Books: I'm prudent, you're neurotic

MASS LISTERIA by Theodore Dalrymple Andre Deutsch pounds 8.99

BY ALMOST any medical index, human life in our culture is more secure and risk-free than at any time and place in history. We enjoy very low rates of infant mortality. Our prospects of living to a ripe old age are excellent. Our chances of escaping from or recovering from debilitating disease are very good, and even if we do fall sick or have an accident we will generally not suffer anything like the pain and degradation of our ancestors.

Why is it, then, that we respond to wildly unlikely threats to our health with hysteria and outrage? Certainly, health scares seem to reflect as lack of proportion. Appalling though CJD is for its sufferers, only a tiny handful of people have developed the disease as a result of eating mad cows. Individually, any of us might reasonably have fed beefburgers to our infant daughters on a daily basis with less expectation of (salmonella- ridden?) chickens coming home to roost than of winning the lottery.

Dr Dalrymple, the pseudonymous Spectator columnist on medical affairs, is of the opinion that we have an immortality complex; that we have come to regard perfect health as the normal state of human existence and illness and death as intolerable aberrations. Essentially his book is an extended echo of the Vogons' impatience with the human race; "Oh, for heaven's sake, Mankind," he wants to say, "grow up!"

Dalrymple has particular contempt for our need to find a culprit whenever we are faced with a crisis (the government, the drugs companies, the agriculture industry), and for the scientists who pursue what he calls associative epidemiology (noting a statistically significant coincidence of a disease and, say, the consumption of coffee). He thinks the main purpose of these enterprises is to attract research funds rather than to improve the lot of the human race. He is also very stern with those of us who discover that we have been made ill without our noticing it - the victim syndrome, whether it be post-traumatic stress or silicone breast implants. We become hypochondriachal, he says, and develop a financial stake in being sick.

Dr Dalrymple writes entertainingly, and while many of his observations are prejudices, one often finds oneself sharing them. It is possible to quibble with almost everything he says, but his broad description of the idiocy of health paranoics is unarguable.

Dr Dalrymple contends that in fretting about illness that will not happen, and in positioning ourselves as victims of expected illness, we actually experience a reduction in our happiness. He seems to think that we have just about reached the limit of the improvement in human life that medicine is capable of, and in fact that happy state was reached the moment he qualified as a doctor.

He approves of the Clean Air Act, but wouldn't bother with any modifications. He accepts the association between smoking and lung cancer, but doubts that such clear-cut connections will be made again.

But is it neurotic to eat less salt to avoid the risk of stroke? To practise safe sex for fear of AIDS? To avoid passive smoking? To take regular exercise? Clearly, health consciousness as far as I practise it is reasonable and prudent. Anything further is neurotic.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor