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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
Do Sties Make Pigs?
Summer 1995

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation. 

I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture. 

"A great shame about the war," I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. "Look at the city now."

"The war?" she said. "The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council. "

The City Council—the people's elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering's air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

First among the reasons for this large-scale architectural vandalism was the prolonged revulsion against all things Victorian. In Britain this was particularly pronounced after the war because for the first time it was unmistakably clear just how far the country had declined from its Victorian apogee of world power and influence: a decline made somewhat easier to bear, psychologically speaking, by the consistent, unabashed denigration not only of the Victorians themselves but of all their ideas and works as well.

I witnessed a striking example of this revulsion in my own household, My father, a communist and therefore predisposed to view the past in a lurid light, especially by comparison with the inevitable post-revolutionary glories to come, had bought several Victorian paintings at Sotheby's during the war for ten shillings each. (Communists are not necessarily opposed to taking advantage of a temporary depression in prices.) He kept them in the loft of the house. Then, one day in 1960, quite arbitrarily, he decided that they were taking up too much space—unlike the tins of fruit he had stockpiled during the Korean War in the expectation that it would escalate into the Third World War, and which were now beginning to explode, but which he kept forever. He took all the paintings except one and put them on a bonfire, an act which I knew even at the age of ten to be one of terrible barbarism. I begged him not to do it to give the paintings away if he didn't like them—but no, they had to be destroyed.

Then there was the modernist arrogance about not only the Victorian past but all the centuries that had gone before—my city swept away many eighteenth-century buildings along with Victorian and Edwardian ones. British architects finally caught up with the Italian futurist, Marinetti, who condemned the past without exception, who demanded a clean break with all that had gone before, who ridiculed all previous styles, and who worshiped only those attributes of modernity: speed and size. Among other schemes, he wanted to fill in the canals of Venice and replace the palazzi with modern factories.

But just as the Italy of his day was technologically backward, so the Britain of the modernizing architects was no longer in the vanguard, the palm for modernity having long since passed to America. The architects thought that modernity was a value that transcended all other virtues; they thought they could wake the country from its nostalgic slumber, dragging it into the twentieth century by pouring what seemed to them the most modern of building materials reinforced concrete—all over it. Hence, among many other crimes, they tore down the elegant Victorian wrought iron tracery of my city's main railway station, with its splendid arched roof over platforms and tracks, and built instead a brutalist construction of steel and soon-discolored concrete to a plan that proved no more practical or functional than the old.

My city was far from alone in having suffered the Bakuninite demolishing fervor of the modernizers (as Bakunin said, the urge to destroy is also a creative urge). Even small country towns have not escaped their notice: Huntingdon, Oliver Cromwell's birthplace, was provided with a ring road of such hideous and dysfunctional design, simultaneously rendering exit from and entry into the town difficult and dangerous, that architects and town planners around the world now study it as a warning. Shrewsbury, Darwin's birthplace and a town that for several centuries managed to combine the most diverse architectural styles, so that its town-scape as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts, has been ruined as an aesthetic experience by a few visually inescapable modern office blocks and multi-story car parks. It would be too depressing to list the English towns and cities marred by this treatment.

But it is public housing that exemplifies most clearly the ideas of those who transformed the British urban landscape during the 1950s and 1960s. Here the new aesthetics combined with socialist reforming zeal to produce a multilayered disaster. 

After the war, bien pensants universally agreed that pre-war British society had been grossly unjust. The working class, it was said, had been shamelessly exploited, as was manifest principally in Britain's great inequalities of income and its overcrowded housing. A sharply progressive income tax (which at one point reached 95 percent) would redress the inequalities of income, while slum clearance and the construction of large- scale housing projects would alleviate the housing problem. 

The middle class reformers thought of poverty wholly in physical terms: an insufficiency of food and warmth, a lack of space. How, they asked, could people come to the finer things in life if their basic requirements were so inadequately met? What could freedom mean (I remember my father asking) in the absence of decent housing conditions? Since social problems such as crime and delinquency (which we were soon to discover were in their infancy) were attributable to physical deprivation—to the environment rather than the criminal or delinquent—the construction of decent housing would solve all problems at once.

But what was decent housing? A civil servant, Parker Morris, provided the answer: a certain number of cubic yards of living space per inhabitant. The Ministry of Housing adopted the Parker Morris standards for all public housing; they governed the size and number of rooms—and that was all.

In the circumstances, who can be surprised that the architectural style, if style it can be called, of Le Corbusier came to dominate the construction of public housing, even though it had already proved disastrous in the one place, Marseilles, where Corbusier had been given full rein? It was the simplest and cheapest means of complying with the now-sacrosanct Parker Morris standards. Besides, Le Corbusier was a kindred spirit to bureaucrats and town planners—not just an architect but a visionary and would be social reformer; Of Paris he wrote: "Imagine all this junk, which until now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away, and replaced by immense clear crystals of glass, rising to a height of over 600 feet!" In this spirit, much of my city, especially the terraced housing of the working class, was cleaned off and carted away, to be replaced by Le Corbusier's " vertical city . . . bathed in light and air." Some light, some air! 

