Motorist's memories, Law Lords and others

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A motorist's fond memories of danger and discomfort eccentricities

A motorist's fond memories of danger and discomfort eccentricities

Sir: Brian Sewell's article on the Fiat Topolino ("Little Mouse") (Motoring, 10 March) brought back memories of my turgid green 1953 Fiat 500C "SXL 93" which I owned for a year around 1968.

It was left-hand drive and had been imported from Sweden by a lady who had married an Englishman and then left the car in a garage for a decade. A previous owner had been unable to source (or maybe afford) a replacement exhaust system and had cobbled one together that peeked out underneath the offside door. The car sounded like a Routemaster on steroids! Once two of my friends lifted the rear of the car up (with me in it) as I tried to drive off, but with the rear wheels off the ground, I went nowhere. Brian overlooked one or two other little idiosyncrasies of the design. One was having the radiator behind the engine block, which allowed Fiat to fit a contraption at the top of the radiator which funnelled vaguely warm (and sometimes very oily) air into the interior of the car.

A second was the use of a propshaft universal joint made of compressed, rubberised cotton. Not appreciated when, without warning, it ripped apart in the depths of the Chilterns late one autumn Sunday afternoon, leaving me and my passenger stranded.

A third, and probably most worrying, was the fitting of the petrol tank under the bonnet just behind the radiator, which was, of course, just behind the engine. A glance under the dashboard showed that half the depth of the tank was actually inside the car interior and I would hate to think what would happen in the case of a severe front end shunt!

It just shows you our different attitude to safety in those days. The thought of dying in a petrol fuelled conflagration never entered my head at the time.

I'm afraid that SXL 93 went the way of all motors, passed on to another mug (sorry, another motorist) and I succumbed to the dubious delights of a 105E Ford Anglia.

Burton Leonard, North Yorkshire

Do we really need the Law Lords?

Sir: In all the discussion about Lord Falconer's plans for a new Supreme Court, I have heard nothing about the consequences for the ordinary litigant. If the Law Lords remain, even as the top tier of a new system and completely independent of Parliament, we will still have a double appeal process.

Our Victorian forebears were far more radical. In the early 1870s Lord Selborne and Lord Cairns decided to rationalise the court system and in the process invented the modern Court of Appeal, and in the Judicature Act 1873 got rid of the House of Lords' jurisdiction, and the judicial committee of the Privy Council, which these days deals mostly with the few appeals from those Commonwealth countries that have not abolished it. Unfortunately because of misgivings about appeals from the Empire, the House of Lords' appeal function was reprieved in 1875 and the present Law Lords "invented" in 1876; something of a retrograde step.

In the Twenties and Thirties Theo Matthew, a distinguished barrister and son of an even more distinguished judge, wrote several pieces arguing against the double appeal, on the ground that it caused unnecessary expense and suffering to litigants. In the recent Equitable Life litigation, the claimant policyholders lost before the single High Court judge, but succeeded in the Court of Appeal; the House of Lords agreed with the Court of Appeal. And so the costs of the second appeal had to come out of Equitable Life's dwindling funds. How much better if the matter could have been settled in the Court of Appeal! If it were thought necessary, where a very important point of law was involved, or if earlier Court of Appeal decisions seemed to conflict, it could always be arranged for five judges to sit instead of two or three.

And if purists object that the House of Lords is the final court of appeal not only for England and Wales, but also for Scotland and Northern Ireland; well, I am sure that the Scots at least would be more than happy to have the final say end at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire

Visa muddle

Sir: Incompetence seems to be endemic in Beverley Hughes's office ("Minister urged to resign over fast-track migrants", 9 March). She and her officials seem incapable of dealing adequately with communications that need serious attention and deserve a swift reply.

They have failed to respond promptly and helpfully to serious problems with the new system of visa applications for pupils from overseas who attend UK boarding schools. Applications will not be considered by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate until four weeks before a current visa expires. Yet this new system - presided over by Mrs Hughes - cannot guarantee that the application for a new visa will be processed in less than 13 weeks!

I find that the only way to ensure that a letter to Beverley Hughes is even acknowledged is to send it both by post and by fax and then to telephone the minister's office - even so, in some cases, I have been told that there is no record of my correspondence. If officials do finally acknowledge that a letter has been received, weeks pass before a response comes - in a lame and unconvincing form. Mrs Hughes should not be in charge of a key government department.

General Secretary
Independent Schools Council
London SW1

Parthenon marbles

Sir: Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, states baldly that "nobody in the ancient world talks about the Parthenon Frieze, not one" and goes on to suggest that it is only in London that the sculptures "become great works of art" ("British Museum: Voyage of rediscovery", 5 March). It is difficult to know where to begin a critique of such a statement, but one wonders what Pheidias would have thought were he to discover that his carvings were not great works of art while adorning his temple, but would only become so on the walls of the British Museum.

Dr MacGregor would do well to refer to those ancient authors who supposedly ignored the sculptures. Plutarch, born about AD45, found in the sculptures both an aura of antiquity and the immediacy and freshness of youth, and Pausanias, writing around AD200 describes both pediments of the temple in his Guide to Greece.

Besides these literary references, we also have clear examples of the inspirational effect that the Parthenon sculptures had on the visual arts. Two such examples are the Ara Pacis (AD9) and the Madrid Puteal, which copy the frieze and the pediments respectively. To allege that the Parthenon Sculptures only "become great works of art" in the British Museum is intellectual fuzziness at its worst, creating an entirely false impression of the effect that the sculptures have had throughout the 2,500-odd years of their history, only 200 of which they have spent in the British Museum.

British Committee for the Reunification
of the Parthenon Marbles
London N1

Photos of children

Sir: Deborah Orr is quite wrong in her definition of pornography and her misunderstanding of the term is central to the Betsy Schneider debate ("A snapshot of our confused attitudes", 9 March). For an image to be pornographic it must be specifically designed to stimulate sexual excitement; unless such intent is present in its inception then an image has to be deemed innately innocent regardless of the manner of its subsequent dissemination and use.

This distinction is not recognised by your correspondent (letter, 10 March) who seems to argue that because paedophiles are attracted to naturalistic photos of children we must be more prudent in our own harmless treatment of such images.

It is neither desirable nor feasible for the blameless actions of the many to be dictated by the jaundiced perceptions of the few. Child pornography is abhorrent because it is primarily an assault on innocence; by that rationale surely Ms Schneider's well-intentioned naivety also deserves to be protected.

London SW12

Baffled voter

Sir: I am a left-leaning floating voter. In 1979 I was horrified by the Winter of Discontent and voted Tory; by 1992 I was appalled by Thatcher's megalomania and her destruction of public services, and voted Lib Dem. In 1997 I voted Labour and now I am confused, saddened and deeply disappointed by Blair and Brown.

My dentist has just notified me he is unable to continue in the NHS. My mortgage matured in 2003 with a shortfall and so far no compensation. Pensions are in meltdown whilst council tax is a raging inferno. The fat cats are growing clinically obese by the minute. My PEPs are worth less than when I bought them in 1997.

Who do I vote for now?

Ivybridge Devon

Lesson of terrorism

Sir: By making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the centre of world attention and ignoring other issues of contention, the entire world has shown that the best way to get attention for your cause is to commit terror.

If the world had treated Palestinian terrorism with the contempt it deserved, and only related to their cause when they conducted non-violent actions, perhaps other groups with claims to make might not be forced to turn to terror to get their issues taken seriously. Unfortunately terrorism is widely regarded as a tool for political aspirations.

London N20

Global conflict

Sir: Following your lead story about the threat from global warming ("Scientist 'gagged' by No 10", 8 March), I fully support Sir David King's contention that climate change is a more serious threat than global terrorism. Many people around the world are already dying from the severe weather events that are associated with global warming, be it flooding, drought or famine. With the current pace of warming, these events will only increase in severity and frequency.

The cause of climate change is well understood and the solution is attainable: reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Buildings are responsible for over 50 per cent of those emissions and building services engineers are at the forefront of designing buildings that use less energy and are sustainable.

The war against climate change can be won, but we need more people like Sir David to speak out. Time is not on our side.

Chief Executive
The Chartered Institution of
Building Services Engineers
London SW12

Pension victims

Sir: A particular added irritation to the Equitable Life business is the continued reference to policy-holders as investors, and the implication that the events are an unfortunate but normal consequence of accepting risk.

A large proportion of Equitable pension contributors were members of company additional voluntary contribution schemes. Once the decision to make further pension provision had been made, their only choice was how much to contribute. This is not investing as normally understood. Under the regulations at the time there was no opportunity to diversify or change provider, or to get out of the market except on the most penal terms.

This is why everybody involved - the company and its directors, the employers and pension fund trustees, the auditors and the regulators - owed an exceptional duty of care, which in all cases appears not to have been fulfilled.


Meaning to demean

Sir: I think I can clear up Terence Blacker's confusion ("Men, women, girls... and confusion", 10 March). As with most words "girl" has a negative or positive impact depending on the intention of the person using it and the context it's being used in. If it's being used to demean, then the word at that instant is demeaning. If not... er... then it's not. Next...

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Iron constitution

Sir: Oh dear! Robert Fisk, whom I have read with admiration for twenty years, has finally displayed his feet of clay. Old Ironsides (his column, 10 March) was not a gunboat in the American Civil War but the famous frigate USS Constitution, launched in 1797 and still afloat at Boston. She reputedly gained this title after her decisive victory over the British frigate Guerrière in the brief naval war of 1812.

Richmond, Surrey


Sir: I suspect I am not alone in being shocked and outraged that your diarist should quote in full the graffito scrawled on the Commons table (Pandora, 11 March). "Tony Blair is a cunt" is not a sentence one expects to read in a responsible newspaper. Is your editor entirely unaware of the provisions of the Official Secrets Act?

Knowl Hill, Berkshire

Sir: My recollection is that "strangers" on a tour around the House were not allowed anywhere near the dispatch box. My own money is on Gordon Brown, perhaps while daydreaming about taking Blair's place. A quick look in Carole Caplin's crystal balls should reveal all.

Luton, Bedfordshire

Smoke signals

Sir: Isn't it about time that theatre directors dispensed with on-stage smoking? Surely any talented actor or actress can display the emotions which might call for a cigarette without actually resorting to lighting up.

East Horsley, Surrey