For the past ten years, I’ve spent three hours a day crammed on to trains and Tubes that are often delayed. I work in a building so overstuffed you have to stand in line for the toilet. Three days a week I’ve had a desperate rush to get back for the childminder. Despite many ups and downs working from home in lockdown, I’ve worked longer hours, been more productive, had more time with my family, done more exercise, eaten more healthily, spent more money in my local area, generated less CO2 and managed to put away some savings, all without an ounce of sourdough.
Instead of using their columns to tell me to do my duty propping up an outmoded, wasteful paradigm of metropolitan working, our economists and millionaire landlords should now use their imagination and capital to start investing in a greener decentralised future. I, for one, am not going back.
Anonymous Commuter Town,
I am enjoying, as always, my edition of the NS. But I can’t restrain myself from pointing out, in respect of Dr Phil Whitaker’s column and headline (“Calls for the firm smack of government show up No 10’s feeble and confused messaging”) that the correct phrase is “the smack of firm government” (Health Matters, 4 September).
This was the term used in a 3 January 1956 Daily Telegraph article (and in its headline, “Waiting for the smack of firm government”) as a criticism of the then prime minister Anthony Eden. This rebuke by a paper normally reliable in its support caused a sensation at the time, to the extent that, by the end of the week, Downing Street put out a statement denying Eden had any intention of resigning.
Then, as now, the Conservatives had recently (in 1955) won a handy parliamentary majority, but the Telegraph’s deputy editor Donald McLachlan, who wrote the piece, had spoken to many backbenchers discontented at what they saw as the government’s lack of consistent direction.
McLachlan drew an analogy with Eden’s habit of hitting his left palm with his right fist when making a point, but that when he did so “the smack is seldom heard”. His phrase is so much more precise and telling than “the firm smack of government” recently employed by the Conservative MP Huw Merriman, whom Dr Whitaker quotes. I suppose Merriman himself misremembered what he was trying to quote. He would have done well to consult one of his fellow MPs, Harriet Harman. Donald McLachlan was her uncle.
Dallington, East Sussex
Out of office
I was almost lost for words when I read Professor Helen Thompson’s column (These Times, 4 September). Is the author seriously arguing that people should dutifully increase the risk of Covid for themselves and their families and communities to keep the likes of Pret A Manger afloat, and endure tiresome, draining daily commutes to keep buses and trains going? This is taking slavish consumerism too far. I don’t count myself a huge supporter of capitalism, but this contradicts its fundamental tenets. Consumers are being browbeaten into satisfying the supply, rather than supply accommodating demand.
Capitalism is a highly adaptable beast, and I’m sure it will find novel ways of encouraging us to spend our money and keep the economy going – perhaps even bringing much-needed services and infrastructure to our communities. God forbid we try to pay off our debts, or save.
Helen Thompson’s column urges people to resume “normal” ways of working on the grounds that not doing so could make economic matters worse. Clearly, many businesses have discovered it’s more cost-effective and efficient to have staff work from home using internet technology. Staff do not have to, as she puts it, “endure” long commuting hours and expense. This seems a step in the right direction. There is so much in this country that needs structural reform. Large numbers of people have been suffering the effects of “normal” working life over the past decades. We need change. The history of this country seems to indicate that only a deep crisis (for example, the oil shock or Second World War) can bring about drastic change.
The future of the planet, let alone the well-being of most of our citizens, demands another way of living. This is a crisis that is going to get much worse, but retreating to a supposed “normality” is not the solution we need.
Guy de la Bédoyère (Correspondence, 4 September) really is off the mark in his reply to Simon Scarrow – who was challenging the notion that “teachers are generally more generous than exam results would be”.
De la Bédoyère’s anecdotal claim that “a minority of teachers habitually overestimated their students’ ability with elevated predictions” bears little relation to Scarrow’s claim. The use of the word “minority” when discussing general practice ought to have made that self-evident. If De la Bédoyère believes his grammar school and its practices are reflective of the more representative, and less privileged, education sectors, then I know precisely what fantasy world he lives in.
It’s a shame that Guy de la Bédoyère feels compelled to support Stephen Bush’s generalisation that teachers inflate A-level grades. I can’t speak for the corrupt practices of his grammar school colleagues, since I was a head of department in a sixth form college. However, his claim that only a minority of his colleagues inflated grade estimates supports my previously expressed view (Correspondence, 28 August) that such actions are not the norm.
As for De la Bédoyère’s snide comments about my living in a fantasy world and his questioning of my honesty, all I can say is it would seem that I, and the college I worked for, subscribed to somewhat more real and virtuous standards than is the case in certain grammar schools.
I suppose that being a member of the House of Lords for a long time gives you strange ideas about democracy, but can David Trefgarne (Correspondence, 4 September) really believe that the Magna Carta created democracy? The pedant in me can’t help adding that King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta; he put his seal to it.
David Trefgarne is right to think the House of Lords, as currently constituted, is too large, though the suggestion that the problem is too many life peers rather than too many hereditaries is insensitive to democratic norms. Just one hereditary peer is one too many. But, yes, two hundred peers should be the limit of any revising and delaying chamber.
It’s debatable whether they should be elected or appointed, but if it’s the latter, he is right to suggest appointments should be made by an independent body rather than prime ministers rewarding their cronies. Fine cricketer that he was, I fail to see what unique insights Lord Botham will bring to the national conversation.
However, the statement that the signing of the Magna Carta by King John created democracy is risible. The Magna Carta achieved the limitation of absolute power by the King. But it was a further 600 years before representative democracy began to creep into this country’s governance with the Reform Act of 1832, a process shamefully incomplete until 1928.
Little Bardfield, Essex
I read the article by Sarah Churchwell (“All-American fascism”, 4 September) increasingly feeling that if Donald Trump wins a second term in the White House, the UK should reconsider the so-called special relationship
with the United States.
The special relationship started as something positive, with some equality, after the Second World War. There was also trust that the sharing of intelligence would not be compromised. But over recent years the balance has changed so that the US calls the shots. If the US has a president who does not cleave even to the basic requirements of a head of state, perhaps the UK should consider whether the special relationship is something we want to continue. There is an Irish poem about a man lying in the gutter, drunk, next to a pig. A passing lady says, “You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses.” The pig gets up and walks away. If we keep company with Trump’s America, other nations will read a lot about the UK.
Old Coulsdon, Surrey
Same old Boris
As a seasoned Boris Johnson observer since his Oxford days, I subscribe neither to the conspiracy theory that he never had Covid-19 nor to the belief alluded to by Peter Wilby (First Thoughts, 4 September) that he has not recovered his health. I would observe two things. Post-Covid Johnson is the same as pre-Covid Johnson: vain, untruthful, unreliable and, above all, idle. On the other hand, if Johnson’s supporters need to believe he has changed to justify deposing him, be my guest and blame the virus.
All over the map
If Peter Hitchens’s “semi-detached house in the Oxford suburbs” (Correspondence, 4 September) is now contiguous with the stucco mansions of Holland Park, the erosion of the city of dreaming spires has accelerated more than somewhat since I last read Professor James Stevens Curl’s treatise on its threatened architecture.
Heath Hayes, Staffs
Like many people, I compose my own playlist when listening to Desert Island Discs. Which Beatles song should I include? How many classical pieces? Decisions, decisions. But I wonder whether I’m alone in concocting fantasy answers to the New Statesman’s Subscriber of the Week. I’ve got them all worked out. You should hear my answer to “The New Statesman is…” It’s a doozy.
Smethwick, West Midlands
We reserve the right to edit letters.