A joke doing the rounds goes like this. An investment banker, a Daily Mail reader and a benefit recipient are sitting round a plate with 12 biscuits on it. The banker takes 11 biscuits, then turns to the Daily Mail reader and says: “Watch out – that scrounger is after your biscuit.”
At first reading, Mary Ann Sieghart's discussion of "fairness" (Opinion, 23 January) is sweetly reasonable. Of course nobody should receive lots of money for doing nothing, should they? Especially when decent working people are taking pay cuts. But these are the wrong questions. Why doesn't she ask where the rest of the biscuits went?
Yes, there are households where for two generations nobody has held a job. But for two generations our national economic policy has been to export jobs to places where labour is cheaper, leaving a shrinking pool of real work available in this country.
No wonder that those who still have a job are prepared to accept cuts rather than risk losing it to one of the growing mass of unemployed; and no wonder that some of the long-term unemployed recognise the inevitable and accept welfare as a way of life. Meanwhile the rich get richer on the profits of cheap overseas labour, and encourage the "squeezed middle" to look on the unemployed as the biscuit thieves.
Mary Ann Sieghart quotes the case of a family living in rented accommodation worth £2m as if we've handed them this in cash. We haven't; the property is only worth that to the landlord, not the tenants.
The system is unfair, but not because it allows the unemployed to live in mansions, but because it has evolved into a wealth transfer from taxpayers to landlords who can effectively set a rent at whatever level they like.
If the Government really did want to reduce the cost of housing benefit for private tenants then it could easily reintroduce rent control, as enjoyed in New York and many other cities. No one would have to move and the bishops could sleep easily at night.
Of course it won't happen, because at least one section of the Coalition Government is funded by the likes of wealthy landlords and many MPs earn a tidy sum by renting out properties themselves.
On TV news I heard a young single mother living on state benefits complain: "Why should I be made to give up a good standard of living?" Perhaps she, and those others who feel they have the right to live off the state, should remember that the benefits system is a safety net that prevents them from falling too low. It is not a bouncy castle from which they can rebound to a level of affluence that they happen to consider their right.
West Wittering, West Sussex
What the human rights court is for
The President of the European Court of Human Rights is correct to suggest that the Prime Minister is, to a worrying extent, pandering to the whims of certain elements of the tabloid press ("Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it", 24 January).
And it should also be pointed out that those newspapers that have consistently sought to both discredit the court and to denigrate its very existence have forgotten completely the reasons it was set up in the first place. Its place is not to dictate to sovereign governments on matters of either national security or indeed criminal law, but rather to ensure that the rights of all of Europe's citizens are both protected and guaranteed.
Moreover, the same tabloid newspapers, and David Cameron as well, should remember that the right to freedom of speech, a civil right that both of them hold in high regard, is one that the European Court of Human Rights shall always seek to defend – no matter who decides to criticise it.
Resist the charm of Oxbridge
I believe Philip Hensher's judgement about Oxford and Cambridge universities (20 January) may be clouded by his having spent so many years there, succumbing to their undoubted charms. I speak as someone who declined the opportunity to study at Cambridge.
At the time, my teachers all thought me insane. I've kept an eye on the progress of four classmates, all of whom accepted places at Oxbridge, and all of whom had invariably trailed in my wake at the termly form orders. I think it fair to say that I've held my own and more since leaving school, whatever measure you take, whether wealth or fulfilment.
Last year, my son applied for a place at Oxford. It was at the commencement of the interview, as the interviewer was introducing his teddy bear, seated beside him, that my son decided that there were probably other institutions better placed to oversee his development. I regard this as the sanest decision my son has ever taken.
My advice to any bright young student is simple. First of all, decide which course is likely to form the best platform for your further education. Then go about finding out which institution offers the best teaching, providing the most rounded education that will develop you as a person and stimulate you to a lifetime of learning. If that's Oxbridge, apply there. If it's not, then look elsewhere.
If you're bright and your thirst for knowledge and self-improvement is insatiable, you'll succeed in life, wherever you choose to study.
I am somewhat depressed by the writings of Elly Nowell, who has described Oxbridge as a "symbol of unfairness", run by a "self-selecting élite". To describe an institution that is based on meritocracy as unfair seems contrary to the whole idea of modern Britain, and to see interviewers as "self-selecting" is just bizarre. Unsubstantiated comments like this seriously damage the good work (which can be improved) that Cambridge and Oxford do in promoting access to the institutions countrywide.
As internationally top-rated universities, perhaps we should stop doing them down, and focus rather on ensuring children leave our school system on a more equal footing, allowing anyone to attend who has the grades and the ability.
Queens' College, Cambridge
I disagree with Philip Hensher. If the precipitate action of Elly Nowell in rejecting Magdalen College makes for fewer feather-bedded imbeciles asking interview questions about candidates' motives for wearing a watch, she will have done a great service to British society.
Corners of a foreign field
I was disturbed by Mary Dejevsky's comments (18 January) regarding the burial of dead soldiers. To suggest that we should bury our war dead where they fall suggests that she has no sympathy towards the families of fallen servicemen.
During major conflicts when thousands were dying every day, it was impossible to repatriate every single body. As a result the practice of war graves for the fallen began. In conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where thankfully, our casualties have been at a much slower rate, it is perfectly logical to bring our dead home.
Every year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with numerous services charities, spends thousands of pounds helping the relatives of fallen servicemen visit the graves around the world. Does Mary Dejevsky suggest we provide airline tickets to Helmand or Basra for families of more recent casualties?
I'm pleased that Mary Dejevsky has addressed the cessation of the repatriation of dead soldiers through Wootton Bassett.
I visited a Commonwealth war cemetery in 1962 while driving along the North African coast with three friends, all of us aged 20. I did not find it austere; there were flowers blooming in the desert. All ranks and races were buried along side each other. It was deeply moving and I agree that those who died in that campaign might well feel honoured by the fact that the cemetery is still well maintained.
I'm afraid there is something rather jingoistic about Wootton Bassett.
Money and happiness
Dominic Lawson (17 January) concludes that more money makes us happier. It is true that most evidence finds a correlation between income and wellbeing, but correlation does not imply causality.
In fact most research suggests that at an individual level the causality is likely to be from happiness to income – happier and more functional people earn more money. One study shows that students who are smiling in their college photos earn more in 10 years' time than their dour colleagues. Many factors could be involved in financial success.
New Economics Foundation,
Don't fight melancholy
Under the heading "Could magic mushrooms help the fight against depression?" (24 January), nowhere in the story is there a mention of a fight, just an interesting discovery.
If we frame it as "fight", we are losing, as the incidence of depression goes up. Wouldn't it be better to accept low mood or melancholy as part of our lives, just as January is? We may as well try to get rid of the night-time. But if we did that, there would be no northern lights. So I applaud the useful research into psilocybin and psychotherapy, because it opens a new angle on the cycle of our moods. If it's a battle, none of us will win, but if it's an inquiry, we might all get somewhere
Now that the City of London Corporation has won the first stage of its legal battle to remove the residents of "tent city", it might like to consider an alternative to a potentially violent confrontation.
From its vast property portfolio, it could provide accommodation to the Occupy London movement in recognition that there are other views as to how the City might best serve the nation. These views cannot be expressed in the Corporation, since it is not run along democratic lines.
In her review of my edition of Philip Larkin's complete poems (20 January) Fiona Sampson cites among "some of his most memorable lines" "What remains of us is love". But Larkin's line is "What will survive of us is love". Among his slighter verses she cites "Well, I must arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / Where I have heard it rumoured you can get Guinness for free", and complains "Even the scansion of this annoys". It does; but Larkin wrote "Guinness free". And he did not rhyme "Whitman" with "not a titman" but with "no titman".
Not finding something memorable is one thing; misremembering it, another.
Boston University Editorial Institute, Massachusetts, USA
I share Ramji R Abinashi's concern over the long-term effect of excessive sound levels on cinema-goers (Letters, 23 January). I fear the damage has already been done; I recently went to see The Artist and couldn't hear a word they were saying!