Letters: Balmoral embarrassment

The Balmoral embarrassment highlights the sins of the mighty
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Sir: I heard Cherie Blair describe herself as a "good Catholic girl" during an interview to promote her book. Yet she admitted in the memoir that the reason she conceived her son Leo was that she omitted to take her contraceptives with her during a stay at Balmoral for fear of embarrassment when her bags were opened.

Do we conclude from this that the "good Catholic girl" routinely flouts her church's rules on contraception? So the church, it appears, tolerates her sinfulness because she is famous and influential. She belongs to a pick-and-choose church whose theology is so flexible as to permit her delinquency, and to admit to its congregation with open arms her equally delinquent husband.

Double standards are evident here, given the ferocity of the recent statements coming from the cardinals on the embryology and abortion debate. We can also now see why Tony Blair has had such a comfortable relationship with the RC Church. No wonder he was so happy to mislead the country prior to the Iraq war. Dodgy dossier? No WMDs? Never mind, it will all be OK after a spot of confession.

No wonder the public grows increasingly cynical about politicians (and their wives) and their professed religiosity. If only there were some genuine signs of morality in their judgements we might start to believe what they say.

Leni Gillman

London Se25

Eco-towns: blight or opportunity?

Sir: Janet Street-Porter rightly argues that we should "rise up against eco-towns" (15 May). But we should be wary of throwing the eco-baby out with the polluted bathwater. The Government has advocated some admirable street design principles for the eco-towns which, if used in the right places, could really help transform our streets into places where people feel safe walking and cycling and where children can get out and about freely instead of being cooped up as car-dependent couch-potatoes .

The trouble is that, although these principles are tried and tested in continental Europe, they are still very unfamiliar in Britain. To be successful they first need to be applied in places where it is easiest to meet your travel needs within your locality, that is in existing dense urban areas, not some newly-built car-commuter satellite towns.

If the Government can be persuaded to adopt these design principles as the norm for our towns and cities, then we really would be on the way to sustainable development.

Roger Geffen

Campaigns & Policy ManagerCTC, the national cyclists' organisation, Guildford, Surrey

Sir: Janet Street-Porter is right to be critical of the eco-town policy. New homes in every existing village, town and city, built to a high level of quality and sensitive to the local environment, would offer a more sustainable long-term approach to our housing needs.

We already know how to create sustainable homes, as demonstrated by the BedZed affordable eco-homes in south London and the renewable energy theme park developed by Kiklees Borough Council in Yorkshire.

Building brand new eco-towns outside existing settlements is a really bad idea when there are 675,000 homes in England alone sitting empty, all ripe for refitting with green technologies.

Reducing the level of VAT from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent on repairs and maintenance to existing buildings would provide the kick-start that is needed to encourage every householder to make their home green.

Brian Berry

Federation of Master BuildersLondon, WC1

Sir: Janet Street-Porter completely misses the fact that the current housing crisis is down to the desperate lack of new homes being built.

There are currently 1.6 million households on council house waiting lists and 79,500 homeless households trapped in temporary accommodation. Not to mention the thousands of young first-time buyers locked out of the housing market. We desperately need to build more homes, especially more affordable homes.

While Janet Street-Porter is right that we also need to look at ways of bringing empty homes back into use, the scale of housing need is such that we must also embrace development on a much larger scale. Eco-towns represent a real opportunity to create genuinely sustainable communities, with significant proportions of affordable housing, the right infrastructure and impeccable environmental credentials.

Adam Sampson

Chief Executive, Shelter London EC1

The French sailor who shot Nelson

Sir: Robert Fisk's article on "The mystery of the man who shot Nelson" (10 May) continues some myths.

He was not shot by "a sniper". There were theories current in England shortly after Trafalgar that the French employed Tyrolean and German jägers with rifles and French marksmen trained with "carabines de Versailles" to shoot officers. In fact, Napoleon disliked elite corps of specialists. Nelson was shot by a seaman using a 1777 pattern Charleville musket; the ball at Windsor Castle bears this out. Thousands were issued to the French Army and Navy and it was one of these that killed Nelson.

Captain Jean-Jacques Lucas of the Redoutable was planning to send a boarding party on to the Victory and sent some seamen into the fighting tops to clear the English decks. Surviving eyewitnesses to Nelson's death were interviewed by Robert Southey for his Life of Nelson. Several saw a French sailor in a white shirt and black glazed hat shoot the admiral from a range of about 20 yards, not a difficult shot. Most mediocre shots can hit a one-foot circle with a musket at 20 yards more often than not. Two midshipmen, Pollard and Collingwood, and some marines shot back. When Redoutable surrendered, the two midshipmen climbed her shrouds and saw the body of Nelson's killer. He had one wound in the head and another in the chest.

Another myth is Nelson's "extraordinary vanity" in wearing all his decorations. This was expected of an officer, and it was his duty to give an example to his men of steadiness under fire. An officer's uniform was different from that of other ranks right up to the First World War. An officer who tried to disguise himself as an ordinary soldier or sailor would have been cashiered for cowardice.

William Rayner


Palestinians need their own state

Sir: William Garrett (letters 16 May), says in reply to my letter (14 May): "So Mr Goldman, currently living comfortably in law-abiding, democratic Britain, believes that Palestinians, ethnically cleansed from their land, should stay as refugees while Israel keeps their land, and that Israel should keep and settle in all land gained since 1947, despite this being against the Geneva Conventions." I said nothing of the sort. I believe nothing of the sort.

While I believe the Jews should have a homeland, it is equally obvious that the Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer enormously. They deserve and need their own state within agreed borders. There must be also be a proper, negotiated solution to the tragic refugee problem. Few Jews or Israelis would disagree.

Mr Garrett also questions my complaining that that Hamas programmes its children to hate the Jews. Actually, it's more Hamas's programming of its children to aspire to kill Jews, through school song, through TV programmes, that causes me – and should cause him – distress; as such education puts the required settlement of these disputes further out of reach.

James Goldman

London NW4

Sir: Your columnist Howard Jacobson (10 May) describes the West Bank as "the disputed territories". There are no "disputed" territories; there are only occupied territories. That is, territory seized by force in 1967 and since occupied and held by force by Israel. Territory held for 41 years against the will not only of those who lived there at the time of its illegal seizure, but against the will of the overwelming majority of the nations of the earth, as expressed in numerous United Nations resolutions.

Adrian Mannering


Sir: Norman Levin (letter, 15 May) says that Israel's goal is to live in peace with its neighbours. If I wanted friendly and peaceful relations with my neighbours, would I occupy their back garden and build a fence which cuts off a large part of their property?

David Simmonds

Epping, Essex

Send students out into the fields

Sir: In the old days the university terms of Oxford and Cambridge were organised so that the young gentlemen could travel back home and help physically with the harvest.

When I was at school in Scotland there were special "holidays" so that the children could go and help with the potato harvest. The work was hard and exhausting but it taught a valuable lesson: there is a connection between working and eating.

Rather than looking around shamefully for some new foreign underclass to exploit or letting the strawberries rot in the fields ("Strawberry fields forsaken", 12 May) we should make sure that young students are reminded of this lesson. They may go back to their studies sick of strawberries but with a greater respect for all those who spend their lives doing poorly paid manual work in all kinds of weather, and a determination to work harder at their studies to avoid the same fate.

A J Caston

Tervuren, Belgium

Politicians hounded by the media

Sir: Do the media, including The Independent, know what they want from "freedom of information"? They keep calling for ministerial briefing papers to be made public, and when Caroline Flint discloses one she and the paper are ridiculed. The media has made a lousy case for future disclosure if this is the way they would react.

On the other hand, Ms Flint and her advisers may have disclosed the briefing intentionally, knowing it could be photographed. Could she be having the last laugh?

Peter Skelton

Twickenham, Middlesex

Sir: The shabby incident of Caroline Flint's housing memo reinforces my opinion that a prime minister and Cabinet, of any party, have the right to enter and leave 10 Downing Street without being spied upon or bellowed at by our beloved media, the latter usually in cretinously insulting terms ("Are you going to resign, Mr Major?" "Do you expect to be charged, Mr Blair?" etc).

I look forward to the day when Downing Street becomes a hack-free zone.

Peter Metcalfe

Stevenage, Hertfordshire

Sir: I've always been in favour of Messrs Humphrys and Paxman confronting the politicians with the public's concerns but when Paxman interviewed the Chancellor this week on Newsnight, the tone was very much that of a headmaster dressing down a boy caught smoking behind the bike sheds.

Are we perhaps going over the top in our methods of bringing politicians to book? Don't they need a certain amount of respect if they are to do a difficult job for us? Alistair Darling made a mistake about the l0p tax band (or rather, Gordon Brown did) but he honestly admitted this and moved quickly to put it right. Go on, media, give them a break.

Emma Hitchcock

London SE24

Landscape seen from the air

Sir: I agree that seeing somewhere like Snowdonia from the air (Letters, 12 May) is a uniquely rewarding experience, but all the advantages cited for light aircraft apply with much greater force to hot-air balloon flights.

The carbon footprint per person carried by balloon is far smaller, its slow, silent progress enables the sights and sounds of the countryside to be more fully appreciated, the expense involved is much less and the sense of adventure greater. It must however be acknowledged that walking in such splendid surroundings is the best way of all of experiencing their attractions, and healthier to boot.

Dr Bob Heys

Ripponden, West Yorkshire

Leader of Burma

Sir: In his article "Paranoid Burmese junta steps up security around Suu Kyi" (16 May), Andrew Buncombe describes Aung San Suu Kyi as "the leader of Burma's political opposition". She is in fact the democratically elected leader of Burma, voted into power in 1990. Unfortunately, the ruling military decided to ignore the election.

Jack Downey

Limerick, Ireland

How to save the Union

Sir: Gordon Brown has told us that he wants to preserve the Union. This of course is a very worthy aim. However the Prime Minister needs to recognise that there are really only two ways to do this. One is to revert to the unitary arrangements pre-1997. The second (and more creative) one is to build a genuine Federation of the United States of Britain. This would enable the various parts of our country to have their own parliaments within a constitutionally respectable arrangement.

Andrew McLuskey

Staines, Middlesex

Tax under the Tories

Sir: Would the hypocritical Tories, including the Shadow Chancellor, who are jumping up and down over the Government's embarrassment over the 10p tax situation, please answer two simple questions. What was the lowest rate of income tax under the last Tory government? Did any Tory government ever have a 10p tax range?

Ian Murray

Upper Clatford, Hampshire

Cover girls uncovered

Sir: Your piece on whether we are being conned by the covers of magazines (Extra, 16 May) is a strange take on this subject. It seems to me far more pertinent to ask: "Are we being common?". Why women are allowing themselves to appear at all in this way and in this profusion is the question. They can hardly need the money. Mystique and elusiveness are the key to quality. Modern females simply have no sense of their own dignity.

J Poole

Romsey, Hampshire

Poor outlook for Brazil

Sir: Whenever I read of some other depredation to the Brazilian rainforest because of short-sighted greed ("I give up, says Brazilian minister who fought to save the rainforest", 15 May) I am reminded of the statement of Georges Clemenceau: "I believe Brazil is the country of the future and always will be."

Marc Furstenberg

New York