Sir: Philip Hensher is perfectly correct; you'd have thought everyone would now know the non-existent chances of an unknown novelist breaking into print (Opinion, 4 January). But evidently not, if a typical publisher sometimes gets 50 unsolicited manuscripts a day.
There still persists a kind of official myth in which an unknown person writes a novel and sends it to a publisher, has its brilliance recognised, and becomes famous. Every so often you see a claim that this or that published novelist got started by sending a manuscript through the post to a publisher or agent. But every time I've ever learnt more about it, it has turned out that some significant detail was left out - such as that a relative or friend worked for the firm.
Perhaps a tip should be taken from film and television. There nobody pretends that an unknown can simply send in a manuscript and subsequently see it produced. Rather, the aspirant will be told that to become a scriptwriter he or she should start off as a graduate trainee in film or television and work up from the inside. In other words, it is a profession, to be entered like any other. Equally let there develop organised ways of becoming a writer, and stop pretending it is something to be done by self-created talent from the outside.
As it is, a myth is being inculcated that is leading huge numbers of people into heartbreak and an enduring sense of failure.
Sir: Philip Hensher tells us (4 January) that "slowly gaining a name in other ways is a filter" of a writer's worthiness to be published.
Well, Ann Widdecombe gains a name as a politician prior to writing The Clematis Tree, which finds a publisher; Naomi Campbell gains a name as a model before writing (most of) Swan, which also finds a publisher. Their example doesn't impress me much as a demonstration of the way in which Mr Hensher's "filter" operates. I'd sooner read Stanley Middleton any day. Incidentally, how far does writing letters to The Independent count towards making a name for oneself?
Lib Dems deserve a proper election
Sir: Charles Kennedy's decision to put his leadership to party members does not address the core concern which has led the Liberal Democrats to their current predicament. Whatever the reason - and personally one must have huge sympathy for such a likable man - he has lost the confidence of a significant proportion of his most senior colleagues and this will not restored by a membership vote.
What is more, while he remains determined to fight on, his candidature is an obstacle to a genuine election. The Liberal Democrats are blessed at the moment with an unusually talented front bench. The much-discussed trio of Menzies Campbell, Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten are only three of those with the potential to make excellent party leaders. Yet, for reasons of both honour and pragmatism, a number of the strongest candidates clearly feel unable to stand while Kennedy remains in the ring.
I have little doubt that a candidate will be found to oppose Charles, but a run-off with a Liberal Democrat version of John Redwood will do nothing to restore confidence in the current leadership. Meanwhile, the discontent of the shadows in the background even now grows stronger at such a prospect.
Instead, this most democratic of parties deserves a proper election with a full choice of candidates. The consequent debate will enable the party to reinvigorate itself and to address its philosophical and tactical direction, which, rather than the whisky, has been at the root of current concerns.
Such an election cannot, however, happen while Kennedy remains a candidate. He leaves a remarkable legacy - a stronger party than at any time since the 1920s - yet that could now be undermined by the timing of his going.
Sir: As a "grass-roots" member of the Liberal Democrats I am increasingly puzzled by the allegedly "overwhelming support" for Charles Kennedy claimed to exist among such members. Obviously in general terms the party tends to support its leader: that is sensible politics, but we are beyond that point.
I attended Lib Dem party conferences for many years. I can recall always being impressed by Charles Kennedy's energy and enthusiasm. However by the time he became leader he somehow failed to inspire in the same way.
It could be argued that recent successes were in spite of his leadership not because of it. There is a long list of missed opportunities and failure to take advantage of the weakness of the Tories and Labour. Whenever he appeared on radio or TV, which was always less frequently than expected, he left me disappointed because he came over as convoluted and less than incisive.
Irrespective of the alcohol issue, the only question that matters is whether he could be seen by the electorate as a potential Prime Minister. If not, the party needs a new leader who will inspire such confidence.
EASTBOURNE, EAST SUSSEX
Sir: Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the part of our country represented in Parliament by Charles Kennedy will know the great difficulty of turning down "a dram". Indeed, to do so can cause enormous offence. He (like so many in the same predicament) needs our support and not our condemnation.
His own constituents have sustained him with ever-increasing majorities. Many of them (like, clearly, the parliamentary press) will have "known". Why should the fact that we now all know something that was hardly a great surprise change things?
JOHN SCOTT MONCRIEFF
Badger link to cattle TB not proven
Sir: Olaf Swaarbrick (letter, 31 December) says that in order to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) "we have to destroy the infected animals of all species". All research indicates that only a small minority of badgers and deer are infected with bTB. During the last three decades the Government has killed thousands upon thousands of healthy badgers in order to kill a small minority of infected badgers.
This has clearly achieved nothing and now we are being asked by Mr Swaarbrick to accept the death of all badgers and all deer in at least six south-west counties. I reckon that could mean up to 60,000 badgers and 150,000 deer. What for? To protect the tiny minority of humans who Mr Swaarbrick admits are "unwise" (some might say "stupid") enough, to consume unpasteurised dairy products.
Thirty years ago I was a lay member of the RSPCA's Wild Animals Advisory Committee when the then Maff (now Defra) started gassing badgers. I recall asking a Maff official at one meeting, "How do badgers give bTB to cattle?" He replied: "We don't know, but we are sure they do." More than three decades later, the answer is the exactly the same. Defra has apparently bowed to the pressure of the farming lobby to give farmers permission to kill badgers - after the usual "consultation" period of course.
