September 2005: The end of virtuous Albion by Theodore Dalrymple
My wife, who is French, has lived in England for twenty-five years. When she arrived, she was both surprised and favorably struck by, among other things, the comparative uninterest, even of the rich, in material comfort and pleasures, and by the uprightness and straightforwardness of the public administration. Her subsequent career as a doctor was spent treating old people, and she developed a great respect for the British character as exhibited by her patients. Among their virtues, which visitors to our shores earlier in the century had also noted, were politeness, lack of self-importance, stoicism, fortitude, emotional self-control, and an ironic detachment from their own experience, especially when it was unpleasant. Irrespective of their social class, they had dignity, self-respect, and a fundamental integrity. Their virtues far outweighed their vices.
My medical experience of my older compatriots bears out this impression completely. I remember at the beginning of my career serving for a short time as a doctor in a rural area, where one day an old man called me out to his home. He had had rectal bleeding for some weeks, and by now had lost so much blood and was so weak that he had difficulty in raising himself from the sofa on which he was lying.
“I tried for as long as I could not to bother you, doctor,” he said, “but I can’t manage it any longer.”
What he meant by this strange but moving little speech—strange, for what could a doctor like me possibly have been doing that was more urgent than attending to someone like him?—was, “I am not so important that I expect others to dance attendance on me.” This kind of humility is not much in fashion nowadays, to put it mildly, because so few people are able any longer to distinguish between humility and subservience, convinced as they have become that the exercise of power is the only important or real relation that exists or can have ever have existed between men. We are all Leninists now: and “Who whom?” (who does what to whom?) is the only question worth asking.