What The Papers Said: William Hartston Reviews The Week's Press

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I AM not "bouffant-haired". I am a Freemason of some 38 years' standing. My grandson once owned a small clockwork toy car. I have just spent six weeks in an alcohol detoxification ward. I feel that Lord Irvine shows commendable restraint. Wallpaper tends to last longer than governments. Let us build on the successes of Esperanto. My hair is not "bouffant".

Nowhere in the national press do you see such commendable variety as in the Letters pages. And nothing better conveys the tone of a paper than the opening sentences of the letters it prints. Those comprising our first paragraph all come from letters published last week - the first week of the decidedly non-bouffant-haired Michael Cole's well-earned retirement as spokesman for Harrods. How nice to see that he is busy writing to the newspapers on behalf of his hair.

The Times gives more space than the other papers for its readers to express their opinions, though curiously they seemed to publish fewer letters on the matter of Rupert Murdoch's alleged interference with the editorial policy of HarperCollins. When they did get round to the topic, we saw Oleg Gordievsky accusing the discussion of being "concerned with aspects of the prob- lem that are of secondary or tertiary importance", while Philip Congdon stressed the "curse of freedom of expression".

The Telegraph, by contrast, published, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, no fewer than 11 letters on the subject, scarcely any of which had anything good to say about HarperCollins or other parts of the Murdoch empire. "You have been rightly indignant about Rupert Murdoch's antics" began Sir Christopher Chataway, while Sir Pere- grine Worsthorne wrote: "The Times is simply up to its old tricks", and accused its editor, Peter Stothard, of "giving the same velvet-glove treatment to the Chinese dictatorship" as another editor did before the war when he would not let his Berlin correspondent criticise Hitler.

There would probably have been even more on this subject in the Telegraph if Tuesday's Letters page had not been almost totally occupied by those who had been on the weekend's countryside protest march and wanted to say how much they had enjoyed it. The Mail, incidentally, on Monday had carried a front-page headline "Now will you listen to us?" on the topic, but it was the Telegraph that most of the marchers seemed to be shouting at. "The Government would be most unwise to try to sideline us on any of the issues," warned Mrs JR Owen of Northants, while Helen Pease of Banbury said: "It is worth noting that the supposed 'minority' who marched preserve the majority of acreage in Great Britain." The Telegraph established some balance by publishing one letter from a man who wasn't on the march, but was with them in spirit while he stayed at home eating roast beef on the bone.

Guardian readers were more pessimistic about the march having any beneficial effect, reminding others in a section headed "Marches that went nowhere" how they'd all been on CND marches in the 1960s without having any effect at all on government policy. Perhaps their mood had been somehow affected by having to share a page with a letter from Uri Geller, who wanted to correct the newspaper's allegation that his car is a Daimler. It is, as he pointed out, a Cadillac, which he bought in 1976, "when I was going through my flashy period".

The Independent had a highly varied batch of opinions on the countryside march, including one letter from Lord Mancroft (the deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance) who came out in favour of fox-hunting, another letter from a man who enjoys roast chicken but "cannot bring myself to wring its neck", and a letter from Pete Barrett of Colchester, who proposed a solution: "Get our genetic engineers to cross a slug with a greyhound and produce a slimy thing that ran very fast and would be fun to hunt, and nobody would care if it got killed."

The Independent's readers indeed surpassed themselves at solving the world's problems last week. On another vexing issue - the question of finding a single European language - one day's letters produced four solutions. One man proposed vulgar Latin (as spoken by ancient Romans themselves), another pointed out the advantages of Esperanto, a third accused Esperanto of being too artificial and suggested the equally inhuman Interlingua, while a lady from Bristol wants to promote Elvish.

The best Letters page suggestion of the week? Well, there was a good idea in the Mail from Dennis Hacking of Purley: "If the Australians want to replace the Queen as head of state with some pompous, self-important politician, we might at least have the decency to offer them Lord Irvine." But I think the award goes to Nick Percival who wrote to the Times about the vexed problem of chewing-gum removal: "Scientists have already invented something for getting chewing gum off the pavement. It is called a shoe."

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