Book Review: Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality

Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality by Theodore Dalrymple Gibson Square, 260pp, £14.99

The breeze of cynicism wafts like an acrid rebuke through these tersely opinionated pages. It fans the flames of indignation, warming the cockles of unreconstructed reactionaries' hearts.

"The Skeptical Doctor" (as followers call him) is sitting pretty atop his high horse, but only to pillory and pursue the pernicious dragons of woolly thinking, specious do-goodery and sloppy sentimentality. Who could object?

For Theodore Dalrymple is no mere fire-breathing heartless generalist. He particularises his arguments, often drawing on past (and personal) experience as a one-time NHS doctor in a British inner city hospital - calling, too, on a stint as a prison psychiatrist. He knows whereof he speaks.

The stated objective of Spoilt Rotten (as an expose-cum-polemic), is implicit in its subtitle: "the toxic cult of sentimentality". Its plain business, as Dalrymple sees it, is the unmasking of the tendency in Britain for sentimentality to undermine society, to erode our personal sense of responsibility as citizens for our actions, to create a numbing cocoon around harsh, unpalatable realities. The first of these is that Britain is "the worst country of twenty-one advanced countries" in which to be a child. This "wretched" state of affairs is not only detrimental "for those experiencing it themselves, but for those experiencing British children", writes Dalrymple. "The British are a nation that fears its own children."

Threats to teachers by their pupils - one third of all teachers have been physically attacked and a substantial number have also been on the receiving end of added aggression by parents - is, states Dalrymple, mirrored in health care, where paediatricians have been the objects of attempted assault. Doctors are afraid to refuse their patients' demands for sick notes for fear of a violent reaction: "A relatively small amount of violence is sufficient to produce a large effect."

The cult of sentimentality lies at the root of all this, he argues. Human beings are inherently good - so goes the philosophy - rendering discipline "unnecessary and bad". If someone eventually turns to crime, the sentimentalist believes, he must be the victim of "an environment that has let him down".

Likewise, children are regarded by sentimentalists, as not merely innocent and good but, claims Dalrymple, of being the possessors of an "intelligent curiosity, natural talent, vivid imagination, desire to learn and an ability to find things out for themselves".

This romanticised notion has, he believes, produced generations of British children who cannot adequately read, write, or do simple calculations - and this despite a palpable "increase in expenditure" per capita on pupils' education.

Intellectuals, with their woolly tendentious thinking, are partly responsible - the betes-noir of those in society who value common sense, allied to the virtues of discipline and restraint. Intellectuals, in Dalrymple's estimation, fail to recognise the plain truth that "Great Britain … is now sinking, in a … swamp of sentimentality whose aesthetic, intellectual and moral correlates are dishonesty, vulgarity and barbarity". One of the outcomes is that a "childish and uncontrolled emotionality" has become "a growing feature of our national life and character".

Nowhere, claims the doctor, is this more evident than in respect to the "Cult of Feeling", which peaked with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and surged once more in the tragic aftermath of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Sentimentality demanded a show of gratuitous public grief, and visible shock. Those who failed to wallow sufficiently (namely the Queen, who did not "properly" mourn in public, and Kate McCann, who failed to shed tears on television), were deemed by the arbiters of sentiment, to rightly deserve denigration.

Dalrymple tackles sentimentality on every front. He is frequently witty, always punchy and sometimes rapier-like, as he analyses the "bunk" of his opponents to within an inch of its cant. Furthermore, as a scourge of fecklessness, he reminds you of Jeremy Kyle, but has little time for Oprah Winfrey ("America's television queen of emotional incontinence"). Sentimentality, as he defines it, is "the expression of emotion without an acknowledgement that judgement should enter into how we should react to what we see and hear … (it) is therefore childish …and reductive of our humanity."

Dalrymple more than compensates - being judgmental all the way, at the top of his voice, humanely upbeat, commonsensical, never dull.