Binge drinking, euthanasia and others

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For the jobless and hopeless, binge-drinking is no joke

For the jobless and hopeless, binge-drinking is no joke

Sir: I was born in the late Seventies but do not recognise Ellie Levenson's experience of binge-drinking ("Drinking is all there is left for a girl these days", 15 December).

It is flat wrong to suggest that "no student shouted in the Nineties". Groups often congregated outside my university and yelled about tuition fees, Islam, human rights and environmental issues.

To argue that binge-drinking is a "middle-class pleasure" is curious. Are the drunken hordes in every British town centre all middle-class pleasure-seekers? For those in spirit-crushing jobs or without work, hard-drinking offers an easily reached oblivion. Yes, the middle-class drunkard with support networks, fulfilling employment and financial security may find it easy to stop bingeing. But for the working-class tippler it may be more complicated to leave the boozing self-medication behind.

Excessive drinking is not the preserve of a wasted youth that "dashes the glass to the floor" on joining the world of responsibility. The chaos and misery caused by older excessive-drinkers is largely hidden because they are more likely to get trousered on wine at home, rather than on alcopops in a night-club. I have witnessed and enjoyed serious drinking as a young man but being British we tend to treat falling-over drunkenness as a joke or a pleasure, and therein lies the justification for dangerous over-consumption. The stench of ethanol-pickled organs on certain hospital wards is certainly not amusing.

Alcohol does not offer a rebellious form of hedonism; it is an everyday drug cheaply available to everyone, and in the form of "real ale", one which I personally relish. Heaven forfend that anyone deny the middle-classes anything, but these are bleak times indeed if our sole pleasure, rich or poor, is dipsomania.

Preston, Greater Manchester

Offensive advice to hurry up and die

Sir: We are wondering if Virginia Ironside's piece on euthanasia (15 December) is really being presented as a meaningful contribution to the debate. Although she begins by discussing the undoubtedly dreadful suffering experienced by certain people dying "miserable deaths", most of her references being to people with neurodegenerative conditions, she then moves on to make some extraordinary comments.

Why is it so dreadful that "nearly half of spending on hospital and community health services in Britain is for people over 65"? Why is it a "ghastly prospect" that by 2040 there will be a growth in the number of people over the age of 64? Is it really dreadful that "Exit" no longer produces a booklet on how to kill yourself?

We are told that Virginia often gave thanks to her parents for "having the consideration to die" while she was still young, and that "it's not right that older people should hang around cluttering up the corridors". It is unfortunate that she never had the opportunity to share some of the benefits of living and learning from "older" generations.

As academics with an interest in health care issues, we are concerned that The Independent has found it appropriate to publish such an offensive article, suggesting that substantial numbers of vulnerable people should be encouraged to hurry up and die.

Research Institute for Enhancing Learning
School of Education
University of Wales, Bangor

Sir: In the article "Keep taking the tablets" (14 December), Virginia Ironside illustrated her pro-Prozac argument by stating: "I have often said that I would prefer to suffer from cancer than depression ... I know cancer patients who want to live. I don't know anyone suffering from depression who doesn't want to die."

I am sure I am not the only one who was appalled by this "sentiment". Of course there are cancer patients who want to live, and to say, as she does later, that depression is "the worst illness to suffer from in the world" is a slap in the face to every one of them.

I do not want to belittle the pain of depression, indeed some of my closest friends and family have battled against it. But I also know the pain of cancer - my 26-year-old husband of two months died of a malignant brain tumour this year after being diagnosed and undergoing major brain surgery on Christmas Day 2002. He was an extremely talented drummer who played until the very end despite further surgery, radiotherapy and chemo.

The obvious fact is that some cancer patients don't have the chance to persuade themselves that they would rather live than die. If Ms Ironside would rather have cancer, maybe she should donate the same amount she spent on therapy to cancer research. I am afraid she sounds to me like a spoilt, self-obsessed little girl in a sulk.

Kos, Greece

Alternative religions

Sir: James Harkin wrote a welcome critique of the alternative spiritualities which pass for religion for some people today, and makes an important point about the role Judaism and Christianity have played in the past in strengthening the bonds of community life ("As an atheist, I believe in proper religions", 6 December). But I have to take issue with his claim that "the slow death of organised religion in British society has left a vacuum which has yet to be filled". While it is true that the numbers of church-going Christians have declined in this country over the past century, organised religion is hardly dead.

There are millions who still practise their faith and they continue to play a vital role in not only strengthening communities, but also acting as a "conscience" for society. The report by the Catholic bishops on prison and prison reform is but one example of how the churches can offer an alternative view of society, while millions of church-goers make a difference in their own small way by being active in various organisations such as the many branches of the Catholic St Vincent de Paul Society helping the sick, the afflicted, the lonely, the elderly and the poor. They do so because their faith commits them to do so, something which any amount of feng shui and chakras will not do.

Perhaps one of the most important challenges now is for the churches and people like James Harkin to find common ground so that they can work together for social justice. You may not love God, James, but you can still love your neighbour.

The Tablet
London W6

Sir: James Harkin's article could be read as a thinly veiled attack on Eastern religions, with their emphasis on meditation and self-awareness. Know thyself and love thyself are important starting points in perfecting your behaviour towards others in the wider world. Moreover, much of the social responsibility he seems to claim as the exclusive preserve of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is shared for example by Buddhism.

Alternatively, Mr Harkin may be mistaking health and relaxation cures for new religions. In my native Japan, for instance, I am not sure that we attach any religious significance to having a bath, but we do know it has little to do with getting clean - we have a shower beforehand to achieve that. Might I suggest that the next time he is soaking in his hot tub, he might prefer to contemplate his current being, rather than focusing on the atheistic nothingness that he thinks is to come. He will probably then enjoy his bath far more!


Turkey and the EU

Sir: As a British Muslim, I am forced to question the extent to which Turkey can credibly perform the role of "bridge between civilisations", and, more importantly, why its presumed pedagogic role necessitates membership of the EU ("Turkey offers to heal the wounds between West and the Islamic world - for a price", 13 December).

Turkey's record in terms of its foreign relations with neighbouring Muslim states is at best patchy. Its current charm offensive, directed at the Middle East as much as Europe, has one goal in mind: that of casting Turkey in the best possible light as it enters the final leg of the race to become a fully-fledged EU member. There are 20 million Muslims living within the borders of the EU. And there are millions more involved in civic forums across the Middle East that aim to promote democratisation and political liberalism in these societies. One is forced to question the claim that Turkey speaks for the world's Muslim population both within and without the EU. The country's record on human rights still fails to impress and the plight of religious groups within Turkey, including Muslims, is neglected.

It irks me that the issue of Turkey's membership is being peddled as a measure of the capacity of the EU to absorb Muslims and permit them to contribute to the continent's future. Are we 20 million Muslim citizens now irrelevant?

Ilford, Essex

Free swimming

Sir: I was disturbed to read the article "Free pond swimming may sink without trace" (14 November) stating that the Corporation of London plans to start charging people to swim in the Hampstead Ponds.

It seems ironic that, at a time when the nation is so concerned about obesity, a facility such as Hampstead Ponds should be made less accessible. The nation is in the middle of a major health and fitness programme, and swimming is firmly in the front line as an inexpensive sport that is ideal to combat obesity and build fitness. We should be encouraging more people to take up the sport by making it less expensive and more accessible, not by charging for facilities that have traditionally been free.

It is encouraging that people such as Michael Foot and Glenda Jackson see the importance of intervening to ensure that current facilities like the Hampstead Ponds remain free for public use and I would like to add my voice to support their campaign.

London W1

Idea of a university

Sir: John Birtwhistle suggests in his letter (10 December) that the origin of the world's favourite quote (about evil triumphing if bad men do nothing) is to be found in an address given by John Stuart Mill. Mill was rector of the University of St Andrews from 1865 to 1868 and, on 1 February 1 1867, he gave his rectorial address to the assembled university staff and students.

Towards the end of a very wide-ranging and long (22,000 words) analysis of the purpose and functions of a university, which Charles Clarke could read with enormous benefit, the quoted sentence appears in the context of a discussion of international law. It is preceded by another, even more telling, sentence: "Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion."

St Andrews, Fife

Batting for England

Sir: I am repeatedly puzzled by discussions in the press regarding the rights to whack a burglar on the head with a baseball bat. Where would one even obtain a baseball bat? I have always been under the impression that "baseball" was an incomprehensible American adaptation of "rounders".

Surely we should advise people of nervous disposition to keep a cricket bat next to their bed with which to deter intruders. Indeed, I was most relieved when my daughter was obliged to obtain a lacrosse stick. This should prove equally effective in disabling unwanted nocturnal visitors, and a suitably ladylike alternative for the fair sex.

So let us hear no more transatlantic babble of "baseball bats". Remember we are Englishmen! The Scots could always repel intruders by playing their bagpipes. I have no useful advice for suitably patriotic defence weapons for the Welsh or the Irish. Readers in these locations might have more local knowledge and be able to advise.

Chichester, West Sussex

Identity for sale

Sir: The weekend before ID cards were abolished in 1952, Henry Channon MP (Con) told me that their retention was essential in the fight against crime and, I think, was genuinely astonished when I told him that I could buy one at the pub next to St Martin-in-the-Fields for five shillings [25p]. I expect that fakes of Blunkett cards will be more expensive.


Busy social life

Sir: The idea that socialising costs money, advanced by Jonathan Welfare (letter, 15 December), is bunk. Indeed, the very phrase "socially excluded" is nonsense. I have a friend (on social security) who spends several hours a day wandering around the neighbourhood just talking to people, or inviting them into his home where they occasionally get a cup of tea. In contrast, the people who are genuinely excluded from socialising are the poor sods doing a full day's work: half of them are too knackered to socialise on an evening.


Awesome spans

Sir: I'm surprised that you have omitted the Humber Bridge from your otherwise excellent spread on the greatest bridges of the world (15 December). I worked in Hull for four years and was constantly awed by the graceful lines of what was for many years the world's longest single-span suspension bridge. It was an engineering milestone and is much more beautiful than San Francisco's famous Golden Gate, which looks almost stumpy by comparison.


Don't make trouble

Sir: Mr Riches (letter, 14 December) asks how HM Government would like us to die. I think the fundamental answer is that other people would like us to die in such a way that any complaints end up on somebody else's desk.