Sir: I was thrilled to read your article on the woman who has given up supermarkets for Lent (report 19 February), partly because I undertook the same promise last year. I am unable to deprive myself of Sainsbury's, Tesco's et al again this year, however, as come Easter Sunday 2006 I had no inclination to go back to supermarket shopping and have yet to do so.
The main myth of shopping locally is that it is expensive: in fact when local shopkeepers get to know you there are often small discounts on the bill. Indeed, shopping in small shops encourages healthier eating as fruit and vegetables are cheaper than in the supermarket while meat and snacks are dearer. My fiancé and I are lucky; we live on a high street blessed with a Portuguese delicatessen, a Lebanese supermarket and two fruit stalls whose proprietors have become familiar faces over the last 12 months. I encourage other residents of Kentish Town to try them out, as so many already do, so that our high street never resembles the supermarket-dominated parade as do many others.
In an affluent society changes are made for the better by the power of purse, not of petition. By supporting Italian or Turkish cafés rather than Starbucks, Lebanese supermarkets over Marks and Spencer, and Oxfam clothes shops in lieu of Gap, an inaudible but increasingly powerful statement is made about community identity, acceptance of other cultures, and even world political issues. I started by only buying coffee from a family-run Italian shop and now support farmers in Palestine through purchasing their olive oil. I am encouraged that more people are taking up this pledge, particularly those, like me, in their early 20s; I wish Ms Austin the best of luck.
Young people need apprenticeships
Sir: I read Deborah Orr (Opinion, 14 February) with much interest, particularly the part about children's expectation of being in low-skill employment. A remedy would be for the Government to abandon the idea of compelling all youngsters to stay at school until they are 18 and pour the money instead into modern apprenticeships. As a recently retired teacher I can tell you that the the idea of earning while you are learning is a popular option for a great many youngsters.
Apprenticeships are so very difficult to get hold of, however, the demand far outstripping the supply. So much so that they are a closed door to those pupils who are unable to attain four GCSEs grade C or above, precisely the people who would benefit from them most.
Sadly, these days we have a worrying situation of a glut of graduates with no vocational qualifications and huge amounts of money being wasted on sixth-form students, who have low academic capabilities and who would be much better served by learning a trade.
The only organisations that visit schools and offer career opportunities to all pupils regardless of academic ability are the armed forces, a practise that is, I believe, to end soon.
It should be the absolute right of every young citizen, whatever their academic ability, to be given the opportunity at least of learning a proper trade. After all, do we really care if the person who plumbs in our washing machine was rubbish at algebra, or if our chef never really understood a word of Shakespeare.
Sir: Mary Dejevsky (Opinion, 15 February), states: "For one parent to stay at home has become a luxury that only those who are entirely dependent on state benefits or one of a high-earning couple can afford.."
I am a stay-at-home mum and I am often told how "lucky" I am as if we were living on a huge income that allowed for me to sit at home eating bonbons. Being a mum is not a luxury. We survive on one modest income, and it's the toughest job I've ever done, but we consider my role as a full-time mother to be a necessity for the happiness and well-being of our whole family.
The inevitable low-paid part-time work, the cost of travelling to work on public transport and the cost of childcare mean that it wouldn't make a lot of difference to our income if I did go out to work, and certainly not enough to warrant paying someone else to do the one job that I'm best qualified to do - love and care for my child.
Sir: Nobody doubts that some of our young people need more guidance, more care, better education (Opinion, 19 February). But 15-year-olds do not manufacture or import guns. Nor are they the initial purchasers, though they do buy and sell them on. The same applies to drugs: they do not import the raw materials or manufacture the substances they buy on the street. As well as keeping watch to prevent more juvenile deaths at the bottom of the food chain, we need to be targeting more visibly the biggest predators in this very frightening jungle. Longer sentences for them would be a very welcome support to urban families.
Sir: About 2,500 years ago, Confucius observed, "The moral character of those in high position is the breeze, the character of those below is the grass. When the grass has the breeze upon it, it assuredly bends".
The present UK government has closely aligned its policies with those of the most violent society in the developed world; it has engaged in military adventurism; it has promoted the UK arms industry; it proposes to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. In the light of Confucius's observation it is hardly surprising that some young people engage in street-gun violence. Indeed, in the context of the policies and activities of those "in high position" it is remarkable that our society in general remains so peaceful.
UNIVERSITY OF WALES, SWANSEA
The political situation in Bangladesh
Sir: Your article "War of the dynasties leads to army rule in Bangladesh" (12 February) does scant justice to the realities on the ground. What happened in Bangladesh on 11 January was not a coup. It was the declaration of a state of emergency due to the well-known political impasse that was created by the parties, and the installation of a Caretaker Government headed by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, all within the parameters of the Constitution. There was no other option.
That it was the right thing to do is demonstrated by the results. The Caretaker Government has the enthusiastic support of the entire population, including the armed forces, known and lauded for its UN peace-keeping contribution, and the civil society, one of the most vibrant anywhere in the world. The measures adopted by the Caretaker Government addressing the pervasive corruption that was eating away at the vitals of the nation, and the restructuring of electoral and other political institutions thoroughly manipulated by motivated interests, have been welcomed by all, at home and abroad.
Bangladeshis deserve more dignity than the country's past politics have brought her. There cannot be and should not be a return to that sad situation that obtained prior to 11 January.
DEPUTY HIGH COMMISSIONER, HIGH COMMISSION FOR THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF BANGLADESH, LONDON W7
Don't blame the peasants for bird flu
Sir: Dominic Lawson's "uneducated guess" that H5N1 "stemmed from peasant farming methods" is just that (Opinion, 16 February). While he is right in saying that the vast majority of people in countries where avian flu is endemic keep chickens, he ignores the incredible growth in global factory farming and its role in producing virulent strains of avian flu.
Across the world intensive poultry production has grown by 300 per cent in the past two decades. Mr Lawson points out that in Indonesia 80 per cent of households keep poultry. Yet this only amounts to 20 per cent of the country's poultry production. The remaining 80 per cent is produced by three large poultry companies with worldwide exportation.
Avian flu in its low pathogenic form can and has existed in birds quite safely for years. However intensive farming provides the ideal breeding ground for the virus to mutate in ever more virulent, highly pathogenic strains. New strains of virus develop in a packed poultry shed and then are likely to spread to wild birds and household chickens.
While the evidence points to factory farming being the cause of H5N1, the most likely spread is, as Defra has announced, primarily down to the movement of poultry and poultry products around the world. Our desire for cheap meat is now coming back to bite us in the form of highly pathogenic strains of avian flu.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE, COMPASSION IN WORLD FARMING, GODALMING, SURREY
Hunting is culling by another name
Sir: John Walsh (17 February) understandably scorns the Countryside Alliance's claim that there would be more foxes if hunting were restored in full. But hunting is culling by another name, and the latter activity is approved by conservationists. Even the National Trust has reversed its decision on deer and is allowing the culling of ailing stags.
Foxes suffering, inter alia, from mange, are less likely to escape, being weaker and more easily caught. They will provide satisfaction for the hunt on the day, thus reducing the spread of contagion while allowing the healthy to survive and carry on breeding.
And, in a different way, that's how we survive pandemics. Thankfully, instead of killing off the seriously contagious, hospitals isolate them.
It's not all perfect here in Germany
Sir: Frances Wilson may well be impressed by the photo of a German library (Letters, 10 February). However the funding systems in Britain and Germany are rather different. The central library in Hamburg charges adults an annual fee of up to €45 simply to be a member, with additional charges placed on borrowing newly published books and internet usage.
Parallels can be observed here with the German healthcare system, which is often cited as an example of greatness, compared with Britain's much-abused NHS. The fact that this is funded by considerable monthly health-insurance contributions paid by individuals and companies, in addition to normal income-tax deductions, is often conveniently forgotten.
Stitched up by the good Dr Twist
Sir: The correspondence regarding GPs performing surgery (16 February) reminds me of the time, back in the 1970s, when I had the misfortune of allowing the working end of a dumper truck starting handle into my mouth. In the nearby village, Dr Twist, of Surgeon's Lane in Crich, Derbyshire, stitched my face there and then, to my everlasting gratitude. He said that if he had waited for an ambulance to take me 18 miles to the Derby Infirmary, my scars would have been permanent. He explained that he was the "James Herriott" of the human world. Even then, I was convinced that my own London GP would have passed out at the sight of blood.
GRAHAM A FEAKINS