Letters: Upward mobility

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In a society that worships fame and cash, the poor stay ignorant

Sir: It isn't the rich, or the Thatcher legacy, that's stopping the upward mobility of the intelligent working class (Johann Hari, 22 January) but the intense social pressure that now condemns any ambition to acquire knowledge or gain academic success.

When bright middle-class children in "good" schools deliberately dumb down to ensure that their performance is mediocre, lest they be subject to the disdain of their peers by being called "a boffin", what chance have the working-class kids got?

The shame of Jade Goody and Vicky Pollard-types is not their lack of knowledge, but their glorification of ignorance - a sort of "I'm thick and proud of it" mentality. They display an aggressive dismissal of education because in our society fame and cash are valued more, and those who pursue learning are now regarded as losers.

Those with what Sheila Cohen (Letters, 22 January) describes as "a genuine low level of understanding" should always be admired and respected - and I hope encouraged and supported - when prepared to engage with society in a spirit of inquiry.



Sir: It isn't particularly Jade whom Howard Jacobson (20 January) is calling "dumb" if you follow his superb argument. He is talking about dumbing down, and Chris Waller (letter, 22January) rightly and desperately asks how dumbing down is possible.

The reason is that it saves money. Decry education; call music and art an "extra"; introduce the words "elitist", "privileged" and "white" into every sentence, and you needn't educate the population. Also, you need never pay for an orchestra, theatre company or art gallery, because, as planned, not enough people have the "education" to appreciate them, and you've avoided spending billions.

This is not only insulting and irresponsible towards the people, it's several time bombs, of which the first went off on Big Brother last week.



Why manufacturers love packaging

Sir: I absolutely agree that product packaging should be reduced ("Campaign against waste", 22 January). But you'll have a hard job persuading the manufacturers. Packaging design is a primary method of differentiation and without it, companies will need to invest more in research and development to make the product itself more appealing to customers.

British shareholders look for short-term gains. UK companies in general have spent very little on research and development when compared to other developed nations, in order to subsidise share value and dividends. Shareholders will need to be prepared to wait longer for returns on their investments if we are to scale down the use of packaging design as a marketing tool.



Sir: In principle I am very much in favour of a campaign against the ridiculous excesses of modern packaging. However, as someone with experience of fruit and vegetable retailing in a supermarket I feel some points need making.

Consumer demand for ripe and "ready" fruit means the protection of some products is necessary to avoid the introduction of a smoothie and pulp section for items which didn't travel so well.

Particularly at weekends, fruit and vegetables delivered in the morning and sold loose can be so churned by careless customers that they become unacceptable for sale and are consequently wasted. Fruit and vegetables marked with bruises, fingernail indentations and toddler teeth marks, mixed in with stalks and outer leaves discarded to save a penny off the weight, can make an unappetising display.

As well as customers who stand aghast at the multi-wrapped avocado there are those who absolutely refuse to purchase anything that isn't protected from the unwashed masses.



Sir: Professor Vinson (letter, 23 January) must live in a world of robots if he cannot bear to see his food handled. He is also misguided in thinking that a bit of shrink wrap will keep pathogens off his food. They are more likely to proliferate inside.

Every immunologist I know is careful not to limit, excessively, exposure to normal day-to-day environmental microbes, as it helps build up resistance to more dangerous organisms.

Hygiene in the kitchen is a different issue. Professor Vinson refers to cruise liners; food on ships is stored for days or weeks. Precautions may be needed there, but in the farmer's market or the local shop, I think the professor is safe.



Sir: Can I expect that, when I open next Saturday's Independent, the supplements will not be unnecessarily sealed in polythene?



Sir: Supermarkets in Germany are obliged to supply boxes to collect unwanted packaging at the exit. You simply unwrap your goods and leave the rubbish in the shop. The waste is (hopefully ) collected for recycling. Fruit and vegetables are not wrapped in ridiculous amounts of plastic.

Why is the that not possible in this country ? Is it that the Government can't be bothered or are the supermarkets too powerful?



Sick children trapped in Iraq

Sir: In his response to your story about the plight of Iraq's children (19 January), the tone of which suggested this government is preparing to wash its hands of the situation, Hilary Benn (letter, 20 January) did not address one point that I'd like to raise again.

The UK and US could do a lot more to assist children with the most serious medical conditions requiring urgent attention. By not doing so, both governments are reinforcing their own negative image not just in the region, but throughout the world.

Laying on helicopters or planes to ferry the most acute medical cases to neighbouring countries would be a life-saving measure where visa restrictions and huge air fares (a return air fare from Basra to Amman costs over £400), added to an already perilous security situation make it almost impossible for parents seeking to find specialists who can treat their children.

One of my colleagues recently appealed to the King of Jordan for assistance in this regard, which turned out to be unsuccessful. My own appeal to airlines in the region also saw us facing a bill of over £20,000 to fly 22 children, each accompanied by a parent, to the Jordanian capital of Amman. Road travel through much of Iraq to the surrounding countries is simply too dangerous for sick children whose conditions make them doubly vulnerable.

The Labour party in particular have always been proud of the NHS, and Tony Blair has in the past said it underpins Labour's political ideology. However, when it comes to the health of Iraq's most innocent and vulnerable citizens, he and Hilary Benn could make a small gesture and in some small way uphold that ideal in Iraq.



Sir: I was shocked by the double market-place attack in Baghdad. What differed about this particular seemingly daily atrocity was that the cameras caught the aftermath.

It wasn't so shocking to see the limbless corpse or the charred arm waving from a stretcher in front of the lens. No, what shocked was the bewildered despair on the faces of the survivors. Despair that their fellow man, indeed fellow countrymen, could be capable of such an act.

I join in that despair. And I worry that we are wasting our troops in a fight we cannot win, when a future fight may be coming much closer to our door.



Storage of nuclear waste

Sir: As chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, I reject any suggestion of political manipulation ("Blair accused of nuclear waste 'cover-up' ", 19 January).

CoRWM is an independent advisory body which has operated without preconceptions or undue influence from external bodies. All of our meetings have been held in public and our decisions subject to peer review and the widest possible scrutiny.

We delivered our recommendations to government in July 2006, following two and a half years of detailed work, which included rigorous scientific assessment as well as public consultation. We recommended that radioactive waste be buried deep underground, but that until appropriate repositories were available it be kept above ground in robust storage. The reference to our "failure to identify which sites can safely take the waste" implies that siting decisions were part of our remit, which they explicitly were not. This is something any former member should be aware of. In fact one of the main thrusts of our report was that our recommendations would not be able to be implemented if sites were identified centrally rather than on the basis of a willingness to participate.

Members were declaring the interests you refer to at public meetings from early 2004. It is therefore somewhat surprising that two former members of the Committee only became aware of these interests through an article in your sister paper in May 2005.

Finally, when we reported to government, we specifically stated that our recommendations should not be seen as either a red or green light for new reactors.



Wreck brings out hunting instinct

Sir: Having watched television and news reports of the container shipwreck unfolding along the Devon coast, I am heartened to see in these times of apocalyptic threat from climate change that the spirit of the hunter- gatherer is alive and well. There is hope for the survival of our species after all.

There may also be a case to be made, given the slowness of the relevant authorities to react and deal with the situation, for such a response by the general public to be given the "nod" to continue, for in observing the speed at which both "recycling" and "redistribution" were achieved this must surely be seen as the most expedient and most cost effective way yet devised by anyone, to clear up such a mess.



Sir: Oh dear, how the receiver of wreck whinges about people helping themselves to the cargo.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, the receiver of wreck had the power to requisition all necessary assistance for the preservation of shipwrecked cargo, including using the force of arms to press able-bodied men to assist him, and the power to seize and use any equipment, tools etc for this purpose. It seems these powers still existed until the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 removed them.

What a pity; it would have been interesting to see how the receiver would press-gang Devon men these days.



How to pay for real cycle lanes

Sir: Beneath the sardonic tone of Rebecca Tyrrel's experience as a motorist-turning-cyclist in London (Days Like Those, 15 January) lies the serious issue of how road space is allocated: motorists get the lion's share, pedestrians get the pavement; cyclists get little they can call their own.

Since the point of the congestion charge is to relieve congestion caused by motorists - rather than simply collect their cash - drivers should be encouraged to take alternative transport. There are thousands like Ms Tyrrel who would willingly get out of their cars to make their shorter, lighter journeys, if they did not have to take their life into their hands.

So more than ever now, we need safe cycle-lanes in both directions, with high kerbs to prevent intrusion from other road-users and with full legal clout. (Ever tried parking your car on a cycling lane in the Netherlands? It gets towed.) The initial area could be the entire congestion zone.

This would cost millions, you say. Then what is the (newly increased) congestion charge for?



Last crack at Blair

Sir: I think we should encourage Mr Blair to stay until June. It will give us all one last chance to express our opinion of him in the May elections.



Stephenson's bridge

Sir: If John Cartmell is going to correct your newspaper (letter, 22 January), he might get things right. The Britannia Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson, not by his father George; suspension chains were at one stage proposed but never fitted; while the photograph in question illustrating Kate Thomas's feature (18 January) shows the bridge not as designed but as horribly rebuilt since a fire in 1970 damaged Stephenson's wrought-iron tubes.



Muslim police

Sir: The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, was reportedly annoyed when a female Muslim PC refused to shake hands with him. Muslims, men and women, are not supposed to shake hands with the opposite sex. If Sir Ian is keen to recruit more Muslim police officers, it behoves him to learn about Islam and its values. If not, one wonders if he wishes merely to recruit Muslims for appearance's sake.



Men of violence

Sir: Throughout the 28 years of the troubles in Northern Ireland the RUC faced the task of fighting ruthless terrorists who killed 300 of their members. They did this by obtaining intelligence often through the use of informants who were members of terrorist organisations, as is widely known. There has been much shock and outrage at a report saying that some of these terrorists were involved in terrorism whilst being paid informants. Before this report did people believe the RUC's top supergrass in the UVF was Mother Teresa?



Wrong birds

Sir: Your British birdsong CD is a great comfort, particularly in the mornings, when our small, bird-friendly garden (eight assorted bird feeders) is overwhelmed by a flock of bright green parakeets. And this just as a pair of goldfinches had become regulars! Global warming or "aviary fatigue"?