In my village the other day, I watched a scene that is no doubt being replicated all over the country. A group of elderly ladies stood on the pavement outside the post office, having just learned that it is to be closed in October.
Some shook their heads sorrowfully, some were stunned and close to tears, and one shook her fist at me and shouted: "Now look what your government has done." I used to argue in Labour's favour in our local pub.
Not any more. Although probably seen in Westminster as a very minor matter, the strangulation and final killing of the local post office network is symptomatic of the philosophical nihilism of the current government. In economic, social and environmental terms, this policy makes absolutely no sense. It will add to inefficiency, congestion and frustration. It directly contradicts stated government policies on sustainability, community and access to services for the vulnerable.
No matter! Those old ladies – why didn't they get online and do internet banking? Why don't they hop on a bus and get their pensions from Tescos? Why don't they carry their Christmas presents to the DHL depot? Why don't they just stop whingeing and grasp the 21st century with both hands?
If Gordon Brown wants to know why support for Labour has evaporated, he doesn't have to look far. The party that we voted in to look after the vulnerable and protect us from the stupidities and the greed of the market has proved a sham. They have been dazzled by the glitz and glitter of the City, and forgotten who their friends are.
Blairite box-ticking ruins education
Your article "primary pupils fail to master the 3Rs" (5 August)and editorial are wrong on many counts, none of which provide any succour to the Government.
Pupils that achieve Level 3 in national curriculum English and maths (as distinct from the SATs that purport to test them) are in no sense illiterate or innumerate. There is continuous variation in the ability of children and therefore no meaningful threshold that can support any universal description of "expected level". Even if the SATs process was reliable, which it certainly isn't because of teaching to the test and other reasons, there will always be only one mark between the award of one level and the next. To use such a distinction to describe one child as meeting the "expected level", and one with one mark less as a failure, that likewise condemns his teacher, school and parents, is so educationally and socially disastrous as to beggar belief.
Your editorial repeats the fallacy that competition between schools produces raised standards, when it actually drives standards down because school managements lose the wider plot in their obsession with the need to compete in league tables and tick increasingly irrelevant Ofsted boxes. The result is increased self harm, mental illness, drug abuse, crime and murder rates, reflecting growing alienation of the young, accompanied by endless inflation of qualifications that command less and less respect.
This is why our educational failures are such an English disease, not replicated in the rest of the UK, nor in the rest of Europe, where the Blairite marketisation of the English education system is correctly recognised as a disastrous experiment.
Why are we not surprised by your report "Primary pupils fail to master the 3Rs" ?
In 1998 David Blunkett wrote to all school heads, inviting their opinions on improving education. As the then head of a school for dyslexics, I was jubilant that we were being consulted and replied recommending that the "failure-averse" and highly successful Scandinavian model of delaying formal teaching until the age of six or seven years be adopted.
The reply I received was disappointingly impersonal, did not acknowledge my suggestions, confined itself to what government intended doing to improve standards, and appeared to be a paper exercise. Ten years later, we hear that targets in the 3Rs are not being met. We also hear that the Welsh Assembly have decided to adopt the Scandinavian model.
I conclude that if there is a god, not only is she slow off the mark, but she must also be Welsh.
Llanarmon D C, Wrexham
Your education editor regrets that 20 per cent of pupils fail their SATs. Doesn't that mean that the pass mark has been set to fail this proportion? If all pupils had passed, would he not say that the exam was scandalously easy?
Surely the "required standard" is decided on political considerations, and 20 per cent failure is just right?
There are two additional hurdles that children in this country must contend with: parallel Imperial and metric measuring systems and non-phonetic spelling in English. Spelling reform and abolition of Imperial measurement would help those children who struggle with literacy and numeracy.
Still time to boycott the Beijing Games
With the Olympic Games about to open in Beijing, I think it is time for the thousands of athletes to be held accountable for their actions in competing in what will be the most controversial Olympics in the modern era.
The atrocities of the Chinese government, the abuses of human rights and the total lack of freedom of speech make it unacceptable for any athlete to be taking part in these games. Each year thousands of people are imprisoned, tortured and killed by this desperate regime. Their suffering and their deaths are being supported by every competitor in the next couple of weeks.
Jacques Rogge will call for the "youth of the world to unite", an inspiring idea. They should be uniting elsewhere and having a genuine celebration of sport. It is not too late – there is still time to pull out and every athlete should show some courage and put human rights before their bank balances. No one would bat an eyelid if athletes pulled out of a sporting event in Zimbabwe, so why go to Beijing where the crimes against mankind are on a much bigger scale?
Encounter on the Venice express
Last month my Thai wife and I, an Australian, took the train from Budapest to Venice. She had a visa for the Schengen area, the 25 European countries, including Hungary and Italy, which have no controls on their common borders. Five hours from Budapest, at 10pm, she and two Taiwanese nationals were removed from the train by Croatian border police. They claimed that Schengen visa holders need a transit visa to spend two hours passing through Croatia.
Croatia? Nothing on any map or website alerted us that the train was passing through this non-Schengen country. Transit visa? Who would consider a transit visa for an overnight train journey from Schengen Hungary to Schengen Italy any more than they would for a plane journey? No reasonable amount of research would have revealed this requirement; hence the daily removal of unsuspecting travellers and the taxi waiting to ferry them to Schengen Slovenia. We travelled throughout the night and next morning, making four connections before we reached Venice, exhausted and 140 euros out of pocket. Only Schengen visa holders were removed. Passengers from countries that can enter Europe visa-free were spared.
It was a dreadful ordeal. For what? What benefit does Croatia, an EU candidate, gain from imposing such an onerous burden on Schengen visa holders, especially when the requirement will be abandoned when Croatia joins the EU. How does Croatia benefit by pulling people from trains – people who have no idea they are going to pass through Croatia?
Migrants who cannot see a GP
Medecins du Monde UK has a London-based clinic where our volunteer GPs see the vulnerable migrants referred to in your article "Uncaring, unethical – and a risk to us all" (4 August).
It is regrettable that the Government chooses to ignore this group, when it is clear that doing so will have real consequences in economic and public-health terms. Our experience has confirmed what other experts have found, that delayed access to treatment by a GP leads to deterioration of the problem and greater risk of exposure to the public.
We applaud the work of GPs who are determined to highlight this issue. We hope the Department of Health will agree to disclose the results of its consultation, and abandon its plans to further limit access.
Director, Medecins du Monde UKLondon E14
Small town defies metropolitan bigotry
What a spiteful, patronising article by Joanna Briscoe ("Small-town life", 4 August). The outpouring of genuine sadness following the pier fire at Weston-super-Mare has shown the huge amount of affection the public has for these structures, which are part of our coastal heritage.
However, in common with West End theatres, many (including Weston Grand) are privately owned and do not earn enough to pay for upkeep and restoration. We appeal to the Government to treat them as a special case.
And if Joanna wants to stay in the metropolis, itself hardly a shining example of local government at its best, then good riddance to her. I'm off for a stroll down the pier.
National Piers Society, London NW3
What a snobbish, elitist woman Joanna Briscoe appears to be. I did think when I did a hard climb up the Quantocks yesterday with my daughter how flat Somerset was! She does need to visit the county a bit more and get a map.
I visit Weston occasionally and various parts of Somerset in my work and it has talent and culture and is far from dull. I was born and bred in London and go back often to get the best of both worlds. But I do just wonder why that train from Paddington (locally referred to as the Chardonnay Express) is so packed on Friday evenings with people getting away from her capital.
What a triumph Joanna Briscoe's column was. She included nearly all the cliches and prejudices about provincial life, except our tendency to inbreeding and vestigial tails.
Perhaps she doesn't know that some of us can not only read but can manage The Independent and therefore in our creepy, flat and culture-free environment can be offended by her insulting prejudices. So, no I shan't be reading Sleep With Me, although I could if I tried really hard.
I am not sure how Joanna Briscoe, as a long-term London resident, can comment with such certainty on "small-town life" . Personally I am delighted that so many people put up with the stink and noise of London because that means that fewer are competing with us for the nicer parts of the country.
Joanna Briscoe's piece on the fire at Weston-super-Mare was steeped in prejudice and snobbery. She'll have us locals sharpening our pitch forks and marching on London just as soon as we find out who stole all our hills.
Professor Dawkins ( 1 August) and other recent letter writers exhibit a touching faith in the reliability of the proposed DNA database. Professor Dawkins would be the first to scoff at the bizarre notion of Papal infallibility, yet he seems to believe that the scientists and technicians who may operate the database are totally infallible. Perhaps he could explain the evolutionary advantage of this naive belief system?
Dr R M Morris
Brand of courage
In your Media article on 28 July, I appear to be intimating that I was author to the landmark campaign for reviving the Wispa chocolate bar for Cadbury and that the online support for the chocolate bar was contrived. The fans of Wispa and the brand did all the work. The strength of the campaign was built on PR giving Cadbury the confidence to allow the consumer to influence a decision that could have affected Cadbury's bottom line. Not many brands would have had the guts to do it; Cadbury did.
A risky world
As president of Europe's largest body for health and safety professionals, I agree that stopping children from playing games such as conkers denies them the chance of learning vital life skills ("The end of playtime", 4 August). One of those crucial skills is knowing how to manage risk. If children get to grips with this when they're young they have more chance of coping with bigger risks in adulthood. While parents' motives are worthy, the effect can be negative. So let's play conkers, without goggles.
President, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, Wigston, leicestershire
Chris Johnson (letter, 4 August) dislikes my use of the word "soccer" (letter 1 August), preferring "football", even though this can refer to any of several games. My choice of "soccer" was quite deliberate. Not only is Association Football the branch of the game with which so many British men are obsessed, but the spherical shape of a soccer ball is much closer to the image of a breast implant that I was aiming at than that of, say, a rugby ball or an American football, as I'm sure most discerning readers will appreciate.
John Hill (letter, 4 August) supports the alarming idea that senior coppers should make an intensive study of philosophy. What if, as does not seem unlikely, they all get turned on by the ideas of Nietzche or Hobbes? Scary!