Post Office, Iraq and others

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Before you knock the Post Office, remember the railways

Before you knock the Post Office, remember the railways

Sir: If Janet Street-Porter is so keen to save rural post offices (17 August), why does she devote half her article to knocking the postal service? Maybe Royal Mail is having difficulty with its urban deliveries, but out here in the countryside it provides a perfectly adequate service. My business spends over £1,000 per year mailing packages out through our local post office, and payment for these comes back to me as cheques through the post. In five years nothing sufficiently important to notice has gone astray, and on the one occasion that a package was damaged, I received full compensation in a week.

If she wants to save post offices, why doesn't she lay into the courier firms whose inferior service is undermining them? Their drivers regularly get lost, mislay packages with far greater frequency than the post, and when they can't deliver, leave the consignment at a depot miles away, which I can only locate by going through a tedious voicemail procedure - whereas my post office is just a mile down the road. On top of that their innumerable vans fly hither and thither around the countryside, half-empty and without any collective strategy, wasting petrol and adding to congestion.

We have learnt from the days when moaning about British Rail was a sport, that rubbishing national service providers is music to the ears of the advocates of privatisation who would love to give us something even worse.

South Petherton, Somerset

Sir: Janet Street-Porter rightly champions the role of rural post offices at the heart of village life. The recently discarded first post played a similar role at the heart of urban village life.

Delivering at an hour before most people left for work, our postmen and women knew us and had faces to go with addresses. The new regime of one delivery plus the odd haphazard drive-by condemns staff and customer alike to faceless anonymity.

A Government which has a lot to say about the social behaviour of others yet remains determined to make the Royal Mail profitable should take note.

London W1

Other people's children go to war

Sir: Sian Heath can't understand why families blame Tony Blair for the deaths of their children who have chosen to join the army, because "the primary function of a soldier is to go to war" (letter, 21 August). This stone-hearted thinking reveals lack of understanding.

Gordon Gentle was signed up as he went to sign on, an economic conscript from the most socially and economically devastated area of Glasgow.

At the moment, pub toilets everywhere are pasted with recruitment ads for the military. Nakedly macho in their appeal, they promise good pay, the chance to learn a trade and opportunities for world travel - in short, opportunities ordinarily denied to many young working-class people. Nowhere in these adverts is the "primary function" of a soldier depicted.

It is other people's children - the likes of Gordon Gentle and the ten thousand innocent Iraqi human beings - who pay the blood-price for Tony Blair's wretched, criminal war.


Sir: As a parent, I can only imagine the pain that the Gentle family and others like them must be feeling at the death of their soldier sons in Iraq. But a reminder is needed that people who choose to enter the armed services have to accept that they will at some point be sent to regions of conflict to fight. With that career choice comes mortal risk.

Wars are, by definition, unjust and senseless, but which ones are worthwhile fighting in largely depends on viewpoint. People voluntarily entering the military rescind that luxury of opinion (an army based on conscription is an entirely different situation). Families of such men and women, while they should retain their voice of protest also have to respect that the choice to enter the armed services was made freely, and carries with it a duty and sometimes tragedy.

We can argue for ever about the merits or not of entering Iraq, but we are now there, however stupidly, and extricating ourselves from an explosive situation is an extremely complex problem. I do not think that young teenagers and newly grief-stricken parents are the most appropriate people to offer objective commentary for headline coverage.

Hetton-le-Hill, Co Durham

Sir: I disagree with Sian Heath's statement that the primary function of a soldier is to go to war; it more accurately describes the role of a mercenary. The primary role of HM armed forces is to defend this country, its peoples and its critical interests. This may involve going to war when all other options are exhausted.

Tony Heath is right to draw attention to the reluctance of most previous prime ministers to take the country to war. Anthony Eden was the notable exception.

Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire

Sir: Of course anyone who signs up for the army does so voluntarily with awareness of the risks. They will defend their country against attack with pride and die with honour.

However, if they realise their government has misled them into war, they and their families have every right to be angry. This is their life, their most precious asset. They agreed to risk it with courage so they may defend their people. We know now there was no threat, there were no weapons of mass destruction and these lives did not need to be risked.

Chandlers Ford, Hampshire

A-level dilemma

Sir: Philip Hensher's unique insights into the British education system have always fascinated me. Whether his memories of discussing Sacheverell Sitewell with classmates at his state comprehensive or of long vacations at university spent lounging round reading Marcel Proust, Hensher's writing has always stood in exotic contrast to my experience.

Sadly most students now have to work off their overdrafts, and the image of Philip Hensher trying to engage most of my classmates in casual conversation about Sitewell is strangely compelling.

Philip Hensher's remarks on the value of A-levels are therefore predictable ("Even your pet rabbit could pass an A-level", 20 August). Quite why this "debate" is considered newsworthy is hard to see. After all, there is nothing remarkable about members of the literary establishment reacting against the education of the "masses".

Commentary like Philip Hensher's leaves young people with a problem. Either we must continue to work for these qualifications, knowing that they will be rubbished or, like Hensher, pretend we never were anything more than an insouciant Proust-reading fop.


