Letters: Mystery of the cuckoos

Mystery of a seven-year silence of the cuckoos
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Michael McCarthy's piece "Flight of the cuckoo" (23 March) struck a chord with us in our North Somerset rural fastness. The last time we heard one here was in 2002. Before that fateful year, on any April day, we might have expected to hear as many as six cuckoos calling to one another across the valley; then suddenly, in 2003, none at all, and none since.

And Mr McCarthy is only partially right about the musical interval. We found it varied, expanding from a desultory minor third to a frenzied and passionate perfect fourth, apparently when a male and female pair finally managed to locate each other.

Delius's "First Cuckoo" is well-observed. She sings, through the voice of the clarinet, first a minor third, expanding later to a major third towards the end of the piece. But what about the 13th- century monks at Reading Abbey? Were they listening to a different variety of bird? The odd thing about the cuckoo in "Sumer is icumen in" is that her song is upside down. The lower note comes first, a sort of "oo-cuck".

And why should we lament the passing of this traditional harbinger of spring? They really are disreputable characters. If I was a reed warbler, I'd be glad to see the back of them. I believe the technical term is "brood parasite".

They fly in, lay their eggs in other people's nests, then fly off again, with never a backward glance, on a hedonistic quest for pleasures new. When the wretched sprog hatches, it pushes all the other eggs out of the nest.

Jolyon Laycock

Katherine Laycock

Pensford, Bristol

How to handle the 'dirty bomb' threat

It is difficult to understand how the threat of a dirty bomb could be higher now than it was three years ago ("UK faces greater threat of 'dirty bomb'," 25 March). Two components are required for such a bomb, explosive and a radioactive material. Both should be more difficult to obtain now than three years ago and if that is not the case then we should look for an explanation to the Government.

Modern life depends on many technological developments that can be dangerous in the wrong hands, including passenger aircraft. Denying access to radioactive materials and, in most cases, their movement, especially between countries, should be well within our technical competence.

Another approach open to the government would be to "deterrorise" the dirty bomb. Any instant deaths from such a device would be due to the explosive so, in that respect, a dirty bomb is like any other bomb. The radioactive component would pose a long-term but, on an individual basis, small public health hazard in terms of increasing the risk of cancer and probably other diseases, the effects occurring over decades.

Perhaps it is time that the electorate were educated about risk so that they are able to assess the projected health risks against, for example, those incurred by the foreign policies of the government they vote for, those of losing the hard-gained rights of privacy and those of increased public expenditure to combat terrorism.

Dr Keith Baverstock

Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Kuopio, Finland

Some MPs lack a moral conscience

Tony McNulty represents everything that is wrong with people's standards (not only in public life) but decency, self-respect and a lack of moral conscience as he and many MPs of all parties continue to line their own pockets by forgetting why they were elected, to serve their constituents first and not themselves. He and others represent the embodiment of greed and vulgarity.

As a legal advocate, I am desperately trying to claim a lousy £50 carer's allowance for an elderly widow who retired on a pitiful £16,000 pension. She now cares for her cancer-stricken son and was not able to afford the £3,000 a month kidney cancer drug Sutent, like so many other kidney cancer sufferers, before NICE did a U-turn.

We are told that she is not entitled to any carer's allowance because her state pension is more than £50 a week. This retired nurse who dedicated 30 years of paying into the NHS has never asked the state for anything and in her hour of need she is abandoned, while the likes of Tony McNulty get £60,000 for nothing. How does he justify this?

That £60,000 could have been spent on prolonging life for at least three people. He has just handed his seat to the Tories and has himself to blame.

Rocky Fernandez

London NW10

Thanks for publishing the list of Outer London MPs who claim second-home expenses. Never mind the furore over Tony McNulty, MP for Harrow East, and his claim of nearly £60,000; his "next-door neighbour", Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West, has been claiming almost £20,000 more.

This has left me amused: in 1997, I was actually a member of the Labour Party and shortly after the election, I had a visit from Gareth Thomas, asking for a donation. I suppose he hadn't yet had time to discover just how much money he would be making. I'm so glad I didn't give him anything.

Marie Maldonado

London N15

We need a new Bank of Britain

A recent statement from our bank (Barclays) informs us that while the interest payable on our savings account is a risible 0.5 per cent, the penalty for slipping into overdraft is a now a whopping 16.5 per cent. As they teeter on the edge of a state bailout, I wonder how Barclays would feel about being asked to pay the taxpayer similarly usurious rates for the privilege.

We need a radical solution. With the value of outstanding global bets on derivatives peaking in December 2007 at about $200,000 per person on the planet (an astonishing $1,400trn, according to the Bank for International Settlements), printing good money for bad will only take us straight to the Weimar Republic.

The money being used to shore up the banks' bottomless debts should be used instead to transfer all individual savings accounts to a new Bank of Britain which could then start lending with impunity. What are we waiting for? Payback?