It occurred to no authority that perhaps more was being swept away than a mere dry crust. If the reformers had been right, the people who lived in such poor housing should remember the conditions with bitterness: but they don't. Even allowing for the roseate glow that the passage of time lends to experience, what my patients tell me of the streets where they grew up does not vindicate the reformers. 

True, the houses in which my patients lived often lacked the basic amenities now taken for granted: proper indoor plumbing, for example, They were cramped. And much of the terraced housing—known as two up-two-down—was aesthetically undistinguished. But with imaginative adaptation and improvement (now belatedly under way in what remains of such housing), more than adequate, even pleasing accommodation could have been produced without the wholesale destruction of communities that resulted from the indiscriminate demolitions of the fifties and sixties.

For as my patients tell me, a sense of community did exist in these streets of little red houses, to such an extent that people who came from more than a few streets away were regarded as strangers, almost as foreigners. No doubt the community feeling resulted in a certain small-mindedness, but it also meant that life was not then the war of permanently inflamed egos to be found in Corbusian housing projects—egos inflamed by the fact that the inhabitants have been, and continue to be, treated so transparently by social policy makers as faceless, interchangeable, passive ciphers that the only way to assert their individuality is to behave antisocially. I fight, therefore I am.

This sense of communally, now destroyed, allowed people to withstand genuine hardship—hardship that wasn't self-inflicted, like so much of today's. I remember a patient who described with great warmth the street in which he had lived as a child—"until," he added, "Adolf Hitler moved us on." What an admirable depth of character, uncomplaining in the face of misfortune, those few words convey! Nowadays the victim of such a bombing would be more likely to blame the government for having declared war on the Nazis in the first place. 

The housing projects were built at what (for Britain) was record speed, and whoever wants to see for himself the reductio ad absurdum of the materialist and rationalist conception of human life cannot do better than to visit one of these projects. The idea that happiness and well-being consist of the satisfaction of a few simple physical needs, and can therefore be planned on behalf of society by benevolent administrators, is here bleakly mocked. 

As the architects failed to foresee, the spaces between the vast, geometric shapes of the Corbusian apartment blocks act as wind tunnels, turning the slightest breeze into a hurricane. I know an old lady who has been blown over so many times that she no longer dares to do her own shopping. Nature itself is turned into one more source of hostility. Walkways are isolated and ill- lit, so that rapists may safely abduct: two of my patients were raped en route to my clinic in a walk-way not a hundred yards away. Notices planted in the grass around the apartment blocks of one housing project added to the Orwellian spirit of the place before they were ripped out by residents: DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS. IT IS AN AMENITY TO BE ENJOYED BY EVERYONE

As for the buildings themselves, they are, with a vengeance, Le Corbusier's "machines for living in"—though perhaps "existing in" would be more accurate. The straight line and the right angle reign supreme: no curves, no frivolous decorative touches, no softening materials add warmth to the steel, glass, and concrete. There is nothing that Mies van der Rohe, another dictator in architect's clothing, would have condemned as "aesthetic speculation." 

What do the tenants think of their apartment blocks? They vote with their urine. The public spaces and elevators of all public housing blocks I know are so deeply impregnated with urine that the odor is ineradicable. And anything smashable has been smashed. 

The people who inhabit these apartments are utterly isolated. All that connects them is the noise they make, often considerable, which permeates the flimsy walls, ceilings, and floors. They are likely to be unemployed and poorly educated, socialized neither by work nor by pastimes. Single mothers are housed here, guaranteeing the impoverishment of their children's social environment: and in Britain we are now into the second generation of children who know no other environment.

No civic or collective life is possible in such conditions, and so there are no standards of conduct: every man's whim is law, and the most physically powerful and ruthless is the one who sets the tone and makes the rules. When a patient of mine was suspended by her ankles from the window of her 11th- floor apartment by her jealous boyfriend, no one noticed or considered it his duty to intervene. She herself was unaware that there was anything morally reprehensible (as against merely unpleasant) about her boyfriend's conduct. 

It is true that when another patient of mine mountaineered down his apartment block from his 14th-floor apartment, the police asked me to visit to determine whether there was a medical explanation of his behavior. But what I found persuaded me that no desert hermit was ever more alone than the inhabitant of an English housing project.