Sir: As an 18-year-old A-level student, I find talk of A-levels becoming too easy is ridiculous. More and more students are passing and getting the top grades for one simple reason: we are taught how to pass the exam.

We are only taught what we're going to be tested on; any extra information is seen as a waste. We are told what to include in our essays, how many minutes to spend per question, per mark; and in some subjects, students are given the actual exam paper in advance.

I cannot see there being a change to this method of teaching - schools and colleges need their league table results. Also the split into AS and A2 enables students to retake papers they didn't do so well in.

People who get a string of A grades are naturally gifted, with the aid of being taught how to get full marks in the exam. People who aren't so brainy can easily pass the exam because we know how not to fail. And for the minute percentage who do actually fail, it is probably to do with personal problems or a complete lack of effort.

The whole post-16 education system needs a rethink, but making the exams harder will make no difference at all.

New Malden, Surrey

Sir: The current debate about the pleasures of exam success and the context of its achievement reminds me of an incident from many years ago when I took my driving test. I was delighted to pass first time and eagerly told my father, who had taught me. His response was both disturbing and profound; he said "That's good, now I will teach you how to drive!"

It seems appropriate to convert his remarks into a modern educational context - "exam success is only one phase in the process of education". It frequently seems that the qualifications have become more important than the acquisition of knowledge and its associated elements of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking.

Professor JOHN DORE

Muslim liberals

Sir: Johann Hari is right to praise the liberalism of Ayatollah Sistani (18 August), but wrong to suppose there is anything surprising about it.

For centuries the Ottoman state was the most pluralist society on earth. In the 19th Century it produced dozens of intellectual leaders who advocated the reform of Islam and the adoption of what was good in Western culture - democracy, universal education, women's rights, scientific research. A flourishing free press was born, centred in Syria, and the authorities were forced by their own citizens to concede a succession of reforms.

Britain and France rewarded them by invading their countries, imposing compliant governments to give us control of their oil wealth, and opening Palestine to European colonisation, then abandoning it to partition and perpetual war. When defeat in Suez and in Algeria forced us out, Americans took over our imperial role. It was as if the West had deliberately set out to alienate Muslim opinion. Few reformists now dare to speak out for fear of being taken for Western stooges.

With their ill-judged invasion of Iraq, America and Britain have put themselves in the position of not being able to stay without provoking patriotic rage, and not being able to pull out without handing victory to men of violence. If Ayatollah Sistani cannot persuade us to announce a timetable for withdrawal, his liberalism will achieve nothing.


Sex and morality

Sir: As a happily, monogamously married person who has had only two lovers in her entire life, I must protest at the idea of assuming that the monogamous are automatically virtuous and the promiscuous automatically morally "lax" ("Single Britons have lax sexual morals", 18 August).

I have known many monogamous couples whose relationships are characterised by mendacity, selfishness, emotional abuse, jealousy and other morally repugnant traits. I've known many sexually promiscuous persons whose relationships are characterised by honesty, compassion, generosity, and a sincere interest in their lovers' welfare.

I have known sexually promiscuous persons who are active in charitable work, who are caring family members, friends, and neighbours and who devote enormous amounts of time and energy to making their communities better, happier, cleaner, and safer places. I have known monogamous people whose business, familial, and social behaviour is selfish, greedy, and plain downright unethical.

It is demonstrably false that a person's moral integrity can be inferred from the number of persons with whom they have admitted to having had sex. To proclaim it to be true in the pages of a newspaper is lazy journalism.

Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, USA

British Isles

Sir: Perhaps like charity, geography should begin at home. Your article "Geography: we'd be lost without it" (18 August) pokes fun at those whose grasp of the subject is poor. Forget about Zagreb and Kuala Lumpur - maybe you could have a word with your contributors who placed Cork (Ireland) in the "Britain" section of your food supplement.

Dunstable, Bedfordshire

State of the nations

Sir: Adrian Hamilton ("The idea of the nation state is fatally flawed", 19 August) is right to mention the end of the Ottoman Empire as the start of major current problems, but is wrong to link it with settlements at the end of the Second World War. Yugoslavia and Iraq were post-First World War creations. The lesson that multinational constructs imposed by great powers don't work is the right one: even Sweden and Norway couldn't make a go of it, when they decided to go their independent ways nearly a century ago!


How and when to die

Sir: In answer to Liz Hewett's letter (17 August), terminally ill people want to have choice about how and when they die, and the current law deprives them of that choice. No amount of excellent palliative care will prevent some terminally ill people from needing help to die. The Lords select committee on assisted dying will give the medical profession legal protection, should the Bill be passed.

Taunton, Somerset

Missing link

Sir: It appears that part of Bruce Anderson's article of 16 August was excised. He explains that "feral children" have tens of thousands of pounds of public money spent on their education, health and so on, and informs us that this leads them to acquire firearms and kill on a whim. The sentence which explains how the first leads to the second has vanished. When I attended a state school, weapons appreciation and Mafia ethics weren't on the curriculum but they did teach us a few of the basics of rational argument.

London SW8