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Tuesday 24 June 2008
Letters: War wounds
Who cares about the war wounds that do not heal?
Sir: Hats off to you for continuing to fight the corner of soldiers traumatised by their battlefield experiences ("Lest we forget", 23 June). It is a timeless condition. The passage of years heals not at all. Approaching my 83rd birthday, the memories of service in the Second World War persist.
Sixty-three years and two months ago, the tank in which I fought lost a duel with a German 88mm, the king of anti-tank artillery. Edward Moulding was killed, his body falling across me in the chaos. He lies in Plot 6, Row G, Grave No 12 alongside 2,400 other war dead in Becklingen War Cemetery near Hanover. I stood there on the 50th anniversary of VE-Day. Cried again.
After the guns fell silent I was ordered to stand guard over Irma Grese, a Belsen SS guard awaiting execution for her crimes. She had lamp-shades fashioned from human skin and casually dispatched inmates with whip and pistol. Her evil face surfaces from time to time.
I am glad to have played a part in defending our way of life and to have shared the comradeship of other young men in khaki. Less impressive than the class of 1945 is the Veterans Agency, an outrider of the MoD which declines to award pensions for wounds suffered in that war.
Politicians' fine words butter no parsnips. I fervently hope that the brave men of your paper's reports will be better treated. A little attention to men and women scarred by conflict is called for. Is anyone in high places listening?
League tables that make no sense
Sir: Whatever might be said about assessment in the modern British university, Professor Geoffrey Alderman is surely right to point out the malign influence of the league-table culture that has enveloped the public services since the Thatcher years (21 June). League tables have no scientific validity, and do no more than express the prejudices of their constructors.
Consider the result of the recent Premier League football season. The champions, Manchester United, had two more wins than the runners-up, Chelsea, while Chelsea had four more draws. Hence Manchester United will be champions in any system where a win is rewarded with more than twice the number of points given for a draw, assuming a loss gains nothing. If a win were to earn less than twice the points for a draw, Chelsea would come out on top. So the overall result, and many minor placings, are determined by the rule adopted for awarding points. There is no external, objective reference for deciding the rule.
For football, the point is academic, because teams have come together to form competitive leagues and have agreed the rules among themselves. Teachers, lecturers, nurses and doctors have not agreed on any such assessment; instead it has been imposed on them for political reasons.
The "indicators", "points scales" and rules for combining points reflect arbitrary choices made by the authors of public-sector league tables. No amount of bluster about the "reasonableness" of their procedures, or "robustness of the methodology used", can overcome the fundamental difficulty that quality is not measurable in the sense of scientific, objective measurements; the assessment of quality requires judgment, which is a matter of opinion, rather than measurement, which is not.
Professor R G Woolley
Sir: Gill Whitfield, awarded a first in mathematics in 1962 and feeling hard done by as the proportion of students achieving the top grade seems to increase, doesn't understand the difference between normative and summative marking (Letters, 20 June). The first, in her student days and mine, used arbitrary proportions as the basis for degree classification: the same mark might be a first in one year but not the next. The second rewards achievement of a particular standard no matter how many people succeed.
Wrong way to save historic wrecks
Sir: It takes only the whiff of treasure being found ("Pirates of the Channel Islands", 12 June) for archaeological worthies to weigh in with their accusations of trampling over, and destruction of, the world's maritime cultural history. But their solution is precisely the wrong path to the protection of the heritage that speaks from these historic shipwrecks.
They demand that the British Government ratifies that monstrosity of bad regulation, the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, a legal instrument so blunt, so incomprehensible to the layman, indiscriminate and draconian that its adoption will be a gift to the black market and a forensic honeypot for lawyers, and will place the maritime heritage in great peril.
Many governments have found its definition of underwater cultural heritage too ludicrous to stomach, including, as it does, "all traces of human existence having a cultural historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally underwater periodically or continuously for at least 100 years (in due course, Johnny's skateboard and submerged sewer pipes).
The sensible partnerships forged with the private sector to ensure that land-based archaeological heritage is effectively protected are thrown out of the window when it comes to the maritime heritage. The money, archeological expertise and scholarly goodwill which the private sector could bring to the impoverished heritage are dismissed out of hand by an academic establishment seeking exclusive control but lacking the resources to tackle the task.
The convention was passed in 2001 with 87 signatories. Seven years later, only 17 countries have accepted or ratified it. The latest, Cuba, was preceded by such maritime entities as Bulgaria, Panama, Libya, Cambodia, Ukraine, Romania and Lebanon among others, and including only one major maritime nation, Spain, at present waging its own shipwreck treasure wars off Gibraltar and in the Atlantic.
Twenty ratifications are needed for the convention to have any force. The British Government would be wise to ignore calls to join. There are better ways of protecting our underwater cultural heritage.
Undersea Search and Location, London NW3
No slur intended against Davis
Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 20 June) implies that, in the interview I conducted with Andy Burnham this week, the Secretary of State for Culture consciously decided to join a smear campaign, of which he was already aware, against Shami Chakrabarti. Aside from the fact that Mr Lawson's article offers scant evidence of the existence of such a campaign (an unattributed quote and an "amusing" remark from a parliamentary sketchwriter), I am confident from my conversation with Mr Burnham that he intended to do no such thing.
It was clear to me that what the Culture Secretary found "curious" was "Tory talk of how liberal they are", given David Davis's support for capital punishment and how, in the light of this, those concerned with civil liberties could view him as a suitable proponent of their views. To suggest Mr Burnham intended anything else is, I think, engaging in just the kind of smearing of opponents that Mr Lawson purports to find so offensive.
Director, Progress, London SW1
Sir: What part of the word "offence" doesn't Andy Burnham understand? ("Chakrabarti in threat to sue minister over Tory 'smear' ", 20 June). Mr Burnham is apparently regarded by his New Labour Cabinet colleagues as Mr Nice Guy, but sticking to the formula that is by now the classic one in such situations, he "regrets if any personal offence has been caused" to David Davis or Shami Chakrabarti.
This is designed to shift the blame for "any offence" to the injured parties, who by implication are too lacking in humour or too thin-skinned to see the fun in his "jokey" comments.
We are also told that Mr Burnham is "absolutely furious" at being "caught up in the row". What a curious way of describing his self-generated problems. Whether he penned the piece personally or agreed to put his name to the creation of some Blair-Brownite teenage scribbler, he should take responsibility for the undoubtedly offensive remarks published in his name.
First rule of holes, Mr Burnham, is to stop digging. Giving a prompt and full apology is the least you can do, and might go a little way to redeeming your own and your party's reputation for smear tactics.
Sarah Ludford MEP
(Lib Dem London)(A Council member of Liberty, but writing in a personal capacity), London N1
Sir: Am I missing something in the Chakrabartigate affair? I've read and re-read Andy Burnham's comments about the "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls" between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti and I just can't spot any sexual innuendo in there. If Ms Chakrabarti had not told me what to assume I would never have assumed it.
Strip clubs where they are not wanted
Sir: Roberta Blackman-Woods should be applauded for bringing the problems of licensing strip clubs to the attention of Parliament and the wider public (report, 18 June). Thanks to the 2003 Licensing Act, local councils have little or no recourse to prevent these establishments cropping up in sensitive areas in our community. London's local authorities recognised this problem a few years ago and have already begun to take action.
Last year, London Councils deposited a private Bill to Parliament – the 10th London Local Authorities Bill – which seeks to reinstate the discretionary powers to impose conditions on entertainment licences lost to councils through the 2003 Licensing Act. It is important that democratically accountable local authorities have the appropriate powers to stem the growing tide of strip clubs being located in inappropriate, often residential, areas.
I would urge Dr Blackman-Woods and all the MPs who support her to back our Bill, and help our local communities to reclaim their neighbourhoods.
Councillor Merrick Cockell
Chairman, London CouncilsLondon, SE1
Understanding how cartoons work
Sir: For Michael Gelman (letter, 20 June) to express his distaste at seeing Dave Brown's take on Goya's Saturn Devouring One of His Children (19 June) is his right. But I do wonder at his seeming ability to misunderstand the whole point of cartoons, when his objections are exemplified by the comment that "whatever Sharon's failings, they do not include cannibalism and the gruesome mutilation of babies".
By the same token, perhaps there are many readers who are offended by Brown cartoon of 20 June on the grounds that Nicolas Sarkozy neither uses stilts nor dresses up as Napoleon.
An improbably good national anthem
Sir: My main regret, now that Italy are out of Euro 08, is that we shan't hear their fabulous national anthem again. Its improbability always made me smile. Like a mini-opera it has an overture, rousing chorus, intermezzo and grand finale, and was sung every time with real gusto.
The British anthem, by contrast, is indeed dignified and grave, but don't we need something more inspiring, something we could really bawl out and enjoy? (Please, no one suggest "Land of Hope and Glory".) I've no idea what the words are to the Italian one, but you just can't beat a good rousing tune.
Bad answers to oil crisis
Sir: World leaders should have long anticipated the oil-price hike. Surprisingly, George W Bush had the greatest foresight, but chose two of the worst possible solutions – the invasion of Iraq and biofuels. The first caused a futile bloodbath, and the second a world food crisis. Only one solution – increased oil production – will be even more disastrous for the planet. This is Gordon Brown's.
Arguments for atheism
Sir: The question of whether or not an Independent "guide to atheism" would best be presented in a booklet or represented by the absence of a booklet (letters, 21 and 23 June) is misconceived. Your previous series on the wonders of the material world and the power of thought – science, natural history and philosophy – have already put the case for atheism by illustrating the pointlessness of religious fantasy.
Schools in partnership
Sir: While I applaud the links between Brighton College and Kingsford Community School and your excellent article on it ("One school of thought", 20 June), I must point out that there are other state school heads serving on independent school governing bodies. We at James Allen's Girls' School appointed Erica Pienaar, headteacher of Prendergast School in Lewisham, to our governing body in 2002, and she makes an excellent contribution. Our schools have worked together since 2000. Much "unsung" partnership between state and maintained independent schools has been developed over many years.
Headmistress, James Allen's Girls' School, London SE22
Long road to Whitby
Sir: Simon Calder has been misinformed (Traveller, 21 June). The recognised route from London to Whitby by train, since the closure of the line from Malton via Pickering, is via York and Scarborough, with the final 20 miles being covered in less than an hour by bus. The latest possible departure from King's Cross is not 14.30 but 20.00. If the UK had an integrated transport policy, finding this out would be straightforward, but meanwhile difficulty of access is part of Whitby's charm.
Jonathan G Atkinson
Whitby, North Yorkshire
Sir: I am a great admirer of James Lawton. His ability to write on a wide variety of sports is unrivalled. However, as a fully paid-up member of the Pedants' Union, I must point out an error in his article on Saturday (21 June). He refers to "the declining of Latin verbs". Come, come, Mr Lawton, you surely remember that one declines nouns, but conjugates verbs?
Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire
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