Letters to The Times (mostly unpublished)
7 November 2010
The games people play
It may well be right to think of terrorism as a "game" (Matthew
Parris, 6 November), or perhaps rather as a sport, like bullfighting, with
us as the bulls. But I am not sure he has got the rules right. I do
not think that terrorists play against security services, any more
than golfers play against greens committees. Terrorists, like matadors,
play against each other, competing for fame and money. We should
count ourselves fortunate that in the international game style is as
important as body count. In the national leagues of Iraq and Mexico
we see coarser versions of the sport.
10 March 2010
Mosques and minarets
Dr Taj Hargey (10 March) tells us that minarets are not an essential
feature of mosques -- just as, I suppose, spires and towers are not
essential features of churches. But then he goes on to say that "modern
sound technology" means that the call to prayer can be broadcast by other
means. If someone were to propose a mosque in the vicinity of my own
home, I should be much more concerned about the aural intrusion of
high-amplitude low-quality recordings five times a day than about the
visual intrusion of any tower. There might indeed be a certain charm in
a human voice calling from a traditional minaret without electronic
8 January 2010
Like others of my generation, I regularly walked to
and from school in icy conditions. It seemed to me at
that time that sweeping snow from pavements often made them
harder to negotiate, since it removed crunchy snow, which
gave a reasonable footing, and left ice patches, which did
not. This is not a universal rule, and in settled subzero
temperatures, in Central Europe or the Midwest, I have
sometimes found myself grateful for a cleared path. But
in normal southern English weather, melting in the day
and freezing at night, I think that householders should
indeed think twice before grabbing their shovels. At the
least, they should check daily that the areas they have
worked on are ice-free.
On the other hand, a swept path with a scattering of
coarse sand is almost always welcome, except to skiers;
so if you have the sand, please go ahead.
14 September 2009
Travelling with the disabled
As the father of a child with muscular dystrophy, I feel I
must take issue with Simon Barnes ("Forget the frail or young",
14 September). There is a case for saying that operators of
public transport, even the cheapest, should be required by law
to make provision for the mentally and physically disabled.
But given the logistical difficulties of loading and unloading
aircraft, we cannot ask an airline to do this without prior
notice, including notice of accompanying passengers who expect
to be granted the same privileges.
10 July 2008
Bicycles on pavements
In any space shared by pedestrians and vehicles, there must be an
absolute rule that vehicles, whether bicycles or delivery vans, should
give way to pedestrians at all times; in particular, when pedestrians
stop, start or change direction without warning.
23 February 2008
You report (23 February)
that 45% of patients think that polyclinics would improve
healthcare. But the question asked was "how would a polyclinic in your
neighbourhood affect healthcare?" I expect some people would feel that a
doctor's surgery in their neighbourhood would improve their healthcare.
The wording of the question must have distracted people from the one
certainty about polyclinics, which is that they would, for most of us,
increase the distance we have to travel. Even if (like myself) you live
in an area where there are enough doctors to justify a polyclinic, such a
clinic would require substantial parking space; and the difficulty of
obtaining planning permission is likely to push polyclinics to the edges of
towns, with corresponding problems for anyone who does not have the use of
23 February 2008
Andrew Billen says (23 February) that "there needs to be an
open, honest and reasoned debate about what is fair value for the
Rock". This is just what there should not be. Northern Rock
ran into the buffers because its directors, elected by the
shareholders, bet the bank on a losing proposition (that there
would always be other banks willing to lend them money). They
had previously set up a structure which makes it nearly impossible
to find out who has first call on repayments of many of the
mortgages they have issued. In the circumstances, the Government
should act as receivers. There should be no payments whatever to
shareholders until it is clear that the money is there. If it is
true that most of the money can be recovered, then shareholders
should get it eventually; if not, not.
8 September 2007
On page 23 today you give thirty column inches to the question
"wouldn't you feel safer with a gun?" On page 27 you give two column
inches to the unfortunate Kamilah Peniston of Manchester, who was killed
with her mother's gun. I think myself that the news pages are a safer
guide to real life than the comment pages.
11 June 2007
Concerning the dearth of public conveniences, may I make a modest
proposal? Every establishment selling food or drink for consumption on
the premises should be required, during opening hours, to permit any
member of the public to use the customers' lavatories. They should have
the right to refuse entry to the rolling drunk and other offensive
persons; and there should be an opt-out for those willing to pay the local
authority a moderate tax -- say 1% of turnover -- to provide public
facilities of the conventional kind.
20 October 2006
Tough thinking, or thinking about toughs
You tell us today that "thefts to the person are better known as
muggings". I can recall three occasions on which I have been the victim
of a "theft from the person" as defined by the British Crime Survey.
Every one of these was a "stealth theft" - twice I have had my pocket
picked, and once a bag was taken when my attention was elsewhere. In
none of these was there any suggestion of violence. The BCS
distinguishes two types of "mugging": "snatch theft", which is
included in "theft from the person", and "robbery", which is included in
"violent crime". Among my friends and acquaintances I have heard of many
thefts and several assaults, some serious; but relatively few snatch
thefts or robberies. Your deliberate confusion between offences which
differ both in their effect on the victims and in the psychology of the
perpetrators will make effective action to reduce crime more difficult.
8 September 2005
Seing Katrina coming
The "Urgent Weather Message" of 28 August which you reproduce today
seems to have been wrong on nearly every count. "At least one half of
well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. All gabled roofs
will fall ... All wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be
destroyed ... High-rise offices and apartment buildings will sway
dangerously - a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will
blow out." That makes five misses in a row. He was right that "most of
the area will be uninhabitable for weeks", but completely failed to
anticipate the cause, the breach of the dyke between the city and Lake
It is of course quite true that federal and state and city
governments all behaved with disgraceful lack of foresight. They should
never have allowed residential building below sea level in a hurricane
28 December 2003
What should we teach?
I was interested in Mr MacLeod's list (27 December) of things which ought
to be taught in school. The only one that could be regarded as a
"practical" skill is typing. All the others refer to administration and
paperwork. In particular, I note that Mr MacLeod expects an engineering
student to know the regulations concerning MoT tests, but not how to
detect that a car's brakes or steering might be faulty.
4 December 2003
Universities and the outside world
Once again we are told that American universities are far more successful
than ours at building links with business. But is it not equally true
that American businessmen are far more successful than ours at building
links with universities?
25 October 2003
Racism in England
A.C.Grayling (Review, 25 October) tells us that "it is only since
the colonial era ... that racism has been a problem in Britain". Of
course it matters less what you think of other races if you never meet
them. But if he believes that anti-black racism was not endemic in
pre-colonial England, he should read Othello.
25 February 2002
In praise of congestion
Road space in this country is largely rationed by queueing, as many
consumer goods were in the old socialist economies. To any classical
economist this is an affront: surely it would be more efficient if some
road users could pay other road users to go away. But the system as it
now is has two great virtues. First, it is "fair" in the sense that
middling rich and middling poor suffer the same traffic jams; so it
helps us to cohere socially, to feel that we have the same troubles as
everyone else. Second, it is "fair" in the sense that the congestion
you suffer from is very closely related to the congestion you cause.
The costs of congestion are borne by the users of crowded roads (and
those whose lifestyles are sustained by such users) and nobody else.
And this second kind of fairness is economically important, because it
means that every driver is looking for ways of causing less congestion.
Whenever you find that travelling by a different route, or at a
different time, or not at all, makes your life easier, it will probably
make other people's lives easier too.
My own view (as a non-car-owner) is that there are good arguments
for discouraging travel, and in particular for taxing road use more
heavily than at present. But congestion is not one of them.
17 February 2002
How far can one go?
Matthew Parris (16 February) has, as usual, an insight to offer;
but his piece is marred by an extraordinary assertion. He tells us that
the appetite for roads and cars is not infinite, and that "Britain is
now about half way to a saturation point at which everyone who could use
a car possesses one and makes use of it for most of their journeys".
