Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year I read with particular interest Dr Phil Whitaker’s ever-insightful column (Health Matters, 23 October). In January my regular blood test showed my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) was higher than before. My GP arranged for a repeat test in three months and that was also high. I was sent for an MRI scan which showed some cause for concern. A week later I had a biopsy and confirmation of early- to medium-stage cancer. Two weeks ago I underwent a radical prostatectomy and am now recuperating.
Dr Whitaker has probably forgotten more than I will ever know about detecting and treating cancers. But since my diagnosis was prompted by a high PSA level in a regular blood test I am intrigued that he thinks men should not have an annual PSA check. I had been getting biannual blood tests for a few years and this led to rapid diagnosis and treatment. Allow me to thank the wonderful staff at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital for all their care and kindness.
I have read several books by Anthony Seldon but before now he has never revealed his gift for political satire. Jonathan Swift must be chortling along with me at Seldon’s deadpan, ironic style in his article last week (Observations, 23 October).
I admired his mischievous characterisation of Dominic Cummings as “intellectually brilliant”; his evidence that Cummings, along with the serial back-stabber Michael Gove, “reformed schools for the better”. That one had me rolling on the floor. Seldon skewers Johnson masterfully by underlining his total lack of “consistency, consensus and competence”, while simultaneously pointing out that those are the very qualities Johnson needs to “look deep into himself” to find in order to “fulfil his historic mission”.
Best of all was the dramatic irony running through the article. The audience knows Johnson has pared down what was once the Conservative and Unionist Party to a Brexit and Disunionist Party, but Seldon nails Johnson by saying with a straight face that he must “(reach) out to the devolved nations, to elected mayors, to the Labour and Liberal parties”. That nearly had me spraying my boiled egg across the table. I finally lost it reading that we need “a compelling story… how leaving the EU will improve the country economically and politically”. Laugh? I nearly died.
It is not at all clear that the school reforms led by Gove and Cummings in 2010 were “for the better”, as stated by Anthony Seldon. They certainly were effective at increasing child workloads, mining data from children and pitting schools against each other in an unhealthy arms race for league table leadership. But the increasing levels of self-harm and unhappiness in children and rising school dropout rates point to significant problems. Without the reforms, the grading fiasco this year might never have happened, as most subjects would have had coursework.
Anthony Seldon thinks that Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings “reformed schools for the better”. As somebody with 16 years of experience of state school teaching I’m unsure which schools he is referring to. Their reforms have imposed on children an assessment system of rote learning reminiscent of the 19th century. Mr Gradgrind would have been proud of them. Hard Times, indeed.
Anthony Seldon states that Boris Johnson needs to provide leadership and demonstrate a vision for post-Covid Britain.
Can he explain how this vision can be realised by a proven liar and serial philanderer who supported Brexit for no other reason than to stab his then boss in the back?
A better offer
Alan Grant’s letter (Correspondence, 16 October) is incorrect on two counts. In 2010 the Liberal Democrat leadership did not “prefer” to cooperate with David Cameron than Gordon Brown. They did talk to Labour and even for a rainbow alliance the numbers were not enough for a majority; senior Labour figures were appearing in the media vowing not to work with us. Second, as PF Norris notes (Correspondence, 23 October), 68 per cent of voters did not reject real proportional representation but the Alternative Vote. It was the only version Cameron would put to the people despite his agreement with Nick Clegg. No wonder they turned it down!
Baroness Walmsley, Co-deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers
Helen Thompson (These Times, 23 October) makes some thoughtful points about Scottish independence, but the suggestion that things weren’t so bad prior to 1999 because Scotland had its own legal, religious and educational structures is misconceived.
What has driven the longing for self-government over the past 40 years is not an administrative deficit but a democratic one; not a lack of indigenous institutions but the inability to influence the policies that these institutions implement.
Brexit has demonstrated that devolution within the British state does not remedy the deficit. Scotland’s votes still cannot prevent unwelcome things being done to it by government.
Helen Thompson rightly warns that the break-up of the UK would be disruptive and costly, and she laments the messy consequences of asymmetric devolution to three of the four nations. Incidentally, Chris Bickerton’s analysis of technopopulism (“The rise of the technopopulists”, 23 October) includes a reminder that Dominic Cummings helped to thwart John Prescott’s plan to complete the devolution of power by extending it to England’s regions.
We are all now mired in the disruption and costs of breaking from the EU (on top of the pandemic, climate change, etc). Scotland did not vote to leave. The choice facing Scots next May will be between a relatively civilised nationalist government with a possibility of renewed partnership with the EU, and a certainty of decline and isolation under Brexit. A depressing choice for anti-nationalists, but one that must be made.
John Home Robertson
Paxton, Scottish Borders
The poor who pay
Philip Ball’s article was powerful (“Ten lessons of the pandemic”, 23 October). The most important lesson for me is that the poor will always fare worse than the general population both nationally and internationally. Medical resources are inordinately distributed to the richer nations, then there is the ugly clambering to secure vaccines on the supposed “free” market. We witness the price being paid by the less fortunate – the old, the infirm and those on benefits.
I doubt if I have read over the years a more scathing piece that deals so effectively with both the subject matter and the author as Stephen Bush’s review (The Critics, 23 October) of Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson.
On a recent trip to a homeware store, I was asked by the security guard to bring my veil further up over my nose to cover it completely. I happily obliged, but who could have thought how quickly our attitude towards the veil would change? In the pre-Covid era, Muslim women were subjected to endless criticism over the veil. Arguments ranged from the inability to communicate and see their expression, to the veil hindering integration. Covid has proven these to be false and put to shame those wishing to restrict religious freedom on the false pretence of liberation. I hope that the post-Covid era will bring an end to laws depriving Muslim women from wearing the veil who freely chose to do so.
I remember being thoroughly depressed and sad reading Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (The Critics, 16 October): depressed because the social injustice that pulses through it has lost little of its relevance, and sad that the author of such an important book died in a manner so typical of the downtrodden characters he wrote about.
Orwell described Tressell as a man “society could not bother to keep alive” – words that could also be applied to Orwell’s death, with both men succumbing to tuberculosis in their forties. The impact of their work lives on.
Enfield, Greater London
Jonathan Liew’s insightful column about the plight of English football (Left Field, 23 October) is an important wake-up call. It would be naive to deny the role of big money in making the Premier League the strongest in the world, but the success of the top clubs must not be at the expense of all the rest. As high-powered as it has become, English football has to maintain its vital links to the communities who gave the world the professional game.
A gift of words
I was so moved by Tracey Thorn’s column on Andrew O’Hagan’s book Mayflies that I rushed out to buy it last Saturday (Off the Record, 16 October). I didn’t want it to end. From the opening page it was a joy. I have read the hardback carefully so that I can give it to my daughter (another Tracy, without the e) for Christmas – I know she will love it.
Coulsdon, Greater London
Would Pippa Bailey (Deleted Scenes, 9 October) please share her in-laws’ recipe for steamed potatoes?
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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning