Sir: The report about homeless men freezing to death on the streets of Paris (22 December) may have stirred readers to righteous indignation. But look nearer home.
In November, I went to the annual memorial service for people who have died homeless in London: more than 100 are known about in the past year.
I live in central London and talk daily to men and women sleeping on the streets while tides of shoppers sweep past to buy yet more for the festive season. Increasingly, I find the comparison intolerable. Last night, I saw a group of about 10 men converge on the rubbish sacks outside a sandwich shop in Regent Street, foraging, scavenging. What have we come to?
At least in Paris the neglect has raised a political storm. Here, with the honourable exception of those volunteering for church and charity shelters, the plight of those living on the streets in this freezing weather meets with, it seems, sublime indifference. Those I talk to are largely new on the streets, isolated, with no idea of shelters or hand-outs, far from the popular image of the grasping beggar or dependency culture. Many say almost the worst thing about being street-homeless is the abusive behaviour of the public.
The Government and tabloid line has declared open season not only on those seeking asylum, but on indigenous homeless. Christmas? Compassion? Not here.
The hypocrisy of Blair and the Church
Sir: Tony Blair has joined the Roman Catholic Church just before Christmas in a publicity stunt the sheer hypocrisy of which beggars belief. Why did he not have the strength of his convictions to convert while Prime Minister? He could have been PM and Catholic. It is not as if he is a member of the Royal Family, after all. Or perhaps he thinks he is?
If anything, the Roman Catholic Church is even more cynical. No matter that Blair was instrumental in starting an illegal war in Iraq that has led to the deaths of at least 700,000 people? Or responsible for sending troops to Afghanistan to fight an unwinnable war with inadequate kit?
Tony Blair should be facing a war-crimes tribunal, not being given special treatment by a cardinal. But no, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor personally grasped the bloodstained hands of Blair in a special ceremony that ordinary converts are denied. Could it be that the Catholic Church has joined the masses in worshipping at the altar of celebrity and now cares little for morality or what sins their converts committed?
Before being accepted into the Church, did Blair confess his sins or ask forgiveness from the people he betrayed?
Richmond, North Yorkshire
Changing spelling would cause chaos
Sir: What if a new spelling system for the English language were to be introduced and accepted by most of the English-speaking world ("Children's life chances blighted", 17 December)? There would be now be a body of scientific, cultural and political literature (physically embodied in billions of books) which would presumably, by Masha Bell's token, remain inaccessible to precisely those who struggle now (letter, 7 December), and would become even more inaccessible to a new generation trained in a new orthography.
Perhaps that is what going to happen anyway: the written language is shewing showing - its ability to evolve almost daily, not least on the Net and by texting. With the speed of change, it looks as if we shall inevitably arrive at having a formal written language and one or many demotic written languages. It is unlikely an imposed new orthodoxy will change this.
As for accessibility; a suggestion that learning to read and write English is uniquely difficult isn't true. Japanese provides the most obvious proof of that. And English is a very forgiving language. I can't speak of Korean, but a simple mistake (by, say, a foreigner) in Finnish can render an utterance incomprehensible in a way which seems extraordinary to those used to the flexible and forgiving nature of English. There are too many variants of spoken English for one spelling system to be much "easier" for a majority than the present one. And, thank heaven, there is no academy with the authority to impose a new system.
Sir: English is remarkably simple in so many ways, the straightforwardness of its verb conjugations, its non-agreement of adjectives, its non-use of gender-modified articles. It's tricky only in its pronunciation.
Yet billions of past and present speakers of English all over the world appear to have regarded this as just a linguistic challenge to be overcome through practice. If we are going to change, I do hope that the French will rejig all their hugely irregular verbs, that the Germans will cut out all words longer than 10 letters, and that the Dutch will simply abandon their whole language which is as incomprehensible in its pronunciation to me as the various sounds made by English "-ough" are to the world.
Cowling, North Yorkshire
Sir: Advocates of spelling reform overlook the great variety of accents and pronunciations among speakers of English. A single pronunciation-related spelling of "bath" could not suit the burghers of, for example, Salisbury, Doncaster and Welling, who would probably prefer "barth", "bath" and "barf" respectively.
Hadrian whipped athletes into shape
Sir: Perhaps the past could teach us something today in the field of sport. A recently discovered inscription from 1,800 years ago in the time of the emperor Hadrian had the solution for athletes who drank too much and womanised, doing what other young men did when they donned the toga virilis as the rite of passage to manhood in ancient times.
It was all part of the discipline to make sure they excelled in their sporting activities. They were literally whipped into shape, as they also were for poor performance.
Maybe managers were more enlightened then than now. They would never have countenanced an end-of-the-year bash that invited their stars to indulge in the way reported in "Hangover from party that turned into a night of shame" (19 December). Hadrian may well have turned the whip on those most culpable.
Dr Bruce Winter
St Edmund's College, Cambridge
Direct payments can improve care
Sir: Creating individualised budgets for care is not "privatisation" by the back door and may not be such bad news as some of your correspondents believe (letter, 19 December). Over 10 years, to help me care for my husband, we have used both agency care and direct payments and I know which I prefer. The agency live-in carers, supplied and part-funded by Social Services, were untrained in dementia care, and the agency sent us 14 different ones in eight months. The discontinuity and consequent exhaustion forced me to place my husband in a nursing home, at even greater cost to social services.
