Letters: How we retreated from the land

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The Independent Online

Peter Marren has highlighted how the deepening divide between people and Nature is bad for our well-being ("It's time to grasp the nettle", 20 April). This is not surprising, since Homo sapiens is essentially an outdoor animal, even though our present-day lifestyles contrast dramatically with those of our distant ancestors.

All our instincts originate from a time when we lived in very much closer contact with the "natural environment". For 99 per cent of our evolutionary history – about two million years – we lived in small, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers. The period since, the 12,000 to 15,000 years or so since we began farming is, by comparison, almost insignificant in evolutionary terms.

In fact, our retreat from the land is recent. In 1700, 80 per cent of the population of England derived their income from the land, but a century later, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts, this dropped to only 40 per cent. Now, less than 2 per cent of our population work in agriculture.

The effects of this trend have been accentuated by our increasingly consumerist and sedentary lifestyles and an increasingly protective attitude to our children which discourages them from enjoying the great outdoors.

At the same time, an awareness of how industrialisation and modern agriculture have affected our environment has led to the over-protective, hands-off approach to nature conservation that Peter Marren highlights.

Many inhabitants of rural areas nowadays, adults and children, seldom venture into the countryside on foot, despite our huge network of footpaths and bridleways. The future well-being of our children, and that of the countryside, would benefit greatly from better use and greater availability of outdoor centres for schools and a general awareness of the importance of hands-on contact with nature, in our parenting and in our education system.

Francis Kirkham, Crediton, Devon

Rights of way across Europe

I am sick of the sweeping statements about how much better off Britain is for footpaths than the rest of the world (Peter Marren says: "We must be the most walker-friendly country in Europe.")

One glance at the Institut Géographique Nationale long-distance (Grandes Randonnées) planning map shows that France has far more waymarked walking routes than Britain has rights of way. Germany is, if anything, better.

My wife and I once walked from Frankfurt-am-Main to Genoa, clear through south Germany and Switzerland, scarcely touching a road (OK, most of north Italy is either private estates or lethal traffic). If we'd gone north instead, we'd have wound up in Denmark, all on properly marked and maintained trails.

Even in Russia, you can pick whichever way you like through the long grass on swampy steppes, and, OK, the midges are a pest, but you won't see a policeman for 100 miles.

Britain vaunts its "rights of way". Yet my experience shows that UK "rights of way" are far more likely to be blocked by obstinate farmers parking JCBs across your "rights" than anywhere I've been in France or Germany.

David Boggis, Matignon, France

Tories dig for dirt on Clegg

If Nick Clegg maintains his impressive leadership qualities, then the "Get Clegg" taskforce at Conservative Central Office will go into overdrive and we can expect the dirt to be dished on Mr Clegg's friends and family, and their lives all the way back to pre-university days.

With only three morning national newspapers not in the pocket of the Tories, the British people get a perverted view of the nation's politics. To the chagrin of the Conservatives, the televised debates provide a level playing field for Mr Clegg, and we are all the better for it.

Mike Abbott, London W4

Yet again, it would appear that we are allowing ourselves to be schmoozed by the outrageously expensive spin-machine which emphasises the ability to look good on television, to be a "cool guy" in designer jeans, with a winning smile.

Have we learned nothing from Blair, that ultimate schmoozer, that most sincere and caring dude who managed to turn this country into an international aggressor state and still sleep at night, dreaming, no doubt of the millions to be made lecturing about his "angst"?

I am so very disenchanted with the whole New Labour betrayal, yet surely Gorgon Brown's saving grace is that he is not a natural charmer. Perhaps the challenge of recreating him in Blair's image is impossible, thank goodness, and maybe, just maybe, he will be allowed to concentrate on the important issues which face the country.

No more Blairs, please. Brown may be far from telegenic and a "grumpy git" but what needs improving is his political foresight, not his smooth delivery. Or are we really so superficial that we deserve to be treated as gullible children?

Elaine Jones, Sandbach, Cheshire

I see the Tories are trying to frighten the electorate with a "Vote Clegg, get Brown" slogan. How about a counter-slogan, "Vote Clegg, get Cable"?

Stuart Russell, Cirencester

Sats strike will victimise pupils

We all know teachers hate league tables (and parents love them). Now they have voted to boycott Sats tests so they can't be generated.

Our school (which I think is wonderful) has continued with extra homework and holiday "death-by-Sats-paper" practice to maintain their excellent results. The kids have worked hard all year, answering their teacher's call to do better and prove they can achieve. They will not now get the opportunity to do it.

My 10-year-old (now not to take the tests in May) showed wisdom beyond her years. I expected, "Why have we done all that work if we're not going to do them?", but I got a puzzled "I didn't think I'd want to take the Sats when we started but now I really want to take them". These children are keen to prove to everyone and, I believe, most importantly to themselves, how far they have come and how much they can achieve.

What message are teachers sending our children? Certainly not that working hard to achieve your goals works, or that teachers can be trusted. Arguably, a whole year group will not only mistrust their teachers but will see little reason to study hard for future exams. They will not have had the benefit of that feeling of satisfaction of children who had achieved beyond their own expectations and amazed themselves with what they can do. If this boycott is enforced, the teaching profession will have seriously neglected their responsibilities towards these children and abused their trust.

If they have the courage of their convictions, then win the argument: convince the new government to drop league tables and start afresh with the new Year 6 in September. But don't punish these Year 6 children for your inability to win the debate.

Bridget Goodwin, Bristol

Even bigger ash disaster awaits

Readers who doubt the wisdom of closing airspace while Iceland's volcanoes perform might be interested in a very special property of the ash erupted by Katla, which could also be a characteristic of the ash from Eyjafjallajokull. When suddenly heated, Katla pumice doesn't just melt, it expands like popcorn. I can't imagine anything worse for a jet engine.

Given that we are told to expect Katla to erupt within the next few years or months, we need to prepare not just for ash but, in British Rail parlance, for the wrong sort of ash.

Professor David Manning, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Newcastle University

The Icelandic volcanic dust cannot be seen from an airborne airplane or from the ground. Its paths have to be determined by meteorological modelling. We don't know the levels "safe" for aircraft to fly through because the aviation industry has blocked the international aviation regulatory body's attempts to set such levels.

We do have at least one example of all four engines on a plane being stalled when flying through a volcanic ash cloud. Military jets from Finland flew through the present cloud and claimed that it caused engine damage.

But neither the multibillion-pound aviation industry nor the UK government had any contingency plan for closure of European airspace due to volcanic ash, although Iceland has made no secret that it has volcanoes which can go off unpredictably.

The CEO of one of the major UK airlines is seeking financial compensation from the UK Government because he believes it was not necessary to close the UK airspace, and the UK Government blames the international aviation regulatory authorities for being too cautious.

I plan to take a nap now; would someone please wake me when sanity returns to the UK?

Dr Keith Baverstock, Bonn, Germany

For five consecutive days, after the early mists burnt away, the early-morning skies over Bradford-on-Avon have had the appearance of a child's painting, small white fluffy nimbus contrasting against a rich blue background. This beautiful blue, worthy of Chartres cathedral glass, lasted throughout the day until just before sunset.

All this changed on Wednesday morning. The blue was slashed by linear white contrails. These quickly spread into wispy cirrus then merged into an overall wash of pale blue. The beautiful contrast of pure white against deep blue had gone. I realised what I had always considered to be a blue sky was just a faded version of the real thing.

Alistair Carr, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

How many people have actually read the regulations relating to compensation set down by the EU? Paragraphs 12, 14 and 15 clearly define that an airline is exempt from the obligation to pay the extras being sought if the cancellation is due to exceptional or unforeseeable circumstances. The examples quoted in the regulation appear to cover such things as the volcanic dust.

Whether Ryanair is wise to limit payments from a marketing point of view is another question, but the shareholders of other airlines which have been quick to offer to pay out might ask, "Why be so generous with our money?"

Tim Brook, Bristol

Clearly, we need a better kind of aeroplane that would suffer no loss of power in the presence of dust, one that collects the dust before it reaches the engines and perhaps with a better steering mechanism for getting out of tight corners. Step forward, James Dyson.

Gordon Stevenson, Petworth, West Sussex

After having spent a week in London, thanks to a volcano whose name no two British newsmen seem to agree on how to pronounce, I have developed true respect for the English.

Thank you for making a stranded American as comfortable as possible. Your gracious hospitality and assistance made my visit at times seem more like a vacation than a crisis.

Del Ruiz, Farmers Branch, Texas, USA

St George's Day is a class act

In response to Merelene Davis's letter about St George's Day (21 April): last year, we at All Saints primary in Stockport decided to balance our Black History Month every October with a celebration of all things English on St George's Day.

After a successful day last year, on this 23 April we start with a Year 1 assembly for the whole school (and parents) to talk of St George and his encounters with the dragon, and sing English folk-songs and sea shanties, led by a member of the Stockport Music Service. Lunch will be English-themed, roast beef or fish and chips.

In the afternoon, we will have tea, with cucumber sandwiches, scones and jam. Then the infants can dance around the maypole. We will also have a storyteller, who will spend the day regaling each of our seven classes with stories from English history, including Anglo- Saxon myths.

The children will find out more about famous English people. We have already had a previous assembly on Sir Walter Raleigh and my class (Year 3) will be learning about Shakespeare.

Roses in the buttonhole? Let's wear them with pride.

Cath Birtwistle, All Saints C E Primary, Stockport, Lancashire

In view of the many Burns' Night celebrations held across England on 25 January, can we expect the Scots to reciprocate with a Shakespeare Night on 23 April?

Brian Rushton, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire

Casting a spell on English

In reply to Pamela Smith (letter, 20 April): gradualism and compatibility are the two key steps to ensuring successful written communication between users of the old spelling system and users of an upgraded new one.

We could start by dropping superfluous letters, which in some cases would take us back to previous spellings, as shown by Masha Bell's examples in a letter on the same page, for example, erly, frend, bild, iland.

Gradualism would also help retain compatibility, forwards and backwards. Many of us have little trouble reading text messages, which sometimes have more radical and incompatible spellings than we would expect from a planned update.

Allan Campbell, Christchurch, New Zealand

Pamela Smith is right; simplified spelling makes all previous writing, at worst, impenetrable. The solution is not to scrap or rewrite all English literature, text-books, manuals, etc for the sake of a dyslexic minority, but to provide a solution for that minority.

If phonetic inconsistency is a major factor, we could make a handheld device with OCR and an internal dictionary which could read problem words and offer phonetic possibilities.

David Ridge, London N19

Our star villains

Tom Peck suggests that the British Hollywood baddie was consolidated by "the maniacal laughs of Christopher Lee in Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 1960s" (report, 22 April). But the British Hollywood villain was already well established in the 1930s and 1940s. Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, George Sanders, Lionel Atwill, Leslie Banks, Claude Rains and Charles Laughton all played their fair share of villains.

If it was consolidated in the 1950s, it was more by the likes of James Mason and Ray Milland, two of Hitchcock's best villains, rather than in the British Hammer films (which had British heroes as well as villains). Lee moved on from Hammer and obscure Euro-horrors in the early 1970s with his big-stage villains in The Man with the Golden Gun and The Three Musketeers.

And the maniacal laugh was not Lee's stock in trade. His most memorable Hammer roles were either mute or suave or both; see his Dracula, Frankenstein's creature or The Mummy.

Andrew Clarke, London SW9

See here

I heartily endorse what Victoria Summerley said about her poor view at Love Never Dies ("Great musical, shame about the view", 21 April). On Monday, I was at the Royal Opera House to see Turco in Italia.

It was a very good production; at least the limited amount I saw of it was. Most of the action was in the left corner and I was in the left slips. The rest of the stage was bare. If only I had bought a ticket in the right slips.

David Hasell, Thames Ditton, Surrey

Biblical slant

I particularly enjoyed Dominic Lawson's article on the double standards of public attitude (Comment, 4 April), but I would point out that the biblical quote used, "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me . . ." perhaps also indicates further double standards, implying, as it does, that child abuse of non-believers is somehow not as bad.

Charlie Baxter, Enfield, Middlesex

Under a cloud

What have places such as Ankara, Bordeaux, Casablanca, Mombasa, Oslo and Toronto done for you to drop them from your daily list of weather statistics?

John S Jones, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire