With the sort of money that pop, film and sports stars earn, it can be difficult for ordinary people to feel sympathetic to their situations. Yet for the famous, quite removed from the superficial pampering they receive, there are many challenges and dangers that the non-celebrity does not have to cope with.
In entertainment or sport, career height is often reached before the age of 30. After that it can be a slow and agonising process seeing one's looks, health and talent gradually decline, especially when compared with newcomers on the scene. Those chronicling their rise like a rocket will also write about their descent like a stick, with a dose of playground jealousy thrown in .
The finances of the famous are little different from the typical family either – just with extra zeros on their bank statements. This does not, however, stop others wanting a share of the perceived fortune. It must be heartbreaking not to know who your real friends are. Also, those in the public eye tend to attract the emotionally unstable as well as the paparazzi, robbing the celebrity of privacy and security. I can walk into town alone to do my shopping unmolested – could the Beckhams do the same?
The lucky ones may find religion, charity or a related career as a manager, commentator or mentor. The less fortunate get to see the now global "American dream" turn into a waking nightmare that eventually takes their life. There are uncanny parallels between the lives of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. This latest tragedy should make us all consider what "success" really means.
A R Wainwright
We need a leaner, fitter GCSE
For the most able students, whose academic trajectory will take them beyond age 18 in formal education, the disruption of preparing for a battery of tests at 16 is a considerable problem. So I can certainly see Tony Little's point ("Scrap exams for 16-year-olds, says Eton head", 10 February), but his call to scrap GCSEs may be in baby and bathwater territory. We need to recognise the exam's strengths, and consider that it could be worse, but it could also be much better.
England's tradition of post-16 specialisation is based on pupils earning the right to specialise through achieving a set of GCSEs across a broad and balanced portfolio. The dangers of a "leaving certificate" would be that it might focus too narrowly on functional skills: if we scrapped GCSEs we would still need evidence of achievement in subjects that pupils drop.
GCSEs, for all their limitations, are valid and robust assessments aimed at testing ability in a range of contexts. Compared with the standardised tests in many parts of the world, we have a smart exam, albeit one that is a bit overweight and out of condition – it could be leaner, less intrusive, but more effective in recording and rewarding achievement. The Expert Group advising the National Curriculum Review has made some interesting noises in this regard.
It might even, as a 2010 Sutton Trust report suggested, be redesigned to test achievement at 14, allowing for subsequent streaming into academic, technical or vocational routes, and recognising that 16 is no longer the age at which people leave formal education.
Director of Innovation and & Learning, The Girls' Day School Trust, London SW1
National fixation with football
Well done, Mary Dejevsky (10 February), for daring to say the unsayable – for daring to ask how come football came to occupy such a central place in English life that those of us who do not follow it risk "exclusion from what passes for national conversation".
There has grown up over the last 25 years or so the arrogant assumption that everyone in their right mind should be interested in "the beautiful game".
If football went on, as once it did, on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, in autumn and winter, that would be fine. But football has become a year-round fixation (another thing to blame on the marketers and money men), our newspapers and news bulletins daily filled with managers and players seeking to involve us all in their anxieties about injuries and transfers, the conduct of players on and off the pitch. Weekend TV news devotes more time to the day's matches (and the post-match hand-wringing) than to the world's myriad crises.
Why do so many companies allow staff to take time out of the working day to watch what is inevitably "an important game" during World Cup competitions, leaving the rest of us to pick up the slack?
A few years ago, during one such tiresome season, a friend of mine, who was then deputy director of education in a London borough, refused to allow her staff to repair to the local pub en masse and watch the match in time paid for out of the public purse. If they didn't want to watch it in their own time, they should set the recorder, she told them. You can imagine the response – but more people should follow her example.
The establishment of The Independent owed much to its refusal to give space to the then current obsession of the media with royal personalities. It would do nothing but good if The Independent adopted a similar policy towards football and refused to be drawn into the ridiculous circus surrounding football personalities, though reporting of matches is a legitimate area of journalism.
The freed space could be used to support all those other sports whose existence is blotted out by the all-consuming monster
Smethwick, West Midlands
Mary Dejevsky is to be congratulated for pointing out the awfulness of football. But her account is based on a false assumption, that the game is really popular.
Its high profile is largely due to hype from middle-class journalists desperate to boost their street cred. How can a commercial activity be popular when it loses so much money? Huge wages have to be paid so that clubs can try to get into the European competitions where the big money is, quite simply because not enough people are interested in the game in this country.
I am bemused by Professor Ian Blackshaw's claim that removing the England football captaincy from John Terry is a breach of the "innocent until proved guilty" principle (letters, 10 February). If, for instance, a teacher at the school of Professor Blackshaw's children was accused of child abuse, would he demand that the teacher continue teaching until the charges had been decided in court?
Drugs or songs, it's all property
Sir Elton John rails against greedy pharmaceutical companies attempting to protect their intellectual property rights by seeking to enforce patents on drugs they have developed (10 February 20102).
Sir Elton John made his millions from the royalties received from his copyrighted music, using copyright law to protect his intellectual property rights.
I accept that pharmaceutical companies make large profits; they also develop the drugs from which we draw benefit. Pharmaceutical companies, like any business, including the musical industry, are out to generate profits for the shareholders who invest in them. Out of the profit made on sales of a successful drug are paid the expenses of developing new drugs as well as providing essential drugs on which the industry makes a loss. Without this investment there would be no new drugs.
We either have intellectual property rights or we do not, and I suspect without them life would be a lot more dispiriting.
J P G Bolton
Towns are for people, not lorries
Having read with interest the correspondence regarding the dangers of cycling in London, I am amazed that no one suggested the obvious solution – to ban HGVs. It is these that cause the most problems. A town is for people, not road vehicles, which should be wholly secondary to cyclists and pedestrians.
In France HGVs are not allowed unrestricted access to centres of population. Vehicles above three tonnes are not allowed to drive through the centre of a town or a village if there is an alternative route. They are not allowed to use a trunk road if there is a motorway in parallel and they are not allowed to move at all on Sundays and bank holidays.
Despite these appalling restrictions on the rights of road hauliers to destroy the urban environment and kill cyclists, life goes on.
Peter Forster writes (letter, 9 February): "The cyclist who wakes pedestrians from their somnambulism, or is knocked off his bike by their carelessness, is accused of 'hurtling from nowhere', the 'nowhere' being the direction the pedestrian failed to look."
We pedestrians do not have eyes in the back of our heads or wing mirrors on our coats, so we cannot see the cyclist hurtling into our backs as he (they are almost invariably young males) speeds, illegally, along the pavement.
Marbles are in the right place
Watching the sad scenes of Athens burning at the hands of its own people, I can only say how glad I am that the Elgin Marbles remain safe in London and have not been returned to such a savage, not to mention fiscally irresponsible, nation.
I wonder if the price of yet another euro bailout of Greece could be the transfer of the remaining portion of the Parthenon to London, where it could be reunited with that removed by Lord Elgin to the British Museum for safekeeping and the whole rebuilt in the East End after the Olympics have moved on?
John Eoin Douglas
Tracey Macleod says (Restaurants, 11 February) she was "vainly attempting to find somewhere interesting to eat in Leicester". Where did she look if she ended up at the place she did?
Leicester has an enormous wealth of fine places to eat, from a huge variety of culinary traditions (all of them "interesting"), not least one only 50 yards from the railway station which does the sort of food she ate, only around a thousand times better. If she comes here again, I would not be the only one prepared to show her a good time.
Love? What's in it for me?
In her observations on love and sex, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Opinion, 13 February) rightly draws our attention to the role of capitalism in how we relate to one another.
I fear that every encounter we have with other people is increasingly governed by the consumerist mindset of "What's in this for me? And will you give me what I want?" That leaves little room for loyalty and commitment, as it is all about meeting one's own perceived needs and wants;and if these aren't met one simply moves on.
Volunteering for victimhood
Do you think I could get a newspaper to hack into my phone messages? I could do with a good "settlement" at the moment.