Category Archives: forms (to fill in)

Why we read and re-read the doctor-essayist

Dalrymple is identified by an acute English journalist (also a skilled and powerful debater), Peter Hitchens, as

one of the greatest men of our age [second item in Hitchens’s 6th August 2017 column in the UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday].

For decades, Hitchens reminds us, Dalrymple

worked in a major British jail, listening to the excuses and self-justifications of people who had done terrible things to others, and to themselves.

Refusing to follow fashion,

and genuinely concerned for these often very sad characters, he treated them as adults, urging them to take responsibility for their actions instead of offering excuses for them. Many, who had come to despise authority, were glad to be up against someone they could not easily fool.

Hitchens’s guess is that many of those Dalrymple treated

benefited greatly from his tough-minded approach. He didn’t fill them with pills or substitute one drug for another. His observations of the way heroin abusers feign terrible discomfort, after arriving in prison and being deprived of their drug, is both funny and a badly needed corrective to conventional wisdom.

All this, Hitchens notes, is to be found in the Dalrymple collection The Knife Went In (2017).

The title, a quotation from an actual murderer, is an example of the way such people refuse to admit they had any part in the crimes they commit. The knife somehow got there and went into the victim, by itself. It is a series of short, gripping real-life stories in which he recounts his experiences with our broken, lying penal system with its fake prison sentences and its ridiculous form-filling as a substitute for action.

The book is mainly about prisons and crime, but, says Hitchens,

it tells a deep truth about the sort of society we have become. It is one in which almost nobody is, or wants to be, responsible for anything.

Hitchens concludes:

A future historian, a century hence, will learn more about 21st-century Britain from this book than from any official document.

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Why it is practically a duty to lie to authorities

Irrespective, writes Dalrymple, of

the paperless world to which digitisation was supposed to give rise (though it does not seem that there is any less paper than there used to be), it has not reduced bureaucracy. The ease with which information may be gathered, or asked for, has brought inefficiencies and irritations of its own.

Any organisation, governmental or private,

may easily demand to know more about us than we wish to reveal. Our only defence against this prepotent intrusion is lying, which in the great majority of cases will go undetected and be without consequence.

Manual labour

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 23.18.56Many staff in state organisations and large commercial concerns are in the habit of substituting activity for work, or rather, placing their unproductive or antiproductive activity in the way of your work, activity in this context being defined by Dalrymple as

doing things for pay that one would not do unless paid to do them but which conduce to no useful end except filling time and giving the appearance of busyness to superiors. That is why bureaucrats don’t saunter down corridors, they scurry. A lot of what goes on in offices (and not just in the public sector) is activity in this technical sense rather than work. It is designed to give a false impression and to fill an existential void.

It would not matter so very much, writes Dalrymple, if such activity were a form of bureaucratic masturbation, of self-pollution, only.

But alas, it is not so.

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 23.35.42

A manager in the UK’s National Health Service plans his day

Others, and the work of others, must be polluted also. Activity

in my technical sense has a knock-on effect, imposing obligations on people with real work to do, for example by devising new forms for them to fill in the course of their work, slowing them down.

The information gathered on such forms

is rather like old holiday snaps, never looked at again.

However,

if bureaucrats are told to work even harder, they indulge in meta-activity; they devise procedures to discover whether their previous procedures are being complied with. This becomes a labyrinth from which there is no extrication, the bourn from which no traveller returns.

...and let us get on with some real work.

…and leave us to get on with the real work.

Therefore Dalrymple would prefer it if municipal and state bureaucrats (other than rat catchers, hospital porters, and street cleaners) were idler.

They get in the way enough as it is; to insist that they fill every minute of their time with activity is to court further useless paperwork and obstructionism.