But that is not a saturation point. The saturation point would be when
everyone travels as much as they would if they were millionaires and the
roads were empty. And there is no sign whatever that we are
approaching any such point. The vast increases in car and aeroplane
travel over the last forty years have nearly all been "new" journeys,
not replacement of travel by bus and ship. From the point of view of a
traffic engineer, as for a health service manager, demand is still
effectively infinite in the sense that any presently conceivable
increase in supply will be immediately taken up.
24 January 2002
Why do you print these things?
"Several lucrative parts of the [Post Office's] business have been
hived off from the Royal Mail," you tell us this morning (24 January),
"including Parcelforce". Parcelforce made a loss of £61m in
and £44m in 2000-2001.
31 October 2001
Mary Ann Sieghart wants British Muslims to support the
Anglo-American military actions in Afghanistan, and suggests that they are unpatriotic not to. I am not a Muslim, but I am opposed to the bombing campaign at present under way, and deeply resent any suggestion that this makes me un-British.
6 September 2001
The death of God
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor laments that Christianity in
England and Wales has almost been vanquished. In Ulster it seems
to retain its power.
13 October 2000
I see that the National Consumer Council objects to insurance
companies being allowed to ask clients if they have taken tests for
Huntington's disease. Surely there is a perfectly simple strategy for
anyone who (like myself) has reason to believe that they have a
genetic predisposition to a particular disease. Insure yourself first
and take the test afterwards. You can always let the insurance lapse
later if it looks as if you won't make a profit on it.
30 September 2000
Is there anybody there?
On page 5, in large print, I read "the Danish currency actually
strengthened against the euro" following the half-percent rise in
interest rates in Denmark. On page 50, in small print, I read that the
krone closed at 12.499 to the pound (taking the midpoint of the quoted
spread), following 12.201 the day before, that is, that the krone fell
by 2.44%; while the euro fell 0.99%, from 1.6591 to 1.6755. You do
not quote krone/euro rates, but clearly the krone in fact fell more than
1% against the euro in London trading. It seems not to have suffered
so badly in New York.
5 September 2000
How close was it?
You introduce Asteroid 2000 QW7 with the simile "like someone
throwing a marble at your head and missing by a hand's width". Since
the asteroid in fact missed by a distance of some three hundred times
the earth's diameter, a better analogy would have been "like someone
shooting at your head with an air rifle and missing by the length of
three cricket pitches".
2 January 2000
Fitting the crime
Mr Hayes asks (1 January) what possible use tagging can be in
Jonathan Aitken's case. Sending Mr Aitken home is kinder and cheaper
than keeping him in jail. Requiring him to wear a tag is a reminder,
to him and his family and his friends, that he attempted to gain a large
sum of money by lying, and has not yet fully purged his offence.
3 December 1999
Baroness Blackstone tells us that "high dropout rates [in universities]
are evidence of an inefficient use of taxpayers' money". But surely the really
inefficient use of taxpayers' money is when universities are pressured to keep
students on who are not learning anything - indeed, in some cases, not even
4 September 1999
How will they ever learn?
The current rapid rise in price of certain types of housing, while
not yet serious, is surely a cause for concern. This may be an
appropriate moment for a small change in the law which would moderate
the inflationary effect of this boom without the damaging consequences
of a rise in interest rates. If borrowers were given the right to
cancel mortgages by abandoning mortgaged properties to the lenders,
there could be no `negative equity' trap. The risk of a fall in house
prices would be transferred from borrowers to lenders, who are in most
cases in a better position both to forecast the danger and to bear it if
it happens. In the meantime, it would impose a salutory discipline on
lenders, which would almost automatically prevent the worst excesses of
1988-89 being repeated.
2 September 1999
How far will it go?
Nigel Hawkes has misunderstood Hooke's Law.
