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12 September 2018

Letter of the week: Travelling light

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

Peter Wilby complains, quite rightly (First Thoughts, 31 August), about the lighting in the hotel he stayed in recently, but it is not only former monasteries that suffer from this.

In the course of my travelling around Britain for literary festivals in the past year or so, the absence of tolerable reading lamps has been the bane of every stay. No matter how upmarket (or not) the accommodation offered, hotels are under the illusion that guests would rather have a panoply of scatter cushions than a light by which we might actually read.

Maybe stumbling around in penumbral gloom is fashionable. But I for one hope that New Statesman readers can strike a blow for users of hotels by complaining about it on TripAdvisor.

Amanda Craig
London NW1

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Snap judgement

I’d like to respond to Johanna Thomas-Corr’s piece about the inclusion of Snap, by Belinda Bauer, in the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist (Critics, 31 August). It’s not my business to disagree with anyone’s opinion of the books to which the prize draws attention, but I do feel compelled to explain how the prize works – and in this case, more specifically, to defend the judges.

They are not remotely scared of being “tarnished” with any “brush”. The judges change every year, and have no agenda in relation to the prize overall. Val McDermid was not asked to be a judge in order to
“bring about [a] jolt of populism”. She was asked because she has a superior mind, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it in collaboration with others at every judging meeting this year.

As for the prize mounting a defence of so-called literary fiction: why would it? The prize is designed to introduce readers to excellent fiction, and the judges are open to excellence wherever it might be found. If that sounds like some newfangled manifesto, it isn’t. Past judges include Angela Carter and Rose Tremain, both sophisticated readers, neither of whom ever won. (A great shame, I think, in anyone’s version of retrospect – Carter was never even shortlisted.)

To be clear about the process: it would be democratically impossible for a single judge to get a book on to the longlist if the others disagreed. The selection is conducted with rigour, conviviality and consent. The judges don’t need to speak individually because their verdict is collective, and reached with honesty.

Of course the elephant inthis letter is that we have stolen the New Statesman’s chief fiction critic, Leo Robson, for the 2018 judging panel. For that, many thanks, and apologies that you should have had to resort to lesser critics in his absence. You’ll have him back soon enough.

Gaby Wood, literary director
Booker Prize Foundation
London EC1

McDonnell’s vision

I read Jason Cowley’s very comprehensive and intelligent foray into what makes John McDonnell tick (Cover Story, 7 September).This was to be welcomed after the summer of discontent, when claims and counter-claims about the anti-Semitism issue made one’s head swim and subsequently despair. The party does seem troubled by internecine squabbling as this country faces an existential crisis over Brexit.

Cowley is correct to say that McDonnell’s rise is a result of this country’s austerity measures, which have plummeted councils into dire financial need and led to a disastrous cut in services. The sealed tomb of the left has been opened and, I hope, principles, pragmatism and a compassionate party will finally emerge to lighten everyone’s darkness, not just that of those who can afford by virtue of their position in life to wear rose-tinted glasses.

Judith A Daniels
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

John McDonnell has clearly become a serious politician when the NS editor travels to the capital’s outer suburbs to interview him at length, and with an obvious commitment to the fairness that has been missing in so much commentary elsewhere on the shadow chancellor.

McDonnell’s pragmatism, whether new-found or previously under-reported, reinforces his determination to address the appalling state of the nation, as so powerfully recorded in last week’s leader (“McDonnell’s long march”). Is it too much to ask those of his colleagues who are at present unhappy to show the same amount of patience as he did through the days of Blairite dominance?

Les Bright

As your interview with John McDonnell makes clear, what the shadow chancellor has in mind for a future Labour government is a traditional programme of social democratic reform similar to the ones pursued, with varying degrees of success, by Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly that is too much for a section of Labour MPs, but the bigger question is whether, given the post-2008 state of British capitalism and the economy, there is the economic and political space to make progress on it.

Keith Flett
London N17

Magical mystery

The current research into the therapeutic properties of psychedelics is no doubt beneficial, but tends to downplay the banality of such trips (“The new science of psychedelics”, 7 September).

My own youthful highlights seemed largely to consist of finding an Incredible String Band album cover too heavy to carry after ingesting magic mushroom soup, while all Asterix acid brought forth was a multicoloured rainbow slash when I visited the loo. Truly an epiphany.