Two years later, when I brought him home again, I asked for direct payments. What a difference. Choice about who worked in our home, greater continuity and loyalty (three stayed several years) and more time for the care-worker to hone skills and deepen understanding of the individual patient's care. With the agency's profit eliminated, the care-workers (who, to all our shame, are generally the lowest-paid imaginable) actually took home more pay after tax than if working for an agency.
Admittedly, I had to keep the books and account to social services for every penny paid out from the bank account created for that purpose, but my carer burden was lighter because our quality of life had improved.
There was one drawback: we had a few care-workers from hell. To protect the sick and vulnerable, each local social services should be required to keep an up-to-date register of approved carers, to which references might be sent at the end of employment.
I don't see individual budgets as rampant privatisation of all care, simply an option for those who wish to have them. And given that the cost of our directly-employed care was much cheaper than paying an agency, it means that social services could extend its support to more families.
Aberdeen wants Trump's course
Sir: You report "SNP 'smells of sleaze' for backing Trump's golf course development" (15 December), but Mr Trump's project has fired the imagination of electors in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.
After Aberdeenshire's infrastructure committee had rejected the proposal by one vote, the silent majority made its views known, to the media and the politicians, that they want this project approved, and quickly.
Aberdeen city and the shire have suffered in silence for many years while our political representatives have procrastinated over major developments such as the Aberdeen bypass, which has been debated for 60 years, the airport extension and myriad other infrastructure developments which have come to naught.
The Trump project looks likely to cast off the shackles of inertia that have held the North-east of Scotland back. The hitherto silent majority have been signing the Downing Street petition on the subject, more than 14,000 in 10 days. We are determined to make ourselves heard and get the North East moving.
Jeff R Roberts
Happy drinkers welcome at mass
Sir: Changing Christmas midnight mass to 8pm to avoid disruption by drunks as is happening in some churches is scandalous and a serious symptom of what is happening to British society.
In my church, people coming to midnight mass from the pub over the road used to be drunk in a joyous, good-natured way; the choir loft filled with alcohol fumes and everyone basked in the Christmas spirit. There were bouncers at the church entrance just in case, but they rarely had to exercise their muscle.
These days, drunkenness has a sinister and angry quality to it, and church and society should stand up and confront it, not pander to it.
Sir: The Rev Roy Crew's explanation of the Bethlehem story raises more questions than it answers (letter, 20 December). He upgrades Luke's genealogical reference to Joseph belonging to the line of David, to the town of David being his "home village".
But even if it was, Joseph would only have needed to be in Bethlehem if he actually owned the inn, guest-house, or some other taxable property there. Surely he would have stayed in the property he was coming to register.
Sir: The Rev Roy Crew urges us to "do away with the fiction of an innkeeper". I thought the inn-keeper was the only non-fiction character in the whole manger-in-a-stable ensemble .
Jeremy Q Sleath
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
Sir: I do not think there is any evidence that Joseph was poor (letter, 21 December). As a jobbing builder, carpenter of his day, he would be better off than average. If, as claimed, he owned, or had use of, a donkey, we must appreciate it was the Mini of its day.
Environment needs a heavyweight
Sir: If climate change is as big a challenge as politicians' rhetoric would like us to believe, why is being moved from the Environment portfolio, as Mr Huhne has been, deemed to be "promotion"? All mainstream parties consider environment to be inferior to a load of other posts.
Aside from the Treasury, it's the only department which has, or should have, major implications for every other government ministry, and not being rated as a front-line job is the very reason why it needs a political heavyweight to make everyone take it very seriously indeed.
Duyun, Guizhou Province, China
Agony of death row
Sir: We are continually told that the US does not torture prisoners or other detainees. Kenny Richey is being released from an American prison after 20 years on death row (report, 20 December). So time spent on death row isn't torture? Don't three heart attacks represent evidence to the contrary?
Sayings to pray for
Sir: Because of the Bhagavad-Gita's support for the caste system, David Simmonds (letter, 22 December) urges us to "disabuse ourselves of our infatuation with holy books". Perhaps his thoughts have been influenced by other writings: "He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree"; "God is no respecter of persons" ; "Many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first". Now where would he have heard these?
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Iraqis want us out
Sir: In your editorial concerning the transfer of control of Basra province to Iraqi authorities ("We are not handing over a land of milk and honey", 12 December) you cited a recent BBC poll of Basrawis, but omitted the most pertinent result: asked what they would like to see happen to British troops, 63 per cent said that they should "leave the Middle East altogether and return to Britain".
Solar so good
Sir: Pandora manages a little sneer at the Prime Minister's solar panel ("Gordon's back in hot water", 19 December) which heats the water, but does not generate electricity, as does David Cameron's windmill. Owners of water-heating panels have had a good winter so far, since even the short daylight hours in December, when there was little wind, have been sunny enough to make a contribution to our hot water supply. If Mr Brown installed his panel some time ago, rising energy prices will have reduced the payback time on his investment. Prudent?
Sir: Is the Government really guaranteeing Northern Rock to the tune of 57bn, or is it the same 19bn announced three times?