Simon Prentis

London NW3

Threats by bankers that they will move to other positions if the bonus culture is modified are laughable. They have no place to flee. In fact, most employees in the financial industry will be pleased to have a job at all, let alone a bonus.

George D Lewis

Brackley, Northamptonshire

Media keeps failing women in sport

Dominic Lawson misses several points (Opinion, 24 March). Sport for women and people with disabilities suffers from a similar syndrome to teaching, nursing, working as a care assistant and other similar occupations. They are vocational and comparatively poorly paid. The popular perception, perpetuated by the media, is that those who work in these jobs are, de facto, incapable of earning more.

Whether Mr Lawson likes it or not, attitudes towards women's sport and events involving those with disabilities are determined not by the intrinsic worth of the events or the achievements of the participants but by the attention that the mainstream media sees fit to give them, and the outlandish money paid to our professional sportsmen.

Thus, little or no coverage of women's events is attributed to the failure of the partici-pants/events to be of a sufficiently high standard, not to the media's obsession with a small number of sports that make them a lot of money.

I would far prefer my children to follow the example of the England women's cricket or football teams. Contrast their examples: modest in victory, and playing for the love of the game, with the grandstanding, over-paid and mediocre performances of the men's national teams.

Kathy Moyse

Cobham, Surrey

Country life is a free family choice

Alan Broadway's unwarranted broadside at my family's life in the country (letters, 23 March) is based on a fundamental misunderstanding; that Brian and I believe our choice is better than his.

I'm delighted that Mr Broadway finds urban living so convenient, but he should remember that Brian's weekly columns are not evangelical. Neither of us has any desire to tempt city-dwellers away from their "bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, galleries, museums and concert halls". We moved from London seven years ago in the belief – borne out by experience – that the delights of the city didn't, for us, outweigh the considerable advantages of life in the country.

Obviously, there are inconveniences; we do drive great distances, and there is a dearth of public transport. But, search as I may, they really are the only downsides in my experience of country life.

As for Mr Broadway's assertion that the country is no place to live when one has teenage children or needs to work, well, what does he imagine we all should do? There are millions of working parents raising their children in the countryside, and, of those we number among our friends, there isn't one who yearns for city life.

I like my life as much as Mr Broadway likes his. He is wrong if he believes we are somehow engaged in a competition.

Jane Viner

Leominster, Herefordshire

The Philistines were invaders

May I recommend that before Martin Hughes (letters, 20 March) pontificates about the Bible, he should read it. The Philistines were not in "Palestine" before Abraham, as he asserts. The land was occupied by the Canaanites (Genesis X, 19) and subsidiary tribes, such as the Hittites and Perizzites.

The Philistines were invaders; this is also the view of archaeologists. By the time of Moses, centuries after Abraham, they had established themselves on the coast to the south of Gaza. Joshua conquered the land up to their border (Joshua XIII, 3).

After his death, they were driven south of the present Egyptian border (Judges I, 18). But they extended their rule by the time of Samson over much of Israel. They never controlled much more than the southern coastal plain and, after a series of defeats by King David, ceased to play any role of importance. By the eighth century BC, they had disappeared.

"Palestine" is a misnomer for the area. Israel has a history there of more than 3,000 years.

John M Collins



Quids in

I shall be 80 next month and, to recognise this considerable achievement, the DWP have written to me regarding my pension. I quote, "Age Addition of 25p per week will be payable from your 80th birthday". I should like to state publicly that I do not intend to give back a single penny of this.

Peter Jones


Caught on camera

Tuesday's paper had an advertisement from the British Transport Police showing a typical high street. In the background was a prominent CCTV camera atop a pole. The caption was, "A bomb won't go off here because, weeks before, a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras". We have no choice when we are observed by a nameless and faceless employee of the government or local authority, but should we have the temerity to stare back it seems we are to be arrested and asked to explain our deviant behaviour. This sort of paranoid nonsense beggars belief.

Bob Armstrong

London SE2

In praise of 'Priscilla'

Michael Coveney's review of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (24 March) does not accord with the laughter and cheering from the audience, and the long standing ovation with which it ended. Priscilla was an enormous, fun-filled ex-travaganza of light, colour and choreography, with just enough poignancy to remind one that life isn't all singing, dancing and pure frivolity. Sometimes, a critic exposes a performance's lack of depth, and sometimes the performance exposes the critic's lack of a sense of humour.

Harry Bruhns

London NW10

Wise bet

Suppose we bent over backwards to appease the climate sceptics, and assumed that there's only a 50:50 chance of the world's leading climate scientists being right. It would still make sense to take the threat of climate change seriously, simply because of the disparity of risk. If we over-estimate the threat of climate change, then we risk spending a certain amount of money. If we underestimate the threat, we risk everything.

Mike Wright

Nuneaton, Warwickshire

A view of value

On a number of occasions, the Home Secretary has referred to "shared values" (letters, 25 March). Does the vigorous pursuit of one's own financial self-interest count as an example of one of these values?

Ivor Morgan