Unholy influences

The weird and not so wonderful world of influencers, and an open invitation to Theodore Dalrymple to get inked

Woman About Town

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Ending up in A&E on New Year’s Eve is no one’s idea of a good time under the best conditions, but with the NHS now creaking to the point of disintegration, it seems especially to be avoided. So it was even more than usually alarming when my son sustained an injury that needed urgent medical attention.

But astonishingly, he was seen within two hours. (He was lucky — a doctor informed us that there was one patient who’d been waiting for 39.) Two days later he was called in for follow-up, and that too went smoothly. 

The signs of dilapidation are there, of course, mostly in the state of the buildings. Hospitals inspire much sentiment (the MP who can claim to have “saved the local hospital” is a happy one electorally), but in truth most are straining at the seams.

Like the NHS itself, they have expanded in maze-like fashion from their original foundation, with tangled corridors and odd assemblages of extensions. A government that put public good over populism would commit to rationalisation and rebuilding. Such a government is unlikely to get elected.

But the staff — from surgeons to porters — were efficient and considerate, and treatment proceeded smoothly. I began to entertain the possibility that we were, not blessed exactly, but perhaps entitled to a little complacency. Then we ended up sitting on the floor of a crowded minor surgery waiting room for an hour because there weren’t enough chairs. That’s more like the NHS everyone loves.

Unholy influences

It’s a commonplace observation that the NHS is the closest thing the UK has to a national religion these days, but if that’s the case, it’s being jostled by a pantheon of competitor belief systems emerging from the fringes of the internet. 

I’ve always been drawn to apocalypse

That’s the thesis of The New Gurus, a podcast series from Helen Lewis on BBC Sounds. In it, Lewis speaks to sundry gurus — crypto boosters, seers of the intellectual dark web (IDW), a wellness influencer who hymns the benefits of drinking his own urine — and some of the people who follow them. 

The initial draw is the oddness of the precepts these people hold. But Lewis has the great skill of looking beyond the freakshow and finding the connecting seam of human frailty. 

You might assume that the weakness would belong to the worshippers. Not at all: digital gurus are all suborned to their own greater god, the Shiva of the algorithm. The pressure to create constant content, and the need to please an audience who could easily click away, drives them to more and more radical positions. 

Which explains how someone can start with yoga and end up a pee-sipping vaccine sceptic, or indeed how the IDW icon James Lindsay could end up having a fight on Twitter with the Auschwitz Museum. Nothing destroys a mortal like a taste of being divine.

• • •

The most chilling of Lewis’s gurus are the ones predicting social collapse, not least because this seems like a plausible near-future outcome to me. But then I’ve always been drawn to apocalypse, obsessively watching public information films about nuclear attacks when I was younger, and before that writing schoolgirl poetry about global warming. 

Those couplets leaned heavily on visions of sun-parched earth and sterile farmland. What I didn’t anticipate was that, in Britain at least, climate change would come in the form of a dismally mild, soggy winter. No more cleansing December crispness. No pleasing sense of fending off the cold with sturdy outerwear. 

I should be grateful that my gloves have stayed in the drawer this year, what with the gas prices and the state of the NHS. But it’s hard to feel grateful when you’re in the midst of an endless mud season. 

After every dog walk, my golden labrador retriever comes back tinted a murky sepia shade from the filthy run-off in the park. Off-path, the grass is all churned into a depressing brown moonscape. Bring back proper winter, and I promise I’ll never leave a light on again.

Fancies from far ago 

Given the state of the outside, it feels like a much better bet to stay on the sofa. So thank goodness for winter TV: I’ve been bingeing through Happy Valley, Only Murders in the Building and Slow Horses. 

Actors get old, but middle-aged women will always be frisky.

The latter stars Gary Oldman as gone-to-seed MI5 boss Jackson Lamb. It’s a performance of compelling grotesqueness: limp-haired, grubby and farting, just watching him makes you want a shower. It was a surprise to catch a glimpse of Oldman in Harry Potter and be reminded what a truly beautiful man he can be. 

In 1996, I watched Dennis Potter’s series Karaoke, which features Hywel Bennett as a revoltingly fat gangster. “He used to be beautiful,” my mum exclaimed beside me. I didn’t believe her till I saw the original Tinker, Tailor, with Bennett as babyfaced Ricky Tarr. This is how I realise I’ve become my mother: actors get old, but middle-aged women will always be frisky. 

* * *

One of The Critic’s most discussed pieces last year was Theodore Dalrymple’s broadside against tattoos, which he called “kitsch”, “disfiguring” and “sad”. Not to let the masthead down, but I am in fact tattooed: twin skulls on my shoulderblades, a large heart on my left arm and a swallow on my right thigh. 

I was a late starter, but an enthusiastic adoptee. The next one I’m planning is for my right arm: a harpy, one of the bird-bodied women-monsters of vengeance. The only problem is that I haven’t yet found a harpy that I want permanently inked on my body. If I’m going to be disfigured by something, I want it to be beautiful. 

So this is a call-out: if you happen to have a favourite harpy in art, please send her my way for consideration as a lifelong addition to my arm. And if you’re Theodore Dalrymple, let me know if you fancy coming too: I’m sure you’d look adorable with a pin-up girl on your bicep.

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