we are struck by a curious paradox: today, not one of them could obtain even the most modest of teaching posts in any of our universities.

Leys goes on to explain:

The reason is simple: their qualifications are insufficient—they have published nothing.

In two sentences, writes Dalrymple, Leys

has pinned, like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board, the bureaucratic sickness that has overtaken our institutions of higher learning (and not only those institutions). There is no madness more difficult to treat than that which believes itself sane, and there is no irrationality greater than that which believes itself perfect.

It is no surprise that Leys

retired early from his university chair because the university no longer bore any resemblance to what it had once been, and misled students and the rest of society into believing it still was. A community of scholars had become an organisation of foremen on a production line.

Western intellectuals and the Maoist tyranny

Communist dictatorships, Dalrymple points out,

were at their most popular among Western intellectuals while they still had the courage of their brutality. Once they settled down to grey, everyday oppression and relatively minor acts of violent repression (judged by their own former standards), they ceased to attract the extravagant praises of those intellectuals who, in their own countries, regarded as intolerable even the slightest derogation from their absolute freedom of expression.

It is as if, he says,

not dreams but totalitarian famines and massacres acted as the Freudian wish-fulfilment of these Western intellectuals. They spoke of illimitable freedom, but desired unlimited power.

Mao Zedong, Dalrymple notes,

was the blank page or screen upon which they could project the fantasies that they thought beautiful.


was a long way off, its hundreds of millions of peasants inscrutable but known to be impoverished and oppressed by history; its culture was impenetrable to Westerners without many years of dedicated and mind-consuming study.

Western sinologists,

almost to a man, upheld the Maoist version of the world, some of them for fear of losing their access to China if they did not, and thereby created the impression that Maoism was intellectually and morally respectable. And so perfect conditions were laid for the most willing and total suspension of disbelief.

Mao’s Thoughts

— that is to say, clichés, platitudes, and lies — were treated by intelligent and educated people as if they were more profound, and contained more mental and spiritual sustenance, than Pascal’s.

As so often before,

mere reality as experienced by scores of millions of people was of little interest to intellectuals by comparison with the schemata in their minds and their own self-conception. ‘Let the heavens fall so long as I feel good about myself’ was their motto.

J.K. Galbraith: either a naïf or a knave

A blackguard — or a bloody fool

Anyone visiting China, writes Dalrymple, especially during the Cultural Revolution,

who took official declarations at face value


at best naïve and at worst a knave.

Dalrymple notes that when it comes to communist China,

a whole genre, a whole library, of books of so-called eyewitness testimony is utterly worthless. The economist J.K. Galbraith wrote one of them.

Galbraith was one of the countless Western authors who

visited China without experiencing it.




Life is far too short

Dalrymple writes:

The life of Man being but three score years and ten, nothing on earth would induce me to read Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her electoral defeat.

If he had two millennia rather than only two years to go, he would not read it. In fact, he says,

no memoir by any modern politician would tempt me to read it, since the main characteristic of such politicians is mediocrity tempered by unbridled ambition and lust for power. Better to reread Macbeth. Hillary Clinton, after all, is Lady Macbeth to Bill Clinton’s Felix Krull, the confidence trickster.

Indentured labourers of the Gulf

Dalrymple acknowledges that his sympathy for the expatriate Dravidian workers of the Gulf states is

self-indulgent, for I know that I will forgo nothing, and do nothing, for them.

Instead, as he dines in a fine Lebanese restaurant, he controls his feelings and

I tell myself what is true — that they have elected to come, and doing so must represent an improvement or opportunity. Even if their passports are held as ransom, it is the life that they have chosen.

Small as the remuneration of the Kerala peons might seem, they send much of it home,

to support a family, to build a house, to start a business.

Is this helotry unfair? Dalrymple points out that fortune

does not distribute its favours in any ethically rational way.

If the system were ended,

hundreds of thousands of people (and their dependents) would lose a chance of betterment of their lives.

There are, says Dalrymple,

desiderata more important than justice.

Dalrymple’s Dictionary of Debased Modern English



This word, Dalrymple writes, is in Europe today used

to denote attempts by governments to align more closely (not absolutely) their expenses with their incomes. It would be as accurate to call a rich miser profligate with his money if he bought a loaf of bread.

Using the right terminology, says Dalrymple, would not settle the question of whether attempts to balance the government budget were economically wise or foolish, but

a proper discussion can hardly begin while spending only 3% or 4% more than one’s income rather than, say, 8% or 10% is regarded as some kind of sadomasochistic or penitential asceticism.

All terminology is flawed, no doubt, but

some terms are more flawed than others—and some amount to full-blown and highly motivated lies.

‘None of the news that disturbs our smugness’ is the Guardian’s motto

Not only, writes Dalrymple, is the Guardian

the sole remaining daily newspaper in Britain whose content is mostly devoted to serious matters, it is the only one that the unacknowledged legislators of the world, the intelligentsia, take seriously.

This, he explains,

is a disaster for the country. Though it occasionally allows a dissenting voice, the Guardian has consistently advocated a demoralisation of the population, followed by increased state intervention and, of course, public spending to alleviate the consequences of that demoralisation. No wonder the BBC [the British state broadcaster] advertises for personnel exclusively in its pages.

Surrounding the newspaper’s content is

an aura of dishonesty and evasiveness.

Its writers aim to avoid

something they had rather not acknowledge: the need to think, in particular about the unrealistic presuppositions of their worldview. Not ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ but ‘None of the news that disturbs our liberal smugness and sense of moral superiority’ is the motto of the Guardian.