Alan Bullion
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Plainly wrong

Peter Wilby predicts that doctors will not take heed of Royal College advice to write in “plain English” for the sake of patients, who are now routinely copied into their medical correspondence (First Thoughts, 7 September). He’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Medical correspondence is primarily designed for communication between medical professionals. While it would be nice for patients to have a “plain English” version, it is currently not possible due to the volume of work an NHS doctor has to process. We use highly efficient and concentrated prose to disseminate clinical findings and management plans.

Writing in a way that is unfamiliar to us would require more time; a commodity which is scarce in any NHS setting. I would suggest that if patients do want simpler versions of their letters, the government should employ someone to translate our highly specialised and hard-earned functional knowledge into nebulous, convoluted and inaccurate language. Any Conservative politician could oblige; perhaps we should divvy the letters out to the cabinet.

My second point is that the English word “doctor” originates from the Latin “to teach”: we are teachers. I therefore take offence to Peter’s conspiratorial assertion that we are trying to hoodwink our patients. This couldn’t be further from the truth: patient education is a huge part of our jobs, and I’m proud to say that most doctors I’ve come across are extremely good at it.

Dr Jet Khasriya
Via email

So Peter Wilby thinks that “[you] feel wrong-footed when your doctor talks about a contagious viral upper-respiratory tract infection”. Include me out of that “you”. I would learn from what he dismisses as “jargon” that it was a virus, so antibiotics wouldn’t work; that I should avoid touching people and that I should wear a scarf.

Mercifully, my consultant ophthalmologist isn’t English, so perhaps he comes from a less infantilising culture. When he told me I had “an epiretinal membrane associated with cystoid macular oedema”, I got his drift. Better still, I could Google those words, in the long wait between appointments, to learn about the prognosis and possible treatments.

Disempowering, Mr Wilby? My eye!

Vera Lustig
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Toxic beginnings

In Helen Lewis’s important article “Boiling Point” (Cover Story, 31 August) the key question is asked: “When did the current era of toxicity begin?”

The distinguished Professor Robert Ford points to the Brexit and Scottish referendums as the starting point. It is likely that the era of toxicity began earlier. I would point to 2013, when David Cameron, as prime minister, described Ukip supporters as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

In British political history, we had never before seen a campaign of vilification and abuse led by a prime minister. It was (probably) Cameron then who let out the genie of incivility. He should have known better.

William Dartmouth, member of the European Parliament
Whiteway, near Exeter

Cook plays on

Peter Wilby made some interesting observations regarding cricketers retiring earlier than they did in the past, following Alastair Cook’s decision to retire from Test cricket at the age of 33 (First Thoughts, 7 September). At the same age a previous respected England opener, Mike Atherton, retired from international cricket in 2001.

Unlike Atherton, Cook will continue to play for his county Essex, and the shires will welcome his presence on the circuit for the next three years. Wilby was right to say that bowlers do work batsmen out, but I suspect the Umpire Decision Review System (DRS) has brought another difficulty for Cook, who has had to alter his technique to allow for it.

Cook has been a marvellous servant to English professional cricket and one who lives up to the homily of Kipling’s “If”.

David Rimmer
Hertford Heath, Hertfordshire

Blackburn votes

I read the interesting article on Blackburn in your summer double issue (“The town that stopped working”, 27 July) by Jeremy Seabrook. However, he makes two mistakes in his paragraph about the “far right”: asserting that in 1976 the National Front won council seats in Blackburn (the NF never won any council seats anywhere in the UK; it was the National Party), and then omitting the fact that 30 years later the England First Party won two council seats in Blackburn.

The interesting part about Blackburn now having two female Asian councillors is not that it has happened, but that it took until 2018 to happen (in a town now dominated by Labour, which is obsessed with promoting females).

Mark Cotterill
Preston, Lancashire

Man unkind

My reading of Hugo Drochon’s article (“The Return of Bad Nietzsche”, 31 August) led to the equation of kindness, empathy and sympathy (“slave morality”) with “nationalism, xenophobia and fragmentation”. How does that work?

Françoise Pinteaux-Jones
Stroud, Gloucestershire

Mixed bag

On the NS plastic bag controversy, I suggest it should be recycled with carrier bags at larger stores as instructed on some bread wrappers.

Eric Radke

John Cash says his New Statesman comes in a non-recyclable plastic bag (Correspondence, 31 August). I must say that mine arrives in Austria in a white paper envelope, marked URGENT, usually on a Tuesday. I recycle it and then read the magazine with relish! Good to know?

Mark Angus
Via email

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism