Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 June 16; 334(7606): 1277.
PMCID: PMC1892513
Between the Lines

The casualties of Waugh

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

My father was not very good at telling jokes. If something was a fact he couldn't leave it out, and over-inclusiveness is not an aid to mirth. Still, he had a repertoire of old favourites, and one of them, which he told many times, concerned what in those days was still popularly known as the loony bin.

An inmate showed the chairman of the board of visitors around the establishment, and did so with such lucidity that the chairman asked him why he was an inmate at all. He replied that he didn't know, and asked the chairman to help him secure his release. The chairman promised to do so.

Just as he was leaving the asylum, the chairman felt a blow with a brick on the back of his head.

“Don't forget now,” said the inmate, waving to him.

This joke is, in essence, identical to the plot of Evelyn Waugh's short story Mr Loveday'sLittle Outing. Lord Moping is committed to the County Asylum for Mental Defectives (a term still widely in use during my childhood, although educationally subnormal was taking over) when he tries to hang himself during his wife's annual garden party. Lady Moping refuses to countenance a more expensive establishment because she has been so humiliated by his social faux pas; but the richer lunatics have a wing of their own in the asylum, where they are allowed to dress as they please and to have a dinner party every year on the anniversary of their committal.

Mr Loveday, another long term inmate, acts as Lord Moping's amanuensis during his residence in the asylum. Lord Moping is forever dictating memoranda to the great ones of the earth on such subjects as the fate of major rivers, and his daughter, Angela, is so impressed on a visit to her father by the efficiency of Mr Loveday, who tells her that many years ago he made the slight mistake of knocking a girl off her bicycle and then strangling her, that she vows to secure his release. Mr Loveday tells her that he has only one small ambition, but does not want to say what it is.

This she does, and a meeting is held in the asylum to send Mr Loveday off to his freedom. The doctor assures him that he is so highly esteemed by both staff and patients that there will always be a place for him if he does not like life outside.

Mr Loveday is back within two hours; and all too predictably, he has knocked a young woman off her bicycle and strangled her. He announces with the greatest pleasure that now he will never be released from the asylum again. He had never really wanted to go in the first place.

What exactly is Waugh satirising in his story? Not least, surely, the do-gooding propensities of the well-placed, who are inclined to take up causes whimsically as a means to mere self gratification, without much thought for the possible consequences.

Of course, these days Mr Loveday wouldn't have been released without a proper risk assessment and follow up arrangements. I'm not sure that would have preserved the young woman on the bicycle, however.

What exactly is Waugh satirising in his story? Not least, surely, the do-gooding propensities of the well-placed

Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group