Regular readers of Theodore Dalrymple will not have been surprised by the looting that spread through London and then to other English cities in early August. Indeed, one of the fascinating and appalling aspects of these disturbances, beyond the gleeful contempt for the law shown by the looters, and the complacency of the police who allowed them to rampage, were the familiar explanations offered by the offenders for their behaviour.
In interviews with reporters they sounded exactly like the amoral underclass interlocutors who have peopled Dalrymple's writing for two decades. In the aftermath, the media was full of anguished discussion about what had brought Britain to this grim pass. Many of the talking-heads seemed shocked to discover that thousands of young people neither respect nor fear the authorities. It baffled them that, despite the material wealth of our society, a disturbing portion of "our" youth are vicious, selfish, greedy and callous to a degree that would shock the genuinely deprived inhabitants of South Asian slums or Mexican barrios.
If this bafflement was evidence of a dismaying ignorance and capacity for self-deception on the part of the political and media class, it also revealed the degree to which one of Britain's most incisive, courageous, knowledgeable and clear-eyed public intellectuals has been ignored by or excluded from the dominant discourse. Theodore Dalrymple is that Cassandra, as well as, arguably, our greatest living essayist.
Dalrymple, whose real name is Anthony Daniels (a byline he has used more often in recent years), is a doctor and psychiatrist who practised for 20 years in a prison and an NHS hospital near Birmingham.
His calm, sardonic voice became well-known thanks to his "If Symptoms Persist" column in the Spectator. He was discovered in 1983 by the then editor Charles Moore, who says: "Daniels is the only lasting contributor I have ever found from unsolicited manuscripts. His wit and originality were immediately obvious."
One of the things that make Dalrymple's dispatches and analyses so powerful is that he could not be further from the stereotype of the "little Englander" conservative. His father, a Communist, grew up in an East End slum; his mother was a German refugee. He brings to his observations a wisdom gained from extensive travel, wide and deep reading, and having worked for long periods in places that most middle-class readers and commentators know only at second-hand.