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12 August 2020

Letter of the week: Victorian quarantine

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

By New Statesman

Victorian Leicester wasn’t just the home of small-scale, production as Robert Colls suggests (Observations, 24 July), but the birthplace of the “Leicester system” for controlling another lethal airborne virus – smallpox. In the 1870s confirmed cases and all their family members were quarantined either in hospital or their houses for 16 days. Their wages were paid for the duration by the corporation, which also did extensive contact tracing. It worked, despite vaccination levels in Leicester being far too low to achieve herd immunity. The system was an essential component of the WHO programme to eradicate the virus. 
Hugh Pennington
Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology
University of Aberdeen


A better world

Jason Cowley states “Imagine for a moment that you turn 30 this summer…” (Editor’s Note, 24 Jul – 13 Aug 2020). This struck an emotional chord with me (sensitive millennial that I am!) because I turn 30 on 21 August this year (all being well). In two devastating paragraphs Cowley recognised the feelings of me and many of my schoolfriends.

We grew up, encouraged by the attitudes and actions of teachers and parents, and all other powers that be, that the world could, and would, be “better”. A fairer and happier society for all. It seemed so straightforward.

But Cowley recognised that our political (and in many ways social and economic) experience has been punctuated by a “series of roiling crises”. All we understand to be right (kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, empathy) has been thrown under the wheels of all we understand to be wrong (aggression, intolerance, dishonesty, arrogance, hatred).

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I commence my career as a primary schoolteacher in September – and I’m hopeful of what I could be for all the children I teach. One of the resounding lessons of my teacher training has been the importance of developing relationships with the children you teach, through relentless kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness and empathy. This is crucial to ensuring that not only can children engage with and enjoy learning, but so that they see the value of, and can espouse, those positive values. As such, there is much to be hopeful about.
Lauren Davies
Walsall, West Midlands



I always enjoy Jason Cowley’s periodic takes on the state of play in Britain. As someone who shortly turns 30, his most recent Editor’s Note resonated in particular.

What really cut to the core was the reference to the delusion of the “liberal ideal of continuous, inevitable progress”. This reminds me of a TV advert for a car manufacturer fronted by Keeley Hawes that has been doing the rounds for the past few years.

Hawes declares: “It doesn’t matter where in Britain you live: things, people, places, they’re all moving forward, all the time. We’re all busy making progress, as individuals, and together.” The past four years have obliterated that conceited fallacy.
Christopher Rossi
Enfield, Greater London



Jason Cowley is right to question paying £9,000 a year for a media studies degree when there are few media jobs. But surely universities once were permitted to be non-vocational?

Graduating in 1963 (with no debt), I fell into a media position. (They were not easy to come by even then – unless you had an uncle.) I believed – and still do – in the critical importance of the media for democracy, but came to feel our performance could be improved. So I added media research and teaching, and as an academic have sought to hold the press to account; educating young citizens in how communications work imparts a valuable life-skill. Like all humanities degrees, it should need no vocational justification.
Dr Brian Winston
The Lincoln Professor
University of Lincoln


Legacy of debt

I found Children of Men a chilling and mesmerising film when I first watched it. Having read Gavin Jacobson’s essay (“At the end of history”, 24 July), I now have new thoughts and questions.

Since the 2008 financial crash we have continuously failed to address many of our problems and the pandemic has brought our mortality into sharper focus. But if, as the film suggests, humans have about 100 years left on Earth (if no more children are born), could another outcome be considered instead?