Ut tensio sic vis,
`as the stretching, so the force', is a mnemonic, not an unambiguous
statement of the full claim. Hooke's Law does not say only that to
extend a spring farther you have to pull harder. It claims that the
force needed is actually proportional to the extension; trebling
the force takes you three times as far, not twice or four times. As
one of the early examples of proportionality of disparate quantities,
confirmed by experiment, it deserves its modest place among the foundation stones of modern science.
4 January 1999
I am sure that Mr Bryant (4 January) is right in suggesting that, for primary
school children at least, a family holiday can be educationally as useful as the same
period at school. But I am
afraid that he may be encouraging his children to believe that
regular attendance isn't important. As a university teacher I
sometimes find myself having to speak rather sharply to first-year
students who seem to think that it's my job to sort things out when
they skip classes.
On the other side, as a parent, I think my own sons' teachers
ought to be quicker than they currently are to tell us what topics
the children are missing when, for illness or any other reason, they
miss school; since it is surely the parents' duty to help fill any
24 August 1998
Getting what we pay for
Mr Gillespie (22 August) reasonably remarks that few businesses expect to run
successfully on product lines which are unchanged for decades. Examination boards are
operating in a highly competitive market with sophisticated customers (the schools) who
are themselves under great pressure to deliver the highest possible scores for league
tables. Our examiners are paid by results, and are delivering them.
21 July 1998
Checking the numbers
Michael Gove calls himself a romantic conservative. I fear that
in his assessment of amazon.com it is the romanticism which is
dominant. Undoubtedly their shares have done very well. But the
figures show that after three years' trading they are still losing
twenty cents in every dollar of sales. Few bank managers would allow
a high street shop to call itself a success on such a basis.
Note added 8.11.10: Most of the letters in this series have worn well, in that I am willing to stand by the opinions they express. In the present case, however, I should recognise that Gove's romanticism did not lead him astray. In the second half of 1998 he could have bought Amazon shares for less than $20; today's range brackets $170. He would have had a rough ride (the shares were $5.50 in October 2001) and he would have received no dividends; but the company is flourishing and has changed our lives.
14 July 1998
Pulling the ladder up
It is always depressing when eminent persons, having themselves
received good educations, maintain that others do not need the same
advantages. The object of primary school arithmetic is not that
every adult should know what nine eights are. It is that everyone
should have enough familiarity and confidence with numbers to be able
to critically examine those presented to them, and to say, when
appropriate, that must be wrong. For this, division is probably more
important than multiplication. To make sense of the 13 numbers which
I find in your leading news item today ("Stricter control imposed on
public sector pay"), I think we need one addition (£109.35+£7), two
subtractions (4%-2.5%, 2002-1999), and two ratios (£7:£5, £116:£75).
(Perhaps I should add another ratio, 50 meetings:40 pages.)
Of course it is quite true that the real business of mathematics
is with "understanding" rather than with "facts". But once a child
has been successfully conditioned to respond in the same way to "four
fives" and to "five fours", there is at least a chance that the penny
will drop, and they will have a lifetime in which to seek to
understand that insight.
15 May 1998
Keeping up with the crowd
If the Principal of Heriot-Watt University had felt concerned that the
academic standards of his university were slipping, and had circulated his staff
suggesting that they should award 10% fewer first and upper second degrees,
Heriot-Watt would have been two places lower in your league table today.
16 October 1997
How far do we need to go?
Mr Graham Serjeant (October 16) is quite right in saying that
public transport cannot provide the kind of mobility which people are
coming to take for granted. I believe he is wrong in assuming that
these expectations ought to be satisfied. Of course any proposer of
a self-denying ordinance has to satisfy a heavy standard of proof
before asking his fellow-citizens to renounce something they plainly
want. But we have come to the point in most of Europe where the
private car is threatening not only our physical environment (and I
agree with Mr Serjeant that chemical pollution is amenable to
technical solutions, if we are willing to pay the price), but also our
social environment. Most of us now spend a substantial amount of
time in a hostile ambience, competing for space with strangers without
even seeing their faces. The occasional homicidal outburst of road
rage is only an extreme response to the inhuman stresses to which we
are all subject.
I see no way forward except a gradual increase in road taxation
to the point that people start planning their lives to minimise their
travelling. I quite agree that the money ought not to be spent on
public transport subsidies, which we must assume, on past experience,
would be mostly wasted. It should be used to reduce income tax for
the low-paid. I want my grandchildren to grow up in a country where
decent education and health care are available to all, and the
flexibility and comfort of private motoring only to those willing and
able to pay for it, rather than the other way round.
31 July 1996
The value of a degree
Dr Foster (July 29) is correct in saying that complete independence in
issuing degrees is one of the defining characteristics of universities. For
nearly two hundred years, this custom has
served us well. But in the hundred years before that, it did not.
Eighteenth-century dons were accused of corruption and idleness. Modern dons
are not idle, and as individuals they are honest.
But our institutions are being insidiously corrupted by the conditions under
which they work. Instead of candidates competing for places,
universities are competing for applicants; and there is a real danger of Gresham's
Law applying to the currency of university degrees. The
public, whether as taxpayers or students, have a right to know that universities are
successfully imparting knowledge, skills and understanding, and I see no way of
ensuring this without some element
of external assessment of graduates.
7 May 1996
Doing it right
Your discussion of reading standards, though welcome, is in danger of
encouraging sterile polemics on the "proper" way to teach reading.
When I look at the way my own family have learnt to read in the last two generations,
variants of the "real books" method seem to have been very
successful; but this has nothing to do with any virtue of the method, as such, and a
great deal to do with the assumption, automatic in any
responsible family, that parents will devote as much time as is necessary to helping
their children to learn. I estimate that most of us needed between fifty and a
hundred hours of individual tuition to get properly started. Mr Woodhead is surely
right in saying that schools'
achievements need to be checked by objective testing of their pupils. But if he
wants to actually improve standards, he must make sure that
someone has the time to do the job properly.
21 July 1995
The right to death
My mother took an overdose of morphine, with the full support of her family. When my time comes I may well choose the same way. I
believe that the right to end one's own life is as fundamental as any
human right can be.
But this has no connexion whatever with any right to kill a toddler who screams at night. If Mr and Mrs Stewart feel - as all
parents sometimes feel - that they cannot bear it any more, they
should, at worst, leave their son on a doorstep and ring the bell.
17 October 1994
Let's go back
Mr Howarth (17 October) is asking the wrong question. Nobody thinks it possible, and practically nobody thinks it desirable, to
eliminate all private motor transport. A reasonable first aim would seem to be
to reduce the use of cars to what we had ten years ago.
The question Mr Howarth should ask himself, therefore, is what would induce him and his neighbours to return to their habits of 1984.
18 May 1994
Telling the world
Professor MacDowell's letter (17 May) is disappointing. One would have
hoped that a professor of Greek would have had some interest in the achievements of
that astonishing people, and would have wanted his students to know something of the
ways in which they made it possible for us to think about the world. When someone
classical Greek is ignorant of the heirs of Eudoxus and Anaxagoras, one has to wonder
whether his gifts of communication are of any use.
25 May 1991
I was sorry to see you repeat (third leader, today) the story that a bicycle
is held upright by the gyroscopic effect of its rotating wheels. The calculation is,
or used to be, routine
second-year-undergraduate mathematics, and shows that on any ordinary bicycle at any
ordinary speed the gyroscopic effect is far too small to be useful. Actually, a cyclist
stays upright by adjusting his body angles and his steering.
It is of course a pretty story, and I am reluctant to take on the unattractive
aspect of the debunker. But the real objection to false marvels of this kind is that
they blind us to true marvels: in the present case, the miracle that people can learn
to cycle. Somehow, nearly all of us can quite quickly learn this totally unnatural
to be sure, it is easier than walking; but for our skill in the latter we can appeal
to three hundred million years of evolution for an explanation. In cycling we see a
wonderful example of the way in which abilities developed for one evolutionary "purpose"
can be adapted to a totally different use.
Return to home page.