Philip Collins’s column on David Hare’s Roadkill strikes me as grossly unfair (The Public Square, 30 October). Collins dismisses as “rubbish” the idea of a Conservative minister conspiring to undermine the NHS. Yet a year ago senior civil servants were reportedly engaged in secret Washington talks with US drug companies to discuss the NHS in a post-Brexit world, at the government’s behest. Donald Trump declared he wanted the NHS to be “on the table” in trade talks. In short, Hare’s dramatic fiction is grounded in actual events.
Collins’s argument that Hare’s characters are all cartoon Conservatives is equally absurd. Hare’s protagonist is simultaneously a brazen chancer and a politician who has liberal views on penal reform. Collins seems to have overlooked the fact that Roadkill is a political thriller rather than a documentary. I’m only surprised that he has engaged in the kind of routine Hare-bashing that is traditionally the preserve of the right-wing press in Britain.
I write as a grateful reader, albeit one feeling somewhat overlooked. Sitting in the cold Northern Irish sunshine, having just read Helen Thompson’s column (These Times, 23 October), I am led to ask – which Union? Northern Ireland seems to have been discounted entirely from the author’s analysis: she refers to “this island” when, viewed from over here, there are two – or at least one and a half.
To describe the “parliamentary union” as having been “fractured in 1999” is to omit entirely its first “fracturing” whereby, from 1920-72, Northern Ireland had its own government and parliament. Incidentally, it was only after 1920 that “the Union” we know today received its full title as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But perhaps this is not the Union that the author wishes to preserve.
Lisa Claire Whitten
Queen’s University Belfast
When the 23 October issue of the NS arrived I turned first to Helen Thompson’s column on stability in an independent Scotland, thinking this might be a chance to agree with her. Sadly, I was wrong. I expected something about the social and political effects of removing ties with England. Instead, she wrote about currency and temporary “sterlingisation”, one day of which many of us would consider to be one day too many.
We remember George Osborne’s flying visit in 2014, when he told us that there would be no currency union, before running back to London. I think that particular ship has sailed and an independent Scotland will move quickly to its own currency.
In the Correspondence pages (23 October) I found further misunderstanding of my country. Graham Johnston seems not to understand that Scotland’s independent-mindedness comes from having been independent for about 900 years until it was bullied and bribed into a political union with England in 1707. Joe Haines seems to assume that the SNP 2021 manifesto will not be primarily about independence. Perhaps he will visit us during the campaign to find out.
As much as I enjoy the continuing criticism in the New Statesman of Donald Trump, and in particular his handling of the coronavirus crisis (“Why Trump and his clan must go”, 30 October), may I point out that the most reliable statistic is the rate of deaths per million population. At the time of writing the figure is 710 for the US and 685 for the UK.
Despite the wonders of the NHS and the terrible inequities of the US healthcare system, the figures are almost identical. It would seem that even backed by the NHS the British government has been substantially worse at dealing with the virus than President Trump.
The charge sheet against Donald Trump is long enough without the 43-year average age of an American bridge. We’re very proud of our three in Berwick and they have more than 650 years between them.
Like the esteemed Matthew Engel (Diary, 23 October), we too experienced the frustrations of rural broadband during lockdown – especially irksome because just five miles away in Cornwall there is super-fast broadband thanks to David Cameron’s holiday home. Lost BT connections meant I did a BBC Radio 4 interview for the publication of my latest book unable to hear half the questions.
What saved us was signing up to South West Mobile Broadband rather than BT. Via a dish the size of a soup bowl our reception now allows us to work painlessly, though the cost was close to the £113,193.06 that Engel was quoted for fibre by BT.
With so many working people and young families now moving to the country, the pandemic should present the opportunity for a revival in rural areas. It’s outrageous that this can only be afforded by those with more than £1,000 in their pockets.
Matthew Engel is bold enough to accurately nominate Gary Gibbon as the “best interpreter of Westminster bar none”, but not smart enough to have worked out that the Channel 4 News, which he says is too early for him, is repeated an hour later on Channel 4+1. He will then be able fully to appreciate that this is indeed the best UK one-hour news programme on the telly.
Jason Cowley’s recollection that the NME “missed punk” in the late 1970s is surely faulty (The Critics, 30 October). My memory as an avid reader back then is that while Melody Maker stayed loyal to prog-rock and supergroups and Sounds went for heavy metal, the NME was punk’s only champion. I’d go as far as to say its stable of writers, including thoroughbreds such as Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Julie Burchill and Charles Shaar Murray, helped redefine music journalism as much as punk redefined pop music, both for the better.
Early warning sign
Dr Phil Whitaker has written on prostate cancer and his view as a GP that the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test should not be used routinely to screen males (Health Matters, 23 October). As a self-taught expert on the subject and an advanced prostate cancer sufferer, I couldn’t disagree more. The lessons from my experience are that PSA annual monitoring remains the only systematic way to screen men for potential prostate cancer.
Leaving it until symptoms appear is often too late – as in my case. Early referral gives the best chance of survival. The PSA level does not diagnose prostate cancer but it is a pointer to further investigation.
Even if, as Dr Whitaker says, only one in 20 with raised PSA levels have cancer, it is still worth the screening. I have urged my brothers and male friends to ask for prostate tests. Some have been deterred by their GPs. In my view, this is inexcusable. GPs need to get on top of prostate cancer with regular screening, especially among BAME men, who are more vulnerable. Failure to do so will allow the silent and deadly epidemic to continue.
In your recent leader (“Lessons from the plague year”, 23 October) you outline the extent of Boris Johnson’s ineptitude, which has resulted in one of the highest recorded excess death rates worldwide. Our country of food banks, furlough and a failing testing system now faces a tsunami of unemployment and business closures. Covid-19, as you point out, has highlighted the ills in our society. Pre-Covid-19, there might just have been a case for leaving the EU. In the current circumstances, with the great probability of economic turbulence, any such case vanishes.
Ash to ashes
Isabella Tree’s article about the ash tree and its decline due to ash dieback disease (“An elegy for the ash tree”, 30 October) highlights that globalisation is the key reason why we have outbreaks of major plant diseases. The first such mass outbreak came after the invention of the steam ship – suddenly we could move things around the world, including diseases, against which natural habitats had no time to develop defences.
This is only part of the story for the ash. Tree’s optimism about resistance might be misplaced. Already, on the eastern edge of Europe, the emerald ash borer beetle has appeared and is devastating ash populations. It tends to travel on packaging crates and is on its way here.
Successive governments have failed to implement suitable phytosanitary measures to prevent diseases entering the country. When diseases affect valuable timber crops (such as larch) strict control measures are enforced. Ash has no obvious financial value but its decline will alter our landscape and we will lose a valuable natural habitat.
Newton Abbot, Devon
Minister vs Maitlis
Rachel Cooke’s review of the new Spitting Image (The Critics, 30 October) is surely right in pointing out that it is difficult to satirise a government that makes a mockery of itself on a daily basis.
But I think she’s wrong to suggest we might be better watching Newsnight. No Tory cabinet minister has the courage to appear on that programme.
Move over Magi
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Diary by the Lake District shepherd James Rebanks (30 October). Does this mean the New Statesman has had enough of wise men?
We reserve the right to edit letters.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos