Category Archives: delicacy

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.

The questions some doctors wouldn’t dream of asking

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 18.15.41In John Buchan’s Sick Heart River (1941), Dalrymple explains, Sir Edward Leithen has been given a year to live by the Harley Street specialist Acton Croke.

A gas attack in the First World War has awakened tuberculosis as a delayed effect, and it is galloping through his lungs.

Although occurring only a handful of years before the discovery of streptomycin,

Sir Edward’s tuberculosis is a death sentence.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 18.21.02Presumably, writes Dalrymple, Sir Edward’s tuberculosis is of the open variety, yet the appropriately named Croke

never mentions the danger of spreading it to others or shows any interest in that possibility. Was it that, in those days, certain people were so socially prominent that doctors dared not suggest to them so vulgar a matter as contagiousness?

Something similar is related in Reginald Pound’s 1967 survey Harley Street, though in this case the specialist takes a more robust approach than the general practitioner:

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94 Harley Street

94 Harley Street, where Sir James Purves-Stewart practised. Here a church dignitary consulted the neurologist about syphilis-related symptoms of paralysis affecting his palate. (94 Harley Street was once the home of Meredith Townsend, successively editor of the Friend of India, the Calcutta Times and the Spectator, and author notably of the 1901 work Asia and Europe.)

How to run a business

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 19.26.09Dalrymple recalls this scene, of some time past, at his local fishmonger’s:

An old lady, a pensioner, wanted a piece of fish for her dinner. He wrapped it, gave it her, and told her the price. She handed over her purse to him and he, seeing that she had little money, deliberately took far less than the price he had named. “Thank you, madam,” he said on handing back the purse, exactly as if she had been his most valued customer. It was all done with the greatest delicacy, and obviously with a generous heart. His business was a successful one, and its success was a precondition of his being able to act on his generous impulse.