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BMJ. 2007 April 21; 334(7598): 855.
PMCID: PMC1853225
Between the Lines

Where are all the blighters?

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

The world has changed a lot since I was a boy and, I regret to say, not entirely for the better. For example, our language has become coarser, a fact that was brought forcibly home to me recently by reading R Austin Freeman's detective story The Stone Monkey, first published in 1939.

R Austin Freeman, born in 1863, was the son of a tailor. He became a doctor, travelled as such to Ashantiland (about which he wrote his first book), contracted blackwater fever there, and then became a general practitioner in Gravesend. It seems that there was something about living on the coast that turned late Victorian general practitioners into writers of detective fiction: Conan Doyle was another. Freeman wrote a book a year for a couple of decades, until his death in 1943, and was a fixed star in the literary firmament.

Freeman's hero was Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke, a forensic pathologist and barrister of enormous intellect. He was a bachelor, lived in the Inns of Court in great comfort, and lectured at St Margaret's Hospital. His knowledge, from archaeology to toxicology, was unnaturally encyclopaedic.

The first part of The Stoneware Monkey is narrated by a Dr Watson figure, one James Oldfield MD. He starts with a few general observations about the nature of medical practice: “The profession of medicine has a good many drawbacks in the way of interrupted meals, disturbed nights and strenuous working hours.”

Well, as Sganarelle put it in Molière's Le Médecin Malgré Lui with regard to the heart being on the left side and the liver on the right, “Nous avons changé tout cela.” The “we” in question is, of course, the European working time directive. No more interrupted meals for doctors, at least without compensatory rest.

But let us return to the question of language. Early in the book, a policeman is struck a tremendous blow to the head by his own truncheon by a man who has wrested it from him. Dr Oldfield is the first on the scene and describes what must have happened to another policeman who arrives a little later on the scene. The policeman's response is, by today's standards, somewhat muted.

“Blighter!” muttered the constable.

It seems to me that a police officer of today might use rather stronger language, even for a car wrongly parked. This raises an interesting question: where have all the blighters gone? There used to be some still around when I was a boy, but now they are all something far, far worse.

A little later in the story a potter of the name of Peter Gannet discovers that he is being poisoned with arsenic. Dr Oldfield is a little slow to diagnose the case, and calls in Dr Thorndyke, one of his teachers from medical school, who diagnoses it immediately. On being told that his drink has been poisoned, and that it can only have been done by someone in his household, Gannet says with admirable sangfroid: “Ha! So it was the barley-water. I thought there was something wrong with that stuff. But arsenic! This is a regular facer!”

Genteel as I am, I doubt that I should use that expression if I discovered that I were being poisoned by one of my nearest and dearest.

Some things don't change, though. Dr Thorndyke was the most popular lecturer at St Margaret's Hospital: but then forensic pathologists always have been, always are, and always will be the most popular lecturers. Why should this be so? Now there is a question.

There used to be some blighters still around when I was a boy, but now they are all something far, far worse


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