Several wildlife groups are now discussing mounting a campaign to persuade the public to boycott British butter and other dairy products until the extermination plan is dropped.
Mr Swaarbrick ended his letter by challenging those who oppose the cull to put forward alternative measures. We did that decades ago when we urged the Government to produce a cattle vaccine, introduce better systems for detecting infection in cattle, improve cattle welfare and husbandry, get a grip of livestock movements, and finally stop creating distress and unnatural dispersal in wildlife populations, so that they can hopefully build up some immunity to the disease that a small proportion of them catch having to forage for food on pasture contaminated by diseased livestock and their slurry.
Keep US-style graft out of Brussels
Sir: While Washington is currently awash with terror as people wait to see what the fall-out from Jack Abramoff's plea deal is, Europeans should wonder how long it will take for the lobbying phenomenon to filter across the Atlantic into Brussels.
Currently, lobbying shops in Brussels are sparse on the ground as people first try to comprehend where exactly the power lies in Brussels: is it the Parliament, the Commission, the Council of Ministers, etc. Second, does the power even lie in Brussels? If the last year has taught Europeans anything, it is that power in the EU rests firmly within the capitals.
Nevertheless, the legislation in Europe is gradually taking shape, and the time will come when Brussels will reign with a firmer grip. Once this happens, weak legislators will undoubtedly fall prey to unscrupulous and predatory lobbyists working the system.
While the Abramoff scandal gives Europeans an excellent opportunity to cackle at American shortcomings, a lesson should be drawn and protections should be put in place now to prevent such a thing ever occurring in Europe. The whiff of scandal already hangs around some of the newer member states (and some older ones), let us work now to keep Abramoff out of Brussels.
With best wishes for a scrupulous New Year.
RESEARCH ASSOCIATE EUROPE PROGRAM CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES WASHINGTON, DC
Ethiopian activists must be freed
Sir: You have drawn attention (report, 23 December) to the case of the two Ethiopian anti-poverty campaigners, Daniel Bekele of ActionAid and Netsanet Demessie, who heads one of our partner organisations. They have been detained since early November, with minimal access to lawyers. They were eventually charged on 21 December but no evidence was produced against them.
The day after you published a letter from the Ethiopian ambassador (3 January), Daniel and Netsanet were refused bail and sent back to the cells for a further seven weeks. These two social activists are not criminals and have not been involved in violence in any way. Their work is part of the progress towards good governance and democracy which the ambassador desires. They should be released immediately.
DIRECTOR, ACTIONAID UK LONDON N19
Political correctness and human nature
Sir: Your leading article on political correctness (4 January) prompts us to write. Under Soviet communism, dissidents were sent to mental institutions. For if one argued against the state, it was to argue also against the objectives of the state (which were of course wonderfully idealistic), and therefore you had to be mad to do so. The parallel with modern political correctness is obvious. If you object to PC then you are self-evidently a racist or a homophobe. But perhaps those who object to PC understand, as the dissenters in the Soviet Union did, that the ideology they were fighting was against human nature.
WOODFORD GREEN, ESSEX
No gag order issued over MI6 agent
Sir: In the article "Terror suspects describe alleged torture 'in front of MI6 agents' " (4 January) Elinda Labropoulou claimed "The British Government has issued a gagging order to prevent the publication of the alleged British agent's name". It has not.
The advice given to editors on this issue was not offered by the Government, but by me on behalf of the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee. The five standing Defence Advisory Notices on the publication and broadcasting of national security information agreed by this independent Committee (see www.dnotice.org.uk) constitute a purely voluntary code, one without any form of legal sanction. Any suggestion that the media has been "gagged" on this issue is plain wrong.
AIR VICE-MARSHAL, SECRETARY, DEFENCE PRESS AND BROADCASTING ADVISORY COMMITTEE, LONDON SW1
Sinn Fein's excuses
Sir: I searched Gerry Adams's "The time for excuses in Northern Ireland is over" (Podium, 4 January) for some self criticism. When Sinn Fein hands over the murderers of Robert MacCartney and returns the Northern Bank its £26m then I shall have evidence that his band of terrorists has changed its spots. And I expect the same honesty of Loyalist terrorists too.
DR MARTIN ROSENDAAL
The pensioner vote
Sir: I much enjoyed and sympathised with Mr Douglas's letter on pensioner power (6 January). However, to be "a force no political party will be able to ignore", the retired will not be helped by being a majority, but instead by being a large element of the few floating voters in the few marginal constituencies. Otherwise we, the by-then retired, will still be up the proverbial gum tree.
B J FEARNLEY
Sir: How on earth does one go about making a "choice" about where to place oneself when ill, for the best care? After a visit to my local GP, I would just want to go to the nearest hospital and be made well, not have to go through a process of making a critical decision before I can be treated. Surely we should expect the local hospital to be as excellent as any other.
Iran is due an apology
Sir: You report (5 January) that Britain has dropped the charge that Iran was complicit in the killing of British soldiers in Iraq. When can we expect to read your report that the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, has made a grovelling apology to the Iranian government and that Jack Straw has gone on bended knee to the Iranian ambassador in London to ask forgiveness for making a scandalous and slanderous accusation without even bothering to check intelligence reports?
COLIN MURISON SMALL
The no-weight-loss diet
Sir: I plan to break my habit of picking up a cappuccino every morning on the way into work by picking up a cappuccino and a pastry. Though this seems unlikely to lead to any weight loss (pace the "No-diet diet", 3 January), I'll probably enjoy the experiment.
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