My patient had spent the last few years of his life sniffing glue in his apartment. The water and electricity had been cut off for non payment. He lived in permanent darkness, his filthy curtains always drawn. His apartment no longer contained a stick of furniture, but in the middle of his living room—Parker Morris standard—was an old oil drum that he had used as a brazier to burn his furniture to keep warm. The embers of the last of his bed glowed faintly. 

Why, I asked, had he taken to the rope and climbed down the outer wall of his building? 

Because, he replied, he feared that his brazier might set fire to his apartment, and he wanted to test his escape route. 

And the other tenants of the block? I inquired. 

A slightly puzzled look flitted across his face. What did I mean? 

A dim apprehension that per haps the Parker Morris standards were not sufficient for gracious urban living eventually filtered into the minds of British officialdom. Their response? Community centers.

These too were built of concrete. Their large gray cheerless rooms were radically unheatable, unpleasantly cool even in summer. Their basements, which could have served as torture chambers, housed Ping-Pong tables. Anything stealable was stolen, whether it was of use to the thief or not: more for the practice, really. What, after all, does one do with a table tennis net in the absence of a table tennis table? It soon became clear that the formula Parker Morris plus Ping-Pong did not work either. The community centers became places where unemployed young men and chronic schizophrenics went to exchange social security for marijuana.

When I aired my thoughts about public housing to a British architect—to whom, in my heart, I ascribed some of the collective blame for the calamitous situation he at once shot back, "Yes, but do sties make pigs, or do pigs make sties?" 

A profound question, perhaps the profoundest that can be asked. After all, you can lead a mugger to a victim, but you can't make him rob.

In the midst of one particularly grim housing project to which I once was called—a single mother was threatening to immolate her infant—stood an apartment block conspicuously less disgusting than the rest. It was inhabited entirely by old-age pensioners: either they no longer had the energy for vandalism, or they had not the inclination for it, if the Parker Morris standards were not a sufficient condition of decent living, neither were they a sufficient condition of its opposite.

What really made the difference, I concluded, was the policy by which public housing, of which there was a limited supply despite the building boom of three decades, was allocated. In conditions of shortage, justice demanded that such housing as existed should be allocated according to need: and what greater proof of need could there be than social pathology?

An unemployed single woman with three children by three fathers, none of whom supported his offspring in any way, could be said to be in greater need than a fully employed married couple with one child, who might reasonably be expected to look after themselves. Mirabile dictu, there was soon more than enough social pathology to fill the space available for it. Indeed, a kind of arms race in social pathology developed: my violence towards others outguns your attempts to kill yourself. 

The results of this policy have been truly bizarre. Because public housing is subsidized, many desire it. Traditionally, city councils as landlords have been reluctant to evict their tenants, no matter what their behavior is or if they fail to pay their rent, in part to draw attention to the ideological difference between the public and the private sectors, to the gain of the former. Unlike the hardhearted, exploitative private landlord struggling for private advantage, the city council landlord benevolently provides a social service. Thus a public housing tenancy is to psychopaths what tenure is to academics: no better invitation to irresponsibility could possibly be imagined. 

Oddly enough, this encouragement of what was hitherto considered antisocial behavior was given in the name of a supposedly tolerant refusal to make moral judgments. But since those who put themselves in a position of need by their own behavior were favored over those who failed to do so, an implicit judgment was in fact made: a judgment whose perversity is evident from the requests I receive from my patients for letters to the housing authorities to strengthen their ease for receiving the tenancy of an apartment.

In these missives, my patients tell me, I should emphasize their alcoholism or drug addiction, their bad temper and tendency to assault those around them—the consequence, plainly, of a lack of proper accommodation. I should mention their repeated overdoses, the fact that they resort to tranquilizers obtained illegally, that they have had several abortions and are now pregnant for the fifth time, that they have had three violent and drunken boyfriends in succession, that they gamble their money uncontrollably (or uncontrollably) . In not a single case has anyone ever asked me to write that he is a decent, hardworking, honorable citizen, who would make a good tenant. That would send him straight to the bottom of the waiting list. 

Indeed, the perverse criteria by which public housing has been allocated during the past two or three decades has reinforced the inexorable rise in the proportion of the young adult population living alone, a tendency which many powerful currents in our culture have encouraged. In the Thatcher years, the number of non-elderly adults living alone or as single parents doubled in absolute terms and almost as a proportion of total households as well. Hardly a day passes when I do not meet an 18- or 19-year-old, without a job, without financial resources, without skills or training, without family support, without mental accomplishments, who has been given an apartment at public expense. Housing is a right, and the government therefore has a duty to provide it. The possibility that it will do so if only one behaves badly or impulsively enough acts as an irritant in domestic relations: for if a move elsewhere is a real possibility, you can afford to let a minor disagreement escalate into an irreparable breakdown.

So do pigs make sties, or do sties make pigs? I suspect that there is, as my father used to say, a dialectical relationship.

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