We have just seen our government borrow billions, but with a finite time on Earth we do not have to worry about debt, knowing we will never pay it off. Nation-states could finally do what we seem forever unable to do: cooperate and help each other.
Patricia Askew
Kingston upon Thames


Allies flew to help

Peter Ricketts is right that the UK did not stand alone even during the Battle of Britain, but is misleading in listing only the Commonwealth and colonial countries from which other pilots came (Observations, 17 July). The largest non-British contingent was, of course, Polish. The fourth largest, after the New Zealanders and Canadians, was Czech; after them, the Belgians. There were also a small number of “Free French” pilots. The Anglo-Saxons did not fight the world alone, even in 1940.
Rt Hon William Wallace
House of Lords


Multilingual city

Sophie McBain’s interview with David Brand on the fight to save local news in the US (Observations, 17 July) claims that the New York City borough of Queens “is the most linguistically diverse place in the world, with around 138 languages spoken there”. However, the Multilingual Manchester research project led by Professor Yaron Matras at the University of Manchester initially identified 153 languages spoken in the city on a regular basis; he now suggests the figure is closer to 200.
Professor Matthew Jefferies
University of Manchester


Heir to Beethoven

Emily Bootle writes that Beethoven had no obvious successor (“The many Beethoven myths”, 24 July). Franz Schubert – a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral in March 1827 – comes to mind. Schubert apparently hadn’t dared approach Beethoven during his life, but he lost no time in staking his claim as his successor, as can be heard in the breadth and depth of Schubert’s creative output between Beethoven’s death and his own in November 1828.

Of course, Schubert appears less disciplined musically than Beethoven, but he certainly continued the Romantic tradition that Beethoven began.
Elizabeth O’Keeffe
Via email


No pity for London

I was in step with Stephen Bush (Politics, 24 July) all the way to his penultimate paragraph. It was then I realised that the pandemic-driven changes he fears in his home city of London are exactly the same in their effect that nearly every other town in the UK has suffered over the past half a century.

Our workplaces have been emptied by economic forces, not viral: lost either to closure or to the unrelenting pull, which Bush acknowledges, of London. But the result is the same: hollowed out centres, ancillary businesses starved of the workers they previously served, public transport pared to inadequacy.

For many, the only recourse has been to follow the work to ever-vibrant London. If that option, too, is closing, perhaps Bush will understand why our first instinct may not be to pity the poor Londoners.
Keith Aitken
Montpellier, France


Lifesaving tome

Alan Garner’s article (“Concerning the common nature of all”, 24 July) about a soldier taking possession of a book in the Korean War reminded me of an old story from the Spanish Civil War.

A comrade joining the International Brigade took with him Marx’s Capital hoping to master its contents. When he was on the front line he was shot – but found that he only suffered bruising to his chest. He had kept the book inside his jacket and he found the bullet embedded in its pages. He commented that “not even a bloody bullet could get through that book”.
Jonathan French


Touching essay

I’ve read much about all aspects of coronavirus over the last few months but I’ve read nothing so beautiful and poignant as John Burnside’s article (“Lost in the Red Zone”, 24 July). His writing never fails to illuminate, but this was so personal that it got to the heart of what makes him such a fine writer.
Bill Redmond


Match by numbers

Laurence Scott’s personal piece offered a lovely account of Venus Williams’s extraordinary tennis career and his own thwarted ambition to be a tennis player (Personal Story, 17 July). But I was struck by his statement that, “Tennis is one of the minority of sports that isn’t determined by the clock.”

On the contrary: the first thing you hear when listening to tennis commentary is the completely irrelevant but precise length of the match in hours and minutes.
Andrew Murday
Harrogate, Yorkshire


Elm tree revival

It might interest Jason Cowley to know that although elm trees were wiped out in southern England and the Midlands in the 1970s, they do repeatedly grow and make a hedge shrub (Editor’s Note, 24 July), as he discovered.

Occasionally, they grow up to approximately six metres high as a small tree before succumbing to the Dutch elm disease. I hopefully watch, expecting a resistant strain to emerge.
Alec Hitchman
Pillerton Hersey


Editor’s note: in Jonathan Rutherford’s essay “No wealth but life” (24 July), we mistakenly captioned a picture of Mary Shelley as her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. We apologise for the error.


We reserve the right to edit letters. 

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