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2 September 2020

Letter of the week: The perfect last image

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

After reading Amelia Tait’s column on her grandad and others immortalised on Google Street View (Out of the Ordinary, 28 August), I went on to the forum she mentioned, “Last Images”, and uploaded the last picture taken of my grandmother, the day before she died.

The image shows her smiling as she holds her walking frame, in front of a forest floor blanketed by bluebells, her favourite flower.  Bluebells only bloom for three weeks each year, and she would always go for long walks, even as old age crept in, whenever they did. To have her final portrait before them, then, seems both remarkable and unremarkable. The clockwork of the universe may be cold, but a stopped clock is occasionally right. Maybe the beauty of such images comes from their improbability.
Lukas Bernays, aged 16
London E8

Unhappy species

Jeremy Cliffe gives a perceptive view of humanity: a rather unhappy species in an “age of angers” now displayed in a great many countries (World View, 21 August). A few pages on, Martin Fletcher draws similarly perceptive views in his interview with Stephen Emmott (“The population time bomb”, 21 August). I recall Emmott’s 2012 one-man show Ten Billion at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and have his book of the same title that followed. Both showed graphs of our burgeoning population, three billion in 1960, when I was in school, soaring to ten billion or more by the century’s end, “plundering the planet’s resources, devastating the environment, spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and triggering the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth”. 

One can only guess the degree to which the pressure of our numbers contributes to the angers so well described by Cliffe. The population is already greatly in excess of the three billion scientists estimate is the maximum sustainable on this planet. Africa’s population alone is set to more than double in 30 years, fuelling ever more poverty and expanded migration. We owe Africa much after exploiting its resources for our industrial revolution, but instead this government has announced a reduction of £3bn, or 20 per cent, to the aid budget. We should be increasing it to provide equal education for girls as for boys and reproductive health services in developing countries. This is a necessity if we wish to leave our grandchildren a less dystopian world than that of which Cliffe, Emmott, and many others warn.  
Richard Vernon
Iffley Village, Oxford

No denier

Peter Wilby (First Thoughts, 28 August) seems to think that he is my interrogator, and that I am his prisoner. No, he is a journalist who disagrees with me, another journalist. He is also plainly one of those willing to wound but afraid to strike.  If he has ever asked me if I hold “catastrophe bonds” before, I must have missed it. I would immediately have answered that no, I do not. Despite finding his smear techniques repulsive, I am amused he should think I am some sort of polluting Bentley-driving plutocrat, when in fact I live in a semi-detached house in the Oxford suburbs and generally get about on a bicycle or by train. Nor am I a “denier” of anything. The slippery word, crafted to insinuate a similarity with Holocaust denial without actually daring to say so, is a smear in itself. I certainly do not contest the evident fact of global warming, as Mr Wilby mistakenly asserts. 
Peter Hitchens
London W8

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Churchill’s vision

Damian Madden is correct that Heroic Failures by Fintan O’Toole is not anti-English but anti-Brexit (Correspondence, 28 August). O’Toole demonstrates this more decisively in his later book Three Years in Hell (2020).Portraying Basil Fawlty as “all-too-English” reminds the reader of Winston Churchill’s vision of Britain’s place in the world after the Second World War, when he was advocating for something the Brexiteers like to forget: a united Europe that, in Churchill’s words, would banish “tariff walls and passport networks” and in which Britain would be a leading light.

However, O’Toole does assert that the main driver of Brexit is a form of English nationalism that has no rational or historical basis and little to no vision of what the future might be when we are cut adrift from our European neighbours. In this sense it could be described as an English rather than a British problem, which, given the failure of recent negotiations with the EU, is only becoming more acute.
Rev Canon David Jennings
Market Bosworth, Warwickshire

Turnout truths

Emily Tamkin’s column (Inside America, 28 August) includes a lot of figures, but one hair-raising statistic is missing. Since the election of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932, the highest turnout as a percentage of eligible voters has been 62.8 (for John F Kennedy in 1960). In 1996 (Clinton’s re-election), it was only 49 per cent – but given that the choice was between a supremely uncharismatic Kansan and a tarnished, reckless, priapic and sublimely self-absorbed Arkansan it’s hardly surprising. 
Peter Smith
Cromer, Norfolk

Era of upheaval

Periodisation in history is a complex matter. I’m not sure that Quinn Slobodian has it right when he argues that the “last cycle” of world history lasted from 1989 to the present (“The world to come”, 28 August). An alternative might be defining a period between 1989 and 2008-09, when the US became the only world superpower, followed by the period to date, when China has arrived as a significant challenger. Given the Black Lives Matter and climate change movements across the world, it might also be argued the era of upheaval that began in 1968 is not only still with us but intensifying.
Keith Flett
London N17

Time to downsize

In his article on the Lords (“A house derided”, 14 August), Robert Saunders draws out “the problems of a chamber stocked by prime ministerial patronage”. The only existing curb on his patronage is the House of Lords Appointments Commission, a cross-party body with an independent element. Its job is to ensure that “the past conduct of the nominee would not reasonably be regarded as bringing the House of Lords into disrepute”. It has been at loggerheads with Boris Johnson over some of his nominees, whom it excluded from his recent list, though shamefully let through an IRA apologist. It is not impossible that Johnson will put forward his rejects again, hoping to browbeat the commission into accepting them. This could lead to a breakdown in trust between the Prime Minister and Lords members. That would be an achievement for the head of the Conservative and Unionist Party, whose historic mission has always been to uphold the constitution.
Alistair Lexden
House of Lords

I accept that the present size of the House is excessive. But the problem is too many life peers, not too many hereditary peers. Back in 1999, 600 hereditary peers left on a single day and their numbers have remained firmly at 92 since then. I propose the responsibility for appointments to the House of Lords should be taken from the Prime Minister and vested in a new independent statutory body whose decisions would be binding. A small number of categories – for example, religious leaders – could be included. Such a system would indeed mark the completion of House of Lords reform and thus end the hereditary peer by-elections. This new appointments body might also be given a numerical responsibility – for example two out, one in – to create a more manageable size.

As Robert Saunders reminds us, it was King John who put his signature to the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, thus creating democracy. Who was it who so persuaded him? They were described as the Nobles, the Barons and the Bishops. Today we call them the House of Lords.
David Trefgarne
House of Lords

Lord Tyler’s recollections of Nick Clegg’s ill-fated Lords reform differ from mine (Letter of the Week, 28 August). As I recall it, the reforms failed because the Liberal Democrats refused to talk to, let alone compromise with, those who had concerns about the side-effects of the proposals. The Lib Dems thought that they could bully through a faulty bill, but they were wrong.
Ralph Lucas
House of Lords

Off the mark 

In response to Simon Scarrow’s letter (Correspondence, 28 August): in the nine years I worked in a grammar school, I saw how a minority of teachers habitually overestimated their students’ ability with elevated predictions and over-marked coursework. In one A-level subject’s case, virtually all the students were given As or Bs in coursework and similar predictions for the exam, only for a large number to get Ds, Es or even Us in the actual exam.
The pressure came in part from students and parents who treated predicted grades as an entitlement that would lead to the high grade they felt they deserved. While some teachers hold fast, plenty award high predictions for the sake of a quiet life. Or they too subscribe to the myth that a high predicted grade will determine the future.
I don’t know what fantasy world Simon Scarrow lives in. He may be honest, but he ought to look outside his classroom door. This autumn there will be a considerable number of students embarking on courses that in any other year they would have been excluded from. Stephen Bush was simply drawing attention to an ongoing issue that has now been exposed for all to see.
Guy de la Bédoyère 
Grantham, Lincolnshire

Spoiler alert

A correction to Philippa Snow’s review of Céline and Julie Go Boating (The Critics, 21 August), but an important one, because it makes the film a comedy not a tragedy: the little girl in the mysterious house on the rue des Nadir aux Pommes is not killed, but is rescued by Céline and Julie. This is evident in the penultimate scene, when we see the three of them in a boat on a lake while past them floats another boat with the three ghostly figures from the “other scene’’ in the house. A masterpiece that bears watching and rewatching.
Michael Westlake
Cromarty, Ross-shire 

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