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July 21, 2005

On being sacked as a book reviewer for being too old

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

For many years Theodore Dalrymple reviewed books for an august journal. He was recently told that his reviews would no longer be required because he was too old. Theodore Dalrymple shares his thoughts on this development.

Resentment is the most beguiling and dependable of all human emotions. It is like one of those stews that gets better every time you warm it up. Sometimes - and here I am entering into the realm of meta-resentment - I think resentment is what makes the world go round.

Like everyone else, I have experienced its sour joys, particularly in my youth. But just when I thought I was mature enough never again to yield to its siren call, the world has presented me with a very good reason to do so.

For many years, I have reviewed books for an august journal. When I started, I thought it would be fun to write damning reviews, but I soon realised that it is more gratifying to praise than to condemn, for two reasons: first, one has not wasted one's time reading a bad book, and second one is sure to please at least one person with a praising review, namely the author of the book.

In all the years that I have reviewed, I have received very few complaints. I have had some letters, it is true, pointing out errors, grave or trivial, and an occasional madman has written to me in terms that I could not understand. Honesty compels me to admit that I have received more accolades than brickbats for my work.

Suddenly, however, the editor of the august journal decided that reviewers younger than I were necessary. I don't think this was merely a prudential measure, part of a training scheme to ensure that there would be book reviewers in the distant future: in my experience, editors, even of august journals, rarely think that far ahead. No: the editor thought that young reviewers were good – that is to say better than middle-aged ones – in themselves.

If I laughed when I heard this, my laughter was a little bitter. I have been reading book reviews for forty years, and even in my adolescence at its most callow it never occurred to me to classify reviews by the age of the reviewer. Needless to say, in all that time I have read more than a few bad reviews – that is to say, reviews that were badly written or badly argued – but never once have I thought or even considered the possibility that a bad review might be bad simply because of the age of the author. Most of the time, of course, I have been completely unaware of the age of the author.

If I had been pushed aside because of a flood of letters from readers to the effect that my writing was boring, misleading, unreadable, and unreliable, I would accept not with a good grace, perhaps (for surely I would tell myself in such a case that the readers were wrong), but at least I would acknowledge that it was prima facie a good reason; but only in an age of concerted triviality could youth be deemed in and of itself a desirable quality in book reviewers. Insofar as age has any relevance at all to the matter, the arguments would go rather the other way: for literary judgment is not like mathematical ability, at its height early in adulthood.

As it happens, the very same day that I learnt of the editor's desire for young book reviewers, I received a catalogue from the estimable Maggs Brothers (antiquarian booksellers to Her Majesty). I hope I won't sound like Dr Chasuble, who was himself peculiarly susceptible to colds, if I say that one of my vices is the purchase of second-hand and antiquarian books, far beyond what could be justified by purely rational considerations. There are, of course, worse vices (some of which I have).

One of the sections of the catalogue was of the entomological books from the collection of the late Dr Donald Burton Baker (1922-2004). I often wish I had been an entomologist: I find insects fascinating and beautiful, and books about them tend to be fascinating and beautiful too.

The catalogue begins with a short and very moving biography of Dr Baker, as well as a photograph of him. Although it was taken of him as a young man, he already has that depth of refinement, character and integrity that one does not see very often on young British faces any more.

Dr Baker studied zoology, but decided that there was no career future in the kind of entomology he wanted to do and accepted a commission in the army. Among other postings was one to Iran, where he developed an interest in things Persian. He never forgot his entomology, however, and after his retirement pursued a doctorate, receiving his D Phil at the age of 71. I should guess that he was a scrupulously scholarly man, as any man who was a world expert on the "biogeography of old world bees" would have to have been.

One line in the short biography in particular caught my attention: his museum pass and keys from the British Museum (Natural History) were withdrawn and the ban on the loan of specimens to persons over the age of 70 was enforced.

I suppose the justification of this ban would be that, after the age of 70, there is the risk that a man might suffer from Alzheimer's disease and mislay, damage or destroy things given into his charge. Personally, I should have thought that vandalism by young adults a more likely possibility (though in this context, still a very remote one). However, Dr Baker remained "a familiar figure" in the department of entomology at Oxford, long after the completion of his thesis, suggesting that the British Museum was quite wrong in its suspicions of him.

Suppose the British Museum had withdrawn his keys on the basis that he was black, or a woman, or a Moslem? Is it merely because I am myself approaching the age of dissolution that I feel outrage at the assumption that the old are hopeless, useless or outright dangerous, rather than of great potential value to society? Am I wrong to see in it the triumph of shallowness?

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor. Until recently he reviewed books for an august journal.

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Any hints as to the identity of the august journal?

Posted by: james mcqueen at July 21, 2005 05:08 PM

I think you will find that it is the Sunday Telegraph.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 21, 2005 05:57 PM

Dalrymple wrote reviews for online journals as well as hard copy publications. I find it hard to believe that the editor of the Telegraph would reject talent.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at July 21, 2005 10:46 PM

It's not age as such, you must realize. But we can't have people just soldiering on like Auberon Waugh and then, you know, not turning up one day.

I think the Germans could create a word for it - Todesahnungsangst, perhaps.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 21, 2005 10:58 PM

Theodore Dalrymple is definately referring to the Sunday Telegraph. It beggars belief that anyone can regard the age of a book reviewer as material - but that seems to be the way things are going.

Posted by: Telegraph Hack at July 22, 2005 01:45 PM

Come to think of it I haven't seen any reviews from that other colossus Noel Malcolm in the ST either recently. I do hope they haven't sacked hime too.

This recent interview with the new editrix is illuminating, if depressing. She wants to make the ST into "a cool place to hang out".

Posted by: KevinR at July 22, 2005 03:14 PM

Don't know whether to laugh or cry: does anyone - anyone at all - care what the age of a reviewer is. What is more the whole Telegraph lot seem to be doing their best to bugger things up. Don't they realise that many people read the Telegraph precisely because it is not a youth paper? - they can go to all the other papers for that. The Telegraph should be a place for old and young fogeys - and fogettes. There are plenty of us around - or at least plenty of us who aspire to such heights - although I am sure not many of us will achieve the dizzy heights of Theodore Dalrymple.

Posted by: Gabby at July 22, 2005 05:28 PM

It’s surprising how few good reviewers there are out there. One needs intellectual rigour to stick to the point, intellectual and emotional maturity to criticise effectively and fairly, and a certain urbanity so as to refrain if possible from gushing on the one hand or ranting on the other. I have tracked down virtually every word that Theodore Dalrymple has written – I confess to being something of a Theocrat – and enjoyed every page, often laughing out loud in the British Library at some of more recherché works, surrounded by glum postmodernist PhD students. An absolutely dependable source of information of what to read and not to read is no longer there; nor is my clientele for the said august journal. Indeed many of his reviews are well worth reading for their own sake: the reviews of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and of Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, spring to mind, among others.

The new editor of the ST said in her speech to staff: " I want ingenuity and originality and thought and wit." Well, don't sack it then!

Posted by: OC at July 22, 2005 05:38 PM

Today, I sent the following email to the Sunday Telegraph.

Dear Sir,

I am a little surprised to find that you, as the editor of a written journal, seem to believe that people buy your publication based on the age of its contributors.

I can assure you that everyone I know who buys the Sunday Telegraph does so for both for the quality of its opinion, and
its writing, but nothing else.

I regard your elimination of Theodore Dalrymple from your pages, on naught but the basis of his age, as a personal affront to my intelligence, and a detestable act of contempt to a highly respected journalist.

with the deepest sincerity,
Chris Harper

Posted by: Chris Harper at July 23, 2005 09:34 AM

Another reason not to bother reading The Sunday Telegraph, which has already become Hello! Magazine on cheaper paper.

Yet some may welcome the shift to younger book reviewers who will shy away from longer tomes and books that persist in using polysyllabic words. The reviews, too, may be shorter -- sometimes just a single word: 'whatever.' It will save the publishers money from printing photographs of these trendy young reviewers, because one snapshot of a hooded chav looks much like another.

And lastly, selfishly, it will perhaps permit the marvellous Doctor Dalrymple to spend more time writing for his audience here at the Social Affairs Unit. If so, for that we can all be grateful.

Posted by: s masty at July 23, 2005 10:17 AM

This is shocking. I have read and enjoyed Mr Dalrymple in The Spectator for many years. One wouldn't like to draw parallels–I'm sure that Ms Sands is nothing like...

... Rebekah Wade: I didn't think that the Sun could go any further down-market, but she managed it. Extraordinary.

Posted by: Devil's Kitchen at July 23, 2005 03:33 PM

Completely incredible. If I came across his name in any journal that I happened to be browsing through I read his piece on the spot. If a paper published a piece by him it went up in my estimation.

Posted by: Pierre at July 24, 2005 09:57 PM

Maybe Anthony Daniels should apply to review for the ST

Posted by: Paul McCabe at July 25, 2005 09:05 AM

The Sunday Telegraph also seems to have got rid of Kevin Myers, at least I haven’t seen him since the new editress took over. He was funniest and bravest columnist on the subject of IRA terrorism. I suppose she thought the bombers wouldn’t be pulling the cords of their magic knapsacks in the ‘new cool places the young hang out. ‘

Posted by: Myles Harris at July 25, 2005 09:59 AM

They've also got rid of the chess column

Posted by: oaul mccabe at July 25, 2005 01:30 PM

'She wants to make the ST into "a cool place to hang out".'

Oh, God, no! Did she really say that? Look, if I had one, I could turn on the telly and watch _Eastenders_ or _Big Brother_ if I were as empty headed as this editor seems to surmise.

Where is an educated person who wants to encounter informed opinion supposed to go? Even a bright youngster who was worth reading would have to reach Dr Dalrymple's age before having either the experience of life or the reading background to render his reviews of _equal_ interest.

I've always though that the Daily Telegraph's books supplement is of nugatory interest, whereas its sister paper's books pages are usually good. Now, presumably, the ST is to be brought down to the level of the DT.

As for Noel Malcolm, he's not gone. He had a piece a week or two back - in which, incidentally, I was surprised to see him make a glaring error with regard to genetics, which just goes to show that the cleverest of us can err when leaving our own area of expertise. (Someone should tell him that one person in any group will always be "the closest match" to a sample and that in itself proves nothing.)

I also had noticed that Kevin Myers had gone. I agree he was a very good and highly entertaining columnist, and I miss his column. His pieces of late have seemed to me to be less liberal and more conservative - he seems like one who has been, as the saying goes, "mugged by reality". he's not that old and I wonder what the excuse is there. For I have to wonder if someone at the ST is deliberately pruning out the right-wing voices from the paper.

Posted by: Damian at July 25, 2005 01:44 PM

I have only knowingly read one thing by Mr Dalrymple, about Virago unknowingly publishing books by Reverend Toby Forward under the guise of a young Asian woman. It was one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read (sadly I don't have the link) so if it's anything to go by, more fool the The Sunday Telegraph.

Still, I suspect there's a simple issue behind this sorry tale - cash money. Budding teenage book reviewers are very cheap.

Posted by: Paddy Carter at July 25, 2005 03:31 PM

Theodore Dalrymple writes with the straightforward eloquence, dry wit, and distilled wisdom that I used to associate with literary Englishmen. That was another England, one that is dying or dead, the victim of political correctness, a gut-shot educational system and worship of the 'cool'. How sad that the Telegraph, of all publications, has joined the race to the bottom.

This Yank is very sorry to see England's cultural suicide.

Posted by: Rick Darby at July 27, 2005 10:28 PM

They seem to have found space for what might ambiguously described as talent.

Posted by: Peter Nolan at July 28, 2005 04:57 PM

Was the ST an "august journal"? Or was that a bit of drollery on Mr Dalrymple's part?

In any event, can we now refer to it as "a formerly august journal"?

Posted by: Mike at July 28, 2005 07:41 PM

See this weekend's FT magazine (30/31 July) for a superb review by Theodore Dalrymple of Christopher Hitchens' Love, Poverty and War.

Posted by: Daphne at July 30, 2005 01:22 PM

Dr Dalrymple, whom I know, used to complain to me about the elevation of a"frivolous woman" to the deputy editorship of the Daily Telegraph. She'd worked for fashion magazines and in her new job it showed. And she was called Sandra Sands. Now I'd wondered about this: because in Mrs/Miss Sands' regular column she would routinely say sensible things about family life, the credit economy and the army. Given Vicki Woods's spleen, I thought Dr Dalrymple was confusing a sensible woman with a, well, stupid woman. But in my disbelief as to what I have just learnt today from this weblog (I was put on to it by a friend), I have read the interview in The Guardian with Sands, and .... well, I wonder if the Barclay Brothers or Sands have ever heard of the Peter Principle. I don't detract from my estimation of her based on her columns. But: she didn't o'erleap her editor on her own paper, she has been elevated to the much more important and august Sunday version. That being said: once there she was ruthless: in two weeks, I was wondering why the Sunday Telegraph had changed: not completely, but in significant ways and ways I couldn't understand: why suddenly Niall Fergusson - out of his depth each article I've read, and now that I know the reason why, he should be ashamed of himself; why suddenly bigger, more informal, unbuttoned photos of the contributors (no wonder Matthew d'Ancona has been on holiday); why the sudden appearance of lady cyclists who claim to be trick economists at the BBC and don't mind admitting that they break the law; I could go on.... but most importantly, why were we not warned? Given the time frame, even Jenny McCartney took a holiday during the transfer: yes, I'm glad to see she's back. But then,given the depths of triviality that Miss Sands has revealed in herself in (of course) the Guardian, I hope that Jenny McCartney is keeping her powder dry. In the reconfiguration of the S.T. she (and Christopher Booker) will be the only reason to keep on reading it - but as I can do that on line, I shall stop buying it. One down for the Barclay Brothers!

Posted by: Mark Rogers at August 6, 2005 12:20 AM

The sacking of TD is shameful at best - a tragic blunder at worst.

Posted by: Doug at September 15, 2005 02:53 AM

One Daly-Rymple, there's only one Daly-Rymple. One Daly-rymple...

Easily the most intelligent living journalist.

Anyone know where I can send him a review copy of my new book, featuring probably the longest TD quote ever?

Posted by: Si at January 9, 2006 07:20 PM

Reading Theodore Dalrymple’s letter on being sacked from book reviewing because he was old, struck a cord in me. Being 18 years old, I was recently taken on by a national women’s magazine that requested book reviews from it’s readers. I wasn’t extremely proud of myself doing this because I always want to go the extra mile and want to be better then just a reader reviewer but never-the-less the thought of free books in exchange for my reviews was so tempting I just couldn’t resist.
A couple of months in I found I was receiving up to seven books a month and I was very happy with this. I enjoyed reviewing them just about as much as I enjoyed the reading process of the job too. Receiving a nice packet every couple of weeks with some freshly printed books (oh I love the smell!) was just what I needed. I was also working on a novel and baring in mind with the saying ‘the more you read, the better you write’ it surged me onwards. However another couple of months later (and some of my reviews printed in the magazine) I received an email off my editorial friend at the magazine informing me that due to my age she’d have to knock me off the panel. Why?! I felt so out-raged. I knew for a fact that the figure of readers were some where between a million or so and at least half of them were my age. I wrote back however and told this editor what I thought. A: It doesn’t matter if you are a reviewer and you’re 10. It doesn’t matter if you are 80 or even 90. What matters is the quality of the review-therefore if it is a good review who cares what age you are. As far as I am concerned I found it very ageist and dare I say it-childish.
Being a reviewer for a newspaper also (sorry didn’t say that sooner) they have never once turned their nose up at me due to my age.
I wonder if it would be looked on in the same not-bothered-way if I happened to be black skinned? It should not matter if you are white or black as much as it should not matter if you are 18 or 90. That also applies to the sex of the person too. It shouldn’t matter what skin type you have, what age you are, what sex you are-what matters is your review.
So after this rather long rant I must say I instantly felt for Theodore-what a terrible thing!
Now I am left with not much work and needing to be taken on for a book reviewer yet again. I just cannot believe that people and specially editors are this naïve. So what if I happen to be 18 why should that matter? Anyone else had a similar problem? Share your views!

Posted by: jessica at April 1, 2007 03:45 PM

In the interests of poetic justice, let me record here that Sarah Sands was sacked from the Sunday Telegraph after less than nine months in the job.

Posted by: Jon at August 22, 2008 07:06 AM
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