Letters: Dickens for children? No, minister

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The Independent Online

I read Nick Gibb's statement that every child should read a Dickens novel by the age of 11 with disbelief. Did he really – as your report (6 February) suggests – say the book should be Great Expectations?

The ignorance displayed in this statement, by someone ostensibly in charge of our children's education, is truly disturbing. It's the sort of thing said by a man brought up on a diet of TV versions of A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist who never quite gets round to reading the books himself.

What Dickens novels did he read before he was 11, I wonder? Most certainly it's the sort of thing said by someone who thinks Dickens is a children's writer. Perhaps Mr Gibb should read Claire Tomalin's recent book.

The admirable Claire Tomalin did not need to excuse the children of today; only the most precocious reader, living at any time during the past 50 years, could read any of the great novels of Dickens before the age of 11 and come away with a grasp of their satirical wit, poetry, dazzling prose and deep humanity.

This is a statement issued by a man with no understanding of the children of today or of the novels of Charles Dickens; excellent qualifications for a schools minister? Don't think so. Dickens is for grown ups, Mr Gibb.

David Johnstone

Dunster, Somerset

I read English at university in the 1970s and am not ashamed to admit that until I studied for O-level I had not read anything that might usefully qualify as "classic literature". Why? Because I found it hard and inaccessible.

I came from a home where we had no television until I was eight and even then viewing was strictly limited, so I was not a victim of the short attention-span alluded to by Claire Tomalin. No, it was simply that I preferred to read Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville, C S Lewis and Arthur Ransome. Many of these have become classics of children's literature and were infinitely more interesting to a 10-year-old than Dickens.

Equally, as an English teacher I found it difficult to recommend Dickens or the other oft-cited "must-read" texts to the generality of pupils much before GCSE. It was almost guaranteed to put them off reading anything.

Our concern as teachers should be to instil in our pupils a lifelong love of reading and books, rooted in their individual aptitudes and confidence in themselves as readers, not to get them to jump through arbitrary hoops set up by ministers looking for a headline.

Kathy Moyse

Cobham, Surrey

If only schools minister Nick Gibb could persuade his line manager, Michael Gove, to read Dickens's Hard Times in this bicentenary year, Mr Gove might realise that, with his emphasis on tables and tests in education, he is performing the role of a Mr Gradgrind to perfection on a national scale.

Ronald Waldron

Little Waltham, Essex

Baffled by Iran bomb scare

I see from your front page report (7 February) that the US Defence Secretary expects an Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months, which should actually be read as the Israelis being given the green light for an attack.

One thing has always baffled me about the putative Iranian nuclear weapon that Israel claims to fear: what exactly they might do with it. Everywhere that Israeli Jews are there are even more Muslims, either within the nation of Israel or just over the borders.

And can anyone really see a trace of nuclear fallout lingering over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a city as holy to Islam as it is to Christianity and Judaism?

David R Parry


You report Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak saying that military action may be needed to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons before it is "too late".

This is blatant scaremongering. A few days earlier, on 31 January, for the fifth year in a row, the US Director of National Intelligence reported in public to the US Congress that Iran hasn't got an active nuclear weapons programme. James R Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: "We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons... We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."

Dr David Morrison


Robert Fisk considers an attack on Iran a madness (4 February). He did not even mention the fiery speech of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 2 February, who said: "The Zionist regime is really the cancerous tumour of this region and it needs to be removed and will be removed." Several hours later Iran's latest domestically designed and made satellite was successfully launched into orbit.

Is it any wonder that Israel is worried about that subject and will do all it can to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Dr Jacob Amir


Robert Fisk is right; "an attack on Tehran would be madness..." . Instead of America parading its Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, bemoaning his inability to persuade the Israelis to back off, why doesn't Barack Obama simply pull the plug on the billions of military and economic "aid" the US gives Israel annually?

And in an election year, I suppose that it is a bit too much to ask Obama to place peace and security for millions of people in the Middle East and beyond over his desire for a second term in office. If nothing else, this whole very dangerous game illustrates what a farce American democracy really is.

Ibrahim Hewitt

Senior Editor, Middle East Monitor, London NW10

'Cycling Mayor' loses momentum

Cycling is a wonderful way to get around London. It can improve our health and help tackle air pollution. But if cycle safety is the main barrier to more people cycling (Mary Dejevsky, 1 February) it's worrying that under our "cycling Mayor" in London this barrier has grown dramatically.

It's certainly safer to cycle in London than it was in 2000, but progress has stopped since Boris Johnson became Mayor. He keeps saying cycling is getting safer but the figures show otherwise. He came to office encouraging more people to cycle, but has introduced his "smoothing traffic flow" measures, which have prioritised motorists' time ahead of cyclists' safety.

The Mayor must restore the previous road hierarchy in London, which gave priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Otherwise the dreams of a cycling revolution will be drowned by the sound of ambulance sirens.

Jenny Jones AM

Green Party Group, London Assembly

We will not make progress on cycle safety until there is genuine action from politicians to spend the road budget more wisely. At present money is wasted by not incorporating cycle-friendly changes in schemes, and sensible debate about the schemes is often extremely difficult because the language used to describe them sounds so very positive for cycling.

In London a consultation on Euston Circus changes is now taking place. The consultation leaflet talks of creating "simpler and safer journey options for cyclists" when the scheme palpably fails to do anything for them. Why do we have this situation of wasted money, and of a rhetoric that is completely divorced from reality?

Professor Peter Marsh

Social Innovation Consultant, University of Sheffield

Cycling casualties will continue to rise as long as cyclists fail to accept that the Highway Code applies to them as much as to the rest of us.

Recently, as I began to cross a traffic light controlled pedestrian crossing, a man with no helmet or hi-viz, on a racing cycle came up between the stationary cars and rode straight through the red lights without so much as slowing down. As he turned to glance at me with an "up yours" look he failed to see the van emerging from the side turning controlled by the same lights and only narrowly avoided being flattened by it.

John Gudgeon

Downham Market, Norfolk

After the recent snow in London the main motor roads were gritted, but not the cycle paths that run beside them.

Peter Forster

London N4

Right way to run a railway

I was lucky enough to spend the Christmas and New Year periods in Singapore this winter, where I enjoyed the Mass Rapid Transfer (MRT) national rail system there. This system is glitteringly efficient, clean and value for money. Several days of unprecedented disruptions in December 2011 led to a national outcry, and the chief executive of the transport company responsible was forced to resign.

Here in the UK, rail transport costs an arm and a leg, and such disruptions happen every day. What really takes the biscuit is when rail bosses are offered a fat bonus. It is time that we stopped collaborating with our abusers, and demanded better from our rail service. It is time that our rail operators learnt from the Asian example.

Daniel Emlyn-Jones


India needs no more aid

It is rarely that I agree with Dominic Lawson, but his piece on aid given to India (7 February) was right on the button.

Overseas development aid is rightly given to third-world nations to help them emerge from poverty. However, once a country has the resources to develop a nuclear weapon it seems there is no further imperative to give aid.

I sometimes wonder if aid historically given to a developing nation is continued more for the convenience of the administrators of such aid than for its necessity to the recipient.

Patrick Cleary

Honiton, Devon

Stalking seenas a joke

A friend of ours has a stalker ("Help victims of stalking before they are harmed, inquiry urges", 7 February). At first he was not too worried about it and he felt sorry for her.

Now, well over a year later, it is causing him so much trouble that he has felt forced to go to the police about it. However, he lives in France and they take stalking even less seriously there than we do here. The fact that he is male doesn't help, either. The police just think it's funny.

Sara Neill

Tunbridge Wells, Kent


I was interested to see that the head of the Student Loan Company, Ed Lester, receives his salary of £182,000 gross. My daughter, who is studying medicine as a second degree, received six conflicting assessments of her eligibility for a student loan, when she applied for one. She spent hours and hours trying to sort it out both by telephone and online. As it happens, she is not eligible. Is the SLC fit for purpose?

Dr Peter J Herbert

London NW11

Cash in

I am intrigued to learn ("Cash in your attic", 7 February) that at Asda I can exchange old gadgets for "cash (in the form of a cheque)". This startling monetary innovation could be just the thing to lead us out of the current lending crisis – and straight into the next one.

James Ingram

London SE1


It would be, like, awesome if both "brilliant" and "fantastic" were to be banned.

W B McBride