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Monday 25 January 2010
Letters: War heroes
The unsung Second World War heroes of Birmingham
Congratulations to the Government for finally acknowledging the vital role played by the women who worked in Sheffield's steel factories during the Second World War (report, 14 January). But the far greater contribution of Birmingham's factory workers continues to be overlooked.
Sheffield was targeted by Hitler's bombers on two nights in 1940; Birmingham was the second most heavily bombed city in Britain. During three years of bombing, more than 2,200 citizens were killed and 7,000 were injured. Nearly 12,400 homes, 302 factories, 34 churches, and 205 other properties were destroyed and thousands more damaged.
Hitler's bombers visited Birmingham so regularly for so long because of its huge war production. The BSA factory in Small Heath provided more than half of all the guns used during the war; the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich was producing 320 Spitfires and 20 Lancaster Bombers a month; at Longbridge, 2,866 Fairy Battles, Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters were produced, plus nearly 500 military vehicles, each week.
The importance of Birmingham's effort was such that Churchill ordered a news embargo on the extent of the damage caused in the raids on the city, and this was followed by a deliberate government policy of suppressing any major reports for a further 20 years.
A poignant result of this embargo is that the contribution and sacrifice of the Brummies involved in war work is largely forgotten. One example is the air attack on the BSA works on the night of 19 November 1940. Typically, when the sirens sounded, the workers stayed at their machines until the last moment, but that time left it too late. The bombs struck and killed 53, still at their machines. For bravery shown in the ensuing rescue work two George Medals, six British Empire Medals, and one MBE were awarded. Because of the reporting restrictions, the raid was not mentioned in local newspapers and to this day there is no memorial to either those killed or to those who worked there throughout the war.
It is time that they, and all the other Brummie war workers, are finally remembered while a least a few of them still survive.
Dr Ron Dawson
Winterboren Stickland, Dorset
Science and homeopathy
Martin Robbins (Comment, 22 January) says of homeopathy: "These curious beliefs violate the laws of physics." It's funny, "scientists" in the past have also said things like "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction" (1872); "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" (1895); and "Man will never reach the moon" (1967). Doubtless devotees of Newtonian science in the 1700s would have dismissed the idea of time travelling at different speeds – an idea passé to modern-day scientists – as also violating the laws of physics.
Doesn't a real scientist say "I don't understand how that is possible," rather than closing their mind and saying "I don't understand how that is possible – I therefore declare it impossible"? Maybe if Mr Robbins lives long enough he will be around when science finally explains to his satisfaction how homeopathy works. In the meantime, could he explain how the "placebo effect" of homeopathy works on horses?
Where are the great rationalists of the day when they are needed? Last year, the National Secular Society reported that the NHS spends over £40m per year on hospital chaplains, and The Independent recently reported that homeopathic "remedies" take a further £4m from an already creaking NHS budget.
Now we have a straight-faced report (23 January) of a Romanian presidential candidate claiming he lost because he was "hexed by negative energy" and the front-page revelations that a "bomb detector" sold by a British company for thousands of pounds has no working components and "operates on the principles of dowsing".
If people wish to believe in witchcraft, religion, crystal therapy and fairies at the bottom of the garden, then I agree that it is a matter solely for them. But when it comes to real lives, real money and real dangers, there must be much more importance given to those who do not adhere to medieval beliefs.
Martin Robbins claims that patients who think that they have benefited from homeopathy are either healing themselves via the placebo effect or would have got better anyway. But at the same time he argues that homeopathic remedies are dangerous because they delay patients seeking medical help.
What does he want? That everyone who feels a bit sick should visit their GP even though they would have got better with no action. That they should always seek real medication, that is, products of the pharmaceutical industry with all its well-documented side-effects, instead of products that can unlock the healing power of the placebo effect, even if they have no other effect.
Instead of knocking homeopathy, people who think like Robbins should be grateful to it since it releases NHS resources for people like him who prefer to run to their GP for the slightest sniffle. We should be encouraging people to take responsibility for their own health rather than promoting a mindset that always looks to others to solve their problems.
I used to be intensely relaxed about people using homeopathy – if that's how they want to spend their money; a good dollop of placebo never hurt anyone etc. Until, that is, a friend said she had "protected" herself and two daughters against malaria with a homeopathic formula.
Tests are needed. If homeopathy takers fall ill using this method then it should be banned; if it works, then what a massive boost that would provide for the whole system.
Stop blaming the teachers
Another slap in the face for teachers delivered by David Cameron ("Tories to encourage high-fliers to teach", 21 January), who comes from a privileged educational background where the disincentive for bad behaviour or poor work is the stigma and embarrassment to your parents of being thrown out.
State education suffers massive interference from the Government on everything from curriculum, examinations, reporting, and discipline to methods of teaching. It is insulting to insinuate that poor-quality teaching is causing the problems in education. It is not. It is the lack of disincentives for poor behaviour, lack of support for classroom teachers from the top and lack of diversity in subjects.
The reliance on private education for the well-off is only exacerbating the problems in poorly resourced state education.
I have recently retired from teaching after a long career working in large and small, mixed and single-sex, state and finally, a small independent faith school in which I mentored the newly qualified teachers and teacher trainees.
In my experience the best teachers are not necessarily those with the higher-class degrees. Good teachers want their pupils to succeed; they have the confidence and creativity to teach as they think best and are often found teaching the more challenging pupils. Teaching clever children is not very difficult; teaching the rest requires a much wider range of skills and a strong personality.
As for David Cameron's comments about the "bureaucratic obstacle" of teacher training; this provides excellent experience for trainees who will work in schools today, weighed down are they are by bureaucracy.
The teaching profession will attract better candidates when teachers are supported much more in their work and treated with the respect they deserve by politicians, management, parents and pupils.
Iraq: where was the foresight?
In Jack Straw's memorandum presented to the Chilcot inquiry on 21 January, he said, with regard to "the grave loss of life", that we "did not have the benefit of hindsight". What he really lacked was the benefit of foresight, for the history of power relations between the Sunni and Shia Arabs in particular, and the bitter feeling between them, made the huge loss of life in the war inevitable.
There are therefore serious questions to be answered precisely as to why Mr Straw did not know what would happen, what advice he received on this point, whether he ignored the advice, or whether the subject was suppressed.
Professor of Middle Eastern History, Royal Holloway, University of London, Surrey
Denis MacShane (Opinion, 20 January) seems to have a clearer memory than many who are currently commenting on, or trying to score political points about, the events preceding the war in Iraq. I'd forgotten about Sir Menzies Campbell's certainty about WMDs, but I recall William Hague and most of his Tory MPs baying at Tony Blair to stop pussyfooting about and to get fully behind the US. With notable exceptions, the British press took a similar stance.
I have difficulty understanding how anyone can declare themselves absolutely certain about anything. In liberal democracies, alas, politicians expressing uncertainties are roundly condemned as being weak. They are thus obliged to declare themselves certain even when still harbouring doubts.
The Chilcot inquiry has heard disturbing evidence of a government that seems unconcerned by international law. In Holland, a single inquiry focused entirely on the legality of the war in Iraq; in the UK, four inquiries have dealt with the law only in parenthesis.
The Home Secretary recently promised to appeal against a decision ordering the release of two men held under control orders without any indication of the charges against them: a contravention of not just the European Convention of Human Rights but the basic principles of English law. And the Baha Mousa public inquiry has revealed that many in our Armed Forces ignored – or were ignorant of – both the 1972 Heath ruling on handling detainees and the Geneva Convention.
Perhaps each party's manifesto for the next election should contain a commitment to honour our obligations under international law.
Alan Halibard claims that, as a small country, Israel has to protect itself from large numbers of economic refugees but that "genuine refugees" have been made welcome (letters, 23 January). He forgets to add that Israel actively seeks immigrants who have at least one Jewish grandparent, but steadfastly denies Palestinian refugees their right to return as stipulated in UN Assembly Resolution 194.
When Mary Wakefield (23 January) says that statistics suggest that marriage makes for better family life, she makes the classic mistake of assuming that there is a causal relationship at work. It is like saying that people who use sweetener in their coffee on average need to wear larger clothes sizes, and therefore sweetener is a bad thing. Surely a better explanation for the correlation is that couples who want to get married are more likely to create a good family environment. It isn't the act of marriage which makes them behave differently.
While understanding David Cameron's wish to criticise Labour policy on education and social upbringing (report, 23 January), isn't it true that the majority of parents now aged between 20 and 35 received their education and were brought up in the social and economic climate created by, and under the education policies of, various Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997? Whence today's broken society.
Could someone explain why in one breath the Government says that we need more graduates to compete globally, and in the next announces that it's going to cut university budgets by 12-25 per cent (leading article, 21 January)? This will mean not 12-25 per cent fewer graduates overall, but significantly more pressure on universities to take students who pay their way, that is, foreign students.
Reform of the banking system to reduce risk for ordinary customers is simple. There is no need to force every bank to split into two to separate their "casino" operations from everyday banking. All that is required is the creation of one bank with no casino operation. Customers could then choose to migrate to it, as I believe they would do, in very large